China’s other spy platform: Arctic icebreakers  

Climate Economy

China’s other spy platform: Arctic icebreakers  

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How the surge of activity, with military implications, concerns climatologists and the Pentagon.

In September 2018, global commerce experienced a rare and underappreciated paradigm shift. China’s first home-built polar icebreaker, ceremoniously named Snow Dragon II, set sail from its port in Shanghai and embarked on a journey that aimed to reimagine global shipping lanes.  Weighing 3,900 tons, 411 feet long, 75 feet wide and capable of carrying 4,500 tons of cargo, Snow Dragon II was a quantum leap in maritime technology from China’s only previous polar ship, a rusting Soviet-made breaker from the 1970s. 

The bright nautical red paint on Snow Dragon II was barely dry when China announced that they would build an even bigger 500-foot, 30,000-ton nuclear-powered icebreaker powered by two twin 25-megawatt high-pressure reactors designed to grind and smash through ice five-feet thick at five times the speed of Snow Dragon II.

A few months earlier, China had announced a new directive aimed at capitalizing on an unusual event taking place in the frozen reaches of the Northern Sea: the ice was melting. China’s nationalist leader Xi Jinping’s “Polar Silk Road” initiative is only a new component to his more well-known Belt and Road Initiative, a colossal network of infrastructure projects that span continents and serve as the 21st century’s single largest bid for hemispheric dominance. The Arctic,” the report said, “is gaining global significance for its rising strategic and economic value and those relating to scientific research, environmental protection, sea passages and natural resources.“ Indeed, the Northern Sea Route; a shipping lane that passes through the Bering Strait as opposed to the Suez Canal, cuts the voyage from Europe to Asia by two weeks; saving untold billions in overhead. 

When icebreakers destroy multi-year ice, a “positive” feedback loop is created, resulting in less ice to protect the ocean from solar rays, creating more warming and more ice melting.

Since the introduction of Snow Dragon II, China has dramatically increased its presence in the region. By the end of 2018, Chinese ships had completed 27 complete transits accounting for 29% of all global shipping through the Northern Sea Route. In 2020, that number more than doubled to 62. The introduction of China’s supersized nuclear-powered icebreaker in 2025 will significantly expand China’s lift capabilities, allowing the vessel to transport Norwegian and Russian liquified natural gas. 

Ice road to climate hell?

This surge of activity deeply concerns climatologists. The giant propellers that speed a ship’s journey through the ice also accelerate the “surface albedo feedback” — a scientific measurement of solar radiation that is reflected by the ice’s surface. Multi-year ice is compact, with a white hue, which gives it a greater capacity to reflect the sun’s rays compared to new ice, which is translucent and susceptible to faster melting. When icebreakers destroy multi-year ice, a “positive” feedback loop is created, resulting in less ice to protect the ocean from solar rays, creating more warming and more ice melting.

But China’s new polar dream has done more than raise alarm bells within the scientific community. It has also roused one of the most secretive and powerful military entities on the planet: the U.S. Naval Submarine Force. Why? U.S. officials say China is “conducting dual-use research with intelligence or military applications in the Arctic” to better track U.S fast attack submarines which will be the first line of defense should the U.S. intervene to support Taiwan.

No vacancy

The Biden administration says that over the past decade China has by seeking to “increase its influence in the Arctic through an expanded slate of economic, diplomatic, scientific and military activities” requiring the U.S. to “exercise a presence in the Arctic region as required to protect the American people and defend our sovereign territory.”

That includes excluding China from the giant island of Greenland home of the most northernmost base of the U.S. Armed Forces. The Thule Air Base is also home to the 821st Air Base Group, the 12th Space Warning Squadron (12 SWS) which detects and tracks incoming nuclear missiles aimed at North America, and the 23rd Space Operations Squadron, which manages the U.S.’s global satellite control network. Thule is also the home to the northernmost deep water port in the world.

It remains to be seen how China will meet its climate promises while continuing to aggressively expand into the Arctic.

Under pressure from the U.S., Denmark, which oversees Greenland, vetoed two Chinese investment projects – the Kuannersuit uranium mining project and the Isua iron ore project. Denmark also stopped Chinese efforts to buy an abandoned maritime station once owned by the Danish defense department.  “U.S. interests in Greenland have phased China out,” says Rasmus Leander Nielsen, the head of Nuuk’s NASIFFIK Center for Foreign and assistant professor at the University of Greenland, speaking to Politico. 

Fight for Red October 

The U.S. is even more concerned about China’s efforts to strengthen its underwater military presence in the Arctic, particularly its long-term projects to optimize radio connectivity deep in the Arctic Sea. There is particular concern about China’s efforts to control the region’s Very High Frequency (VHF) radio connectivity. In 2019, China succeeded in providing underwater communications to its submarine fleet, a move which will allow it to develop and use underwater drones and more stealthily communicate with subsurface vessels, experts say.  

China’s Arctic push also puts it at odds with its accelerating commitments to mitigate global warming. The country has made it a key national priority to meet the UN Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2060. It remains to be seen how China will meet its climate promises while continuing to aggressively expand into the Arctic. It will also be a good test for both China and the United States to see if they can look beyond the business-as-usual of national self-interest and do what is best for the planet.

Written by

Alec Bresler

Alec Bresler is focused on Sino-Russian relations, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the political dynamics of the post-Soviet space as an undergraduate research fellow. He is a researcher for the Russian and Eurasian Studies Department at Colgate University and has also worked as an undergraduate research fellow at Howard University's Slavic Studies Department.