China to develop new heavy icebreaker for ‘Polar Silk Road’

3 min read
The Xuelong 2 is the most modern of China’s two icebreakers in operation

China plans to develop a new heavy icebreaker and semi-submersible heavy lift ships – so big that they can carry other ships – in the next five years to support its expanding maritime activities.

The heavy icebreaker is to be used for rescues along China’s “Polar Silk Road” trade route, part of its global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative.

A design for the icebreaker is expected to be completed by 2025, according to a transport ministry notice released last month that did not give further details.

In addition, it said “significant breakthroughs” in construction of a semi-submersible salvage ship – a huge vessel with displacement of 100,000 tonnes – were also expected in that period.

A three-year target has been set for the design to be completed on another semi-submersible salvage ship that could be used for deep-sea lifting of up to 5,000 tonnes.

The new vessels are part of China’s latest five-year development blueprint decided earlier this year. It includes goals on deep-ocean and polar exploration, specialist vessels such as those to support deep-sea operations and the heavy icebreakers, and a plan to develop offshore floating nuclear power stations.

China introduced its Polar Silk Road concept in 2018, saying it would encourage companies to build infrastructure and conduct commercial trial voyages that would “bring opportunities to the Arctic”, and declared itself a “near-Arctic power”.

Chinese entities have since opened up new freight routes and conducted scientific expeditions in the region, and Beijing has also announced plans to launch a satellite by 2022 to track shipping routes and monitor changes in sea ice.

But China’s ambitions and growing presence in the polar regions – it has also expanded its footprint in Antarctica, where it has four research stations with a fifth being built – have intensified geopolitical tensions and rivalry, including with the United States and Russia.

In terms of its polar fleet, China has two medium icebreakers in operation for its research missions, both conventionally powered – the Xuelong, built by Ukraine in the 1990s, and the Xuelong 2, which entered service in 2019 and was built in China with design support from Finland.

With a displacement of 14,000 tonnes, the Xuelong 2 is the world’s first polar research icebreaker that can break ice as it moves both forwards and backwards. It can break through 1.5 metres of ice at 2 to 3 knots.

The United States is also expanding and modernising its polar fleet. The US Coast Guard has one heavy icebreaker in service, the Polar Star, and one medium icebreaker, the Healy. It has three new heavy icebreakers on order – the first is due to be delivered in 2024 – and three medium icebreakers.

Russia has the world’s strongest such fleet, with five nuclear-powered icebreakers in service and five more being built – it aims to use the vessels to ensure it can ship gas year-round through the Arctic. For now, it is the only country with nuclear-powered icebreakers.

The most powerful, the Arktika-class, can break through 2.8 metres of ice and has a displacement of 33,000 tonnes. A new Lider-class nuclear icebreaker is slated for delivery in 2027 and is expected to be able to break up to 4 metres of ice, with displacement of 70,000 tonnes.

China’s planned semi-submersible heavy-lift ships will be used for salvage operations, including for large vessels. The latest in the fleet is the Huaruilong, which was launched last month and at 80,000 tonnes is the country’s largest of its kind.

In 2017, the US Navy used one of these ships to transport a destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, back to its home port after it collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Japan.

China to develop new heavy icebreaker for ‘Polar Silk Road’ – South China Morning Post

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Tony Simon

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