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Arctic Yearbook 2012
China and the Arctic
these purposes, in 1993, Beijing purchased a Russian-made icebreaker from Ukraine, baptized
] – the
Snow Dragon
. The 167-meter-long vessel has an icebreaking capacity of 1.2
meters and is equipped with advanced systems of self-contained navigation and weather observation.
There is a data processing center and seven laboratories as well as three operating boats and a
helicopter. In 2010, the
Snow Dragon
helped a Chinese research team build a floating ice station in
order to conduct a 15-day research mission in the Arctic Ocean (Zhang, 2010), in the frame of its
long-term research interest in the sea ice evolution, in particular in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas,
north of the Bering Strait. But China also boasts three permanent research stations in Antarctica, and
from 1985 to 2012, the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration organized 5 Arctic and 28
Antarctic science missions: in China, it is the Antarctic, not the Arctic that gets the lion’s share in
polar research budgets. Indeed, the Antarctic is more accessible to China than the Arctic, because,
under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty (1959), China does not need any country’s permission or
specific authorisation to build stations, launch expeditions and do polar research there.
So, in a way,
the Antarctic was and still is a test-platform for Chinese research activities in the Arctic because of
similar environmental conditions.
However, it would be a misjudgement to think that China, as of
1981, thought of the Antarctic with a view to developing Arctic research: nothing in the literature
attests to this idea.
In 2011, the Chinese government decided to invest $300 million US to build a new research
icebreaker in order to better support its future projects in the polar areas. The new icebreaker will
have a number of facilities that will allow Chinese research teams to study the oceanic environment,
integrate data for real-time oceanic monitoring, deploy and retrieve detectors and conduct aerial
studies using helicopters (People’s Daily Online, 2011). According to Chen Lianzeng, deputy director
of the State Oceanic Administration that supervises and coordinates China’s Arctic and Antarctic
research, the two icebreakers will conduct expeditions in polar regions for more than 200 days
annually (ibid).
Although China’s interest in the Arctic is often pictured by the mass media as a rather recent
phenomenon, China has been doing research in the Arctic for years now and had established all the
organizational structure to do so more than fifteen years ago. China certainly is a late-comer to the
Arctic compared to the circumpolar states, but Beijing’s interest in that region is not recent; it was
just never noticed or considered “strategic” before 2010.