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"If China and Russia connect Asia and the Arctic Ocean, they could avoid U.S. interference" - Russian Analyst

In particular, Beijing and Moscow could avoid the Bering Strait through the development of the Siberian River Canal to connect China and the Arctic waterway

According to the July 2 South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, Russia is currently seeking cooperation with China to develop the 5,600-kilometer-long Arctic shipping channel, which stretches from the Kara Sea on the northwest coast of Siberia to the Bering Strait, into a year-round waterway.

Arctic shipping lanes

However, some scholars have said that for China to develop the Arctic waterway will face lack of infrastructure, geopolitical conflicts, long jurisdiction of the United States and the West and other difficulties.

Among them, some Russian scholars believe that China and Russia may choose to avoid the Bering Strait, through the development of the Siberian river channel to connect China and the Arctic waterway, "if realized, China and Russia will be able to connect Asia and the Arctic Ocean, and thus free from U.S. interference."

Due to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and international sanctions, Russia wants to develop the Arctic shipping route as a usable year-round channel. In addition, as the Arctic ice melts, this shipping route could extend as far as Scandinavia.

According to some Russian media, once the development is completed, the shipping time between Europe and Asia could be almost cut in half: it would take a ship about 20 days to travel from Shanghai to St. Petersburg and back via this shipping rorradi, compared to the approximately 36 days it takes to cross the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

Russia is increasingly using the so-called North Sea Route (NSR) as a useful alternative to other lines to transport oil and gas to China.

However, although some Russian ships already use the waterway due to global warming, their use is limited to about 20 to 30 days per year.

Rosatom data show that 80 trips were made through the Arctic route last year, totaling just over 36 million tons; in comparison, more than 26,000 ships passed through the Suez Canal. Russia hopes that by 2035 the volume of goods transported on the route could reach 270 million tons, a nearly tenfold increase from 2022.

There are indications that Russia is seeking to cooperate with China in the development of Arctic sea routes.

In May this year, Russia and China agreed to set up a committee to "promote the development of Arctic sea routes into an important international transport corridor" and to increase maritime transport and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, shipping through the Suez and Panama canals has been affected by rising international geopolitical tensions and prolonged drought. Tensions in the South China Sea and the "Malacca dilemma" (the United States could blockade the Strait of Malacca in the event of a regional crisis) have reignited concerns.

With China becoming Russia's main energy customer, the "NSR" provides Moscow with a viable alternative to longer and more insecure routes. India has also expressed interest in its use. Several factors have accelerated its use, including increasingly higher temperatures.

According to the South China Morning Post, more than 60 percent of China's trade volume depends on maritime transport, and the development of Arctic sea routes could help offset the risks involved in using existing routes. However, some international experts and scholars believe that "Russia is more motivated than China" in this regard, because for China, the development of Arctic sea routes will face difficulties such as lack of infrastructure, geopolitical conflicts and international sanctions.

Zhao Long, a senior researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, said that in the face of the worsening Red Sea crisis, China could help "explore the economic, technological and environmental feasibility of the Arctic sea route as a 'complementary corridor' for international transportation." He added that although the development of Arctic sea routes could boost Sino-Russian cooperation in areas such as infrastructure, shipbuilding and energy exploration, the benefits of the event for China should not be overstated."

Reduced transportation time. The "standard" Suez Canal route between Europe and Asia is 21,000 km long, while the NSR is13,000 km, with the associated transport time reduced by more than half. Without the risk of conflict, with a shorter travel time and without the fear of pirate activity, it is obvious why Russia wants to exploit and expand the NSR.

Wang Yue, a doctoral candidate specializing in Arctic security and geopolitics at the University of Tampere in Finland, said the two countries attach "very different levels of importance" to the route. For Russia, the Arctic is the most important strategic and economic priority and the Arctic sea route is critical to bring its rich Arctic resources to market; for China, the Arctic is just one of many emerging strategic regions and the Arctic sea route is just a viable alternative to traditional sea routes," he said.

According to Wang Yue, there are still major obstacles to overcome in the development of the route, including the hostile environment, the short transportation window, the lack of specialized equipment and infrastructure, and the risk of "long arm jurisdiction" by Western countries.

Many hope for further cooperation between the two countries in developing the Arctic route, but the extent and importance of such cooperation remains uncertain in the near future.

Sept. 15, 2023, Russian energy giant Gazprom said that it had made the first delivery of liquefied natural gas to China via the Arctic North Sea Route as the receding ice caps make the route more viable.

The South China Morning Post also mentioned that Russia's sensitivity to the Arctic region has brought a degree of uncertainty to the development of the Arctic sea route. "Currently, Russia remains deeply suspicious of foreign intervention in Arctic affairs, especially by non-Arctic countries," the report said.

Several factors have enabled its increasingly widespread use, notably high temperatures, Western sanctions, and insecurity in transiting the Black Sea.

  • Temperature. In recent months, the oceans have consistently exceeded surface temperature levels. Therefore, as the ice has melted, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has offered more opportunities for navigation and currently boasts one of the longest seasons of use on record.

  • Security. Russia generally uses the Black Sea and the port of Novorossiysk to ship 60 million barrels of crude oil per month. However, since withdrawing from the UN-backed agreement to allow Ukrainian grain exports, the security situation of that sea has become more problematic for merchant shipping, with several attacks on ports and ships. To remedy this problem, Russia considers the NSR route as an alternative way to export its oil and gas.

  • Sanctions. Another factor that pushed Russia to further develop the NSR as a viable route was Western sanctions that imposed a ban on Russian crude oil imports. As a result, Moscow had to find customers willing to accept its crude, and despite this ban, the main customer became China.

Artyom Lukin, associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia, also pointed out that fuel is currently the main cargo transported through the Arctic and that it is unclear how interested China still is in exploiting the region's oil resources in light of the country's net zero emissions goals.

Lukin mentioned that the proposed new route through the Bering Strait may not be a solution to the "Malacca dilemma." To avoid a possible future blockade of the Bering Strait by the United States, China and Russia could instead develop a Eurasian waterway linking China to Arctic shipping lanes via Siberian rivers. This would be a very expensive operation, he said, but "once implemented, China and Russia would be able to connect Asia and the Arctic Ocean without U.S. interference."

Regarding China-Russia cooperation on Arctic projects, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning responded a short while ago, pointing out that "China and Russia carry on normal economic and trade cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, and should not be subject to interference and restrictions by third parties; moreover, the facts have shown that sanctions and pressure cannot solve the problem, but rather cause spillover effects. China has always opposed unilateral sanctions and long-range jurisdiction, which have no basis in international law and no mandate from the Security Council. China and the Russian Federation will continue to engage in normal economic and trade cooperation in a spirit of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit."

In June 2023, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said that some $21 billion will be invested in the development of the Northern Sea Route over the next 13 years. The investment will consist of the construction of 50 icebreakers and ice-class ships, the construction of ports, and the creation of an orbital satellite constellation.

Russia aims to increase NSR capacity to 100 million tons by 2026 and 200 million tons by 2030.

India also wants to use NSR

June 2023 saw yet another event that could give even more importance to the North Sea Route. In paerticular, India and Russia discussed the possibility of exploring new transport corridors such as the NSR and the eastern sea corridor between Vladivostok and Chennai, India.

Part of the meeting, which took place at the Russian Maritime Training Institute in Vladivostok, was about training Indian seafarers to learn how to perform the task in polar and Arctic waters.

As noted above, it is very likely that Russia, China, and even India will seek to increase the frequency of ships delivering goods through the NSR. It remains to be seen whether the weather will continue to be inclined to accelerate this process and whether Putin will be willing to go all in on the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to Suez.

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