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Arctic Yearbook 2012
The Future of Arctic Shipping Along the Transpolar Sea Route
that a melting Arctic represents (Jakobson, 2010). At a workshop hosted by the Stockholm
International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the China Center for Contemporary World
Studies on Chinese and Nordic Cooperation in the Arctic, Chinese Arctic experts referred to China
as a “near-Arctic state” and described the country as a “stakeholder” (SIPRI, 2012). In a largely ice-
free Arctic the strategic importance of the Nordic countries, especially Iceland, will be enhanced.
Over the past decade China has continuously increased its economic cooperation with the small
island nation, which may become a major Arctic shipping hub (Wade, 2008).
Iceland already serves as an important hub in air transport and the opening of the Arctic will enhance
Iceland’s strategic location at the entrance and exit to the Arctic Ocean. Iceland’s geographical
position could make it a convenient hub for cargo ships, become a port of transshipment, and would
allow it to become a key provider of icebreaker services. Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar
Grímsson, expects the Arctic sea routes to connect Asia with the Western World “in a similar way as
the Suez Canal did” (as cited in Ward, 2010).
In April 2012 China's premier Wen Jiabao began his visit to a number of European countries in
Iceland to further deepen the economic ties between the two countries. Two agreements, a
Framework Agreement on bilateral Arctic cooperation and a memorandum of understanding in the
field of marine and polar science and technology, were signed during the visit (BarentsObserver,
2012). China’s strategic economic interest in the country first gained prominence during the height of
the economic crisis in 2008 when it began to invest in Iceland’s hard-hit economy. In 2009 Iceland
became the first European country to initiate free trade negotiations with China (Shanley, 2012).
According to Grímsson, the melting ice will “
transform global trade like the Suez Canal in its time
[…]. The most efficient trading routes are going to be used by the leading trading country in the
world. And these new trade routes will shorten the trading routes between China and America and
Europe by almost 40 percent” (as cited in Taylor, 2012).
Iceland is key to China’s strategy of sending large ice-strengthened container ships through the Arctic
and utilizing ports in Iceland to then shift their cargo to smaller vessels for delivery at their
destination ports (Wade, 2010). In 2007, the Icelandic Minister for Foreign Affairs, Valgerður
Sverrisdóttir, highlighted Iceland’s geographically ideal situation as a potential trans-shipment hub for
Arctic shipping (as cited in Ministry of Foreign Affairs Iceland, 2007: 5).
Embla Eir Oddsdóttir,
Acting Director of the Northern Research Forum and Project Manager at Stefansson Arctic Institute
in Iceland agrees, stating that the race to gain a foothold in the Arctic has already begun (as cited in