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China used research mission to test trade route through Canada’s Northwest Passage

In this photo provided by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, is harbored in Shanghai, after an 85-day scientific quest across the Arctic ocean, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012. Xinhua News Agency says the Snow Dragon “accumulated a wealth of experience for Chinese ships going through the Northwest Passage in the future.”

Pei Xin/AP

China's official government news agency says Beijing used a scientific icebreaker voyage through Canada's Northwest Passage to test the viability of sailing Chinese cargo ships through the environmentally fragile route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Xinhua News Agency, often used to deliver messages on behalf of the Chinese state, lauded the Sept. 6 completion of the first-ever Chinese voyage through the Arctic waterway, saying the Snow Dragon icebreaker "accumulated a wealth of experience for Chinese ships going through the Northwest Passage in the future."

Beijing's state news agency said the Arctic route through Canadian waters can reduce the delivery time for Chinese cargo ships by 20 per cent.

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Related: Chinese ship making first voyage through Canada's Northwest Passage

"It opened up a new sea lane for China," the news agency said. "From Shanghai to New York, the traditional route that passes through the Panama Canal is 10,500 nautical miles, while the route that passes through the Northwest Passage is 8,600 nautical miles, which saves 7 days of time."

Xinhua also reported that China sent six merchant ships through Russia's Northeast Passage this summer as the world's second-largest economy hopes to take advantage of melting Arctic sea ice to speed the delivery of goods to North America and European markets.

Canada demands that foreign vessels ask permission before sailing through the Northwest Passage. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office said last week that Canada granted its approval on the basis that China was conducting scientific research. A team of Canadian scientists were also on board as well as a Canadian navigator.

A senior government official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told The Globe and Mail that "China may say whatever it wants to a domestic audience [but] that does not mean it reflects the reality of what happened here."

Adam Austen, the press secretary to Ms. Freeland, echoed the senior official's viewpoint, saying the Snow Dragon mission was solely a "scientific expedition" and China's desire to use the Northwest Passage for shipping is not a done deal.

"All commercial voyages through Canada's territorial waters, including the Northwest Passage require an application," Mr. Austen said. "While we permit commercial traffic through our domestic waters, we expect that ships comply with our strict laws on safety, security and the protection of the environment. All cases are evaluated on an individual basis."

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Arctic expert and professor Rob Huebert, who tracked the Snow Dragon's voyage using satellite imagery, said he was surprised the Chinese were so blunt in revealing their clear intentions for the Northwest Passage.

"They are preparing for a very substantial increase in the amount of shipping. It is obvious this is going into the planning to a degree that we don't see in Western shipping companies," Prof. Huebert said. "They have given us clear notice this is going to happen."

Prof. Huebert, who teaches at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said he is not convinced the Canadian government is prepared to handle large-scale Chinese shipping through this waterway and to ensure China respects the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.

Environmentalists have expressed concern over the risks of increased ship traffic in the pristine Arctic, such as oil spills and sooty emissions.

"We need to get the Arctic patrol vessels built. We need to get the Coast Guard better funded and we need the facilities for better surveillance and enforcement capability," Prof Huebert said.

For some years, state-owned Cosco – which is China's largest shipping group – has been exploring the potential of the Arctic as a new and reliable global trade route.

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Using the Arctic would allow Chinese cargo ships to provide faster delivery without having to worry about monsoons in the Indian Ocean, armed pirates on other routes or paying fees to pass through the Suez or Panama canals. In early July, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev agreed to explore co-operation on the northern sea route to build a "Silk Road on Ice."

Chinese state media have called the Northwest Passage a "golden waterway" for future trade; 90 per cent of China's exports are by ship. China has no Arctic territory, but has been attempting to play a larger role in the region and gained observer status at the Arctic Council in 2013.

Despite concerns about the effect of increased shipping traffic on the fragile Arctic environment, there is little that Canada can do to prevent countries from using the Northwest Passage as a trade route, according to University of British Columbia Professor Michael Byers.

However, Prof. Byers said the fact that Beijing sought Canada's approval to enter the Arctic waters strengthens Ottawa's sovereignty claims to the Northwest Passage.

"If anything, Canada's legal position has been bolstered by the fact that the Chinese were so willing to work with us. They waited a whole week before they got the letter [of Canadian government approval] before entering Canadian waters," Mr. Byers said. "Every time another country works with us, they are at least implicitly recognizing that we are the state in control, that we have rights in the Northwest Passage. So this voyage is actually a good thing from the perspective of Canadian sovereignty."

Prof. Byers acknowledged though that it is in China's interest to seek Canadian approval because it strengthens Beijing's claims to the Hainan Strait, which, as with the Northwest Passage, the United States considers international waters.

"That is actually the reason why China is respecting us in terms of not challenging our position [on the Northwest Passage]. They are not challenging our position because if they challenged our position, they would be weakening their position in the high Hainan Strait," he said.

The Hainan Strait is an important shipping route connecting the South China Sea to the Gulf of Tonkin and one that China claims as internal waters.

Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage based on historic title – a status conveyed by the Canadian Inuit's usage of those waters. This claim has long been challenged by the United States, which considers the passage an international strait through which Americans are entitled transit rights.

Nonetheless, the United States does notify Canada when its vessels are passing through the channel.

Prof. Huebert said it will be important for Canada to ensure that Chinese shipping companies request Canadian authorization before they venture into the Northwest Passage.

"If [China] bring containers in, the first one will be important in that they follow our procedures for requesting permission," he said. "If they start coming in and get sloppy and they start not asking for consent, then the Americans will quite rightly say you are not enforcing it and therefore it is an international straight. And that is the real danger."

China's Arctic plans fit with a broader effort to create new trade shortcuts. Last year, Beijing send the first container train from eastern China to Iran – a land journey 30 days shorter than by water.

With files from Xiao Xu

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Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

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Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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