June 15, 2017 10:00 am JST

Six centuries later, China rekindles its Arctic ambitions

Beijing's plan to take Belt and Road north harkens back to Ming dynasty explorer

KEN MORIYASU, Nikkei deputy editor

A cruise ship is docked at Ny-Aalesund, a research town in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. © Reuters

TOKYO The famed Ming dynasty navigator Zheng He led seven voyages to the western seas. With a total crew of over 20,000, the huge Chinese treasure ships visited ports across the Indian Ocean, the Middle East and Africa.

One theory has it that some of Zheng's fleet passed through the Arctic Ocean in their wooden vessels and discovered Greenland and Iceland (Gavin Menzies' "1421: The Year China Discovered the World").

Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road voyage seems to be taking a similarly ambitious turn north.

China has ramped up its diplomacy with countries and regions bordering the Arctic significantly in recent months: Xi visited Alaska and Finland; a senior Communist Party delegation went to Iceland; and a Norwegian leader visited Beijing for the first time since relations soured in 2010 over the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

This choice of destinations is no coincidence. "Looking at the visit to Finland, Alaska and Iceland, you can see the connection with the Arctic Council's chairmanship calendar," said Damien Degeorges, a Reykjavik, Iceland-based consultant specializing in Arctic affairs.

The Arctic Council serves as the leading intergovernmental forum among countries in the region, and determines regulations for sustainable development and environmental protection.

"[In May], Alaska hosted a ministerial meeting ending the U.S. chairmanship," Degeorges said. "Now Finland is holding the current chairmanship, and in two years it will be Iceland."

The South China Morning Post reported that China likely will incorporate the Arctic Circle into its Belt and Road Initiative. "The full name of the strategy will be 'One Belt, One Road, One Circle,' and the circle refers to the Arctic Circle," the paper quoted Tsinghua University professor Li Xiguang as telling a forum in Hong Kong.

China's interest in the Arctic is fourfold: as a new trade route, a future source of minerals, an environmental concern and a strategic option. This interest has become more immediate with the faster-than-expected melting of the Arctic ice. Scientists now think a large part of the Arctic will be ice-free during the summer by 2050.

Sailing from Shanghai to the Dutch city of Rotterdam through this northern passage would be 6,100 nautical miles shorter than the traditional route through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. If not slowed by icebergs, ship owners potentially can shave a week off of travel time, cutting costs by $600,000 per vessel.

Climate change in the Arctic could wreak havoc on weather and food production in China. The region is also thought to hold huge reserves of natural gas and oil.

The Arctic's strategic importance will increase as the receding ice enables easier submarine access and the possibility for the likes of the U.S. and Russia to deploy missile defense capabilities.

Six centuries ago, the Yongle Emperor ordered Zheng He "to proceed all the way to the end of the earth." While climate change and missile defense were probably not on Zheng's mind, his voyage set a precedent for Xi's Belt and Road Initiative to do just that.

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