Recently, Russia and China begun a fruitful discussion on the exploitation of the Arctic routes. The July 2017 meeting between Xi Jinping and Medvedev confirmed Moscow and Beijing’s intention is to jointly develop the Chinese maritime Silk Road though the Arctic, serving to diversify trade routes and involving neighbouring states in port projects and scientific research. Beijing has every intention in the future of moving its goods through the Arctic from China to Europe, thereby reducing the distances involved by up to 20-30%, saving time, fuel and human resources in the process. Considering that 90% of Chinese goods are transported by sea, even a small change would generate savings and bigger profits. In the face of such an irresistible opportunity, China is not wasting any time. A few days ago, the Xuelong icebreaker (the Russian Federation is the only country possessing two nuclear icebreakers) sailed through the Northwest Passage in the Arctic, reaching North America from Asia in virtually no time, constituting an event of historic importance, this being the first time a Chinese ship has completed this route. Equally important for business, COSCO, the Chinese giant, completed in 2013 the Northeast Passage in the Arctic, starting from the Chinese port of Dalian and arriving in Rotterdam, shaving the duration of the journey by a third, down from 45 days to 30.
There are some considerations regarding the Arctic region to be made, both from a practical and realistic point of view. There are currently three usable routes, namely the northeast, northwest and “north-north” (crossing the North Pole). The first is the one through which Russia and China intend to shorten shipping times, in spite of the difficulties faced by the current lack of infrastructure as well as an unwelcome environment, complicating things and making the whole endeavour extremely expensive to develop. In this sense, cooperation between Russia and China is highly profitable for both countries, who are interested in proposing this route to other countries as well, resulting in increased transit volumes. Currently the route can be used for about four months of the year. The northwest route has problems with deep ice that prevents icebreakers from clearing a passage for a sufficient duration to allow for a commercial route. The “north-north” passage, cutting straight through the North Pole, is inaccessible until all ice is melted, something scientists predict will occur by 2050, with all the related consequences.
Inevitably, Arctic routes represent the future in terms of opportunities and savings in cost. In comparison to the Suez Canal, which is the current route through which China reaches Europe, entailing a journey of nearly 12,000 nautical miles, a route through the Northwest Passage in comparison cuts to journey to under 7,000 nautical miles.