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    Why China Needs New Arctic Icebreaker

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    The building of a new Chinese arctic icebreaker in addition to already existing analog vessel Xuelong has given rise to numerous speculations. The project is much talked about in the context of China’s growing global influence, geographical expansion of Chinese naval voyages, and rising interest in Arctic resources as a whole.

    Russian military expert Vasily Kashin told Sputnik China that the construction of the new icebreaker is actually an orderly and expected step. 

    The expert stressed that in reality China has carried out mass construction of icebreakers long before the new project was started. Chinese icebreakers were built to ensure the needs of navigation in the Bohai Bay and were a part of the Chinese People's Liberation Army North Fleet.

    The largest of such ships known as Haibing 722, a type 272 icebreaker, is 337 feet long, 60 feet wide, and fully loaded displaces 4,860 tons. It can resist Force 12 winds and has a range of 7,000 miles. The icebreaker has a landing pad suitable for a Changhe Z-8 transport helicopter, which allows deploying it not only in China’s adjacent waters, but around the world. 

    Type 272 icebreakers were built to replace old type 071 and 210 ships (with displacement of 3,200 and 4,000 tons correspondingly).

    “Obviously, type 272 icebreakers, just like their predecessors, will be also used to perform a number of auxiliary tasks: search and rescue, hydrographic studies, etc. However, Chinese navy icebreakers are unsuitable for operations in the polar regions,” Kashin said.

    Currently, China has only one vessel designed to operate in the Arctic – Xuelong (“Snow Dragon”). But strictly speaking, it is not even an icebreaker, but a type 10621 ice-class ship vessel which was built for China at Kherson Shipyard in Ukraine in 1993.

    Man taking a photo of Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, literally snow dragon (File)
    © AFP 2019 / STR
    Man taking a photo of Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, literally "snow dragon" (File)

    Even though the country does not have territories in the Arctic and the Antarctic, it has paid great attention to research over past decades due to its high significance for environmental studies and probable economic benefit.

    “China is quite active in this field and has four research stations in Antarctica including two stations operating all year round. Such research activity is difficult without an arctic icebreaker,” Kashin said. 

    Not only polar countries, but also Great Britain, France, Spain, South Korea, Japan have arctic icebreakers. India is building one now. 

    “For example, the Japanese icebreaker Shirase is much bigger and far more modern than the Xuelong. Perhaps, prestige considerations have also played their role in China’s decision to build its own arctic icebreaker,” Kashin assumed.

    Xuelong was imported to China in 1993, soon after its construction. The ship has been modified twice to meet the needs of the country, but another modernization will. It be able to upgrade it to present-day requirements. 

    “The initial project of Xuelong was pretty simple. Thanks to its size the ship can transport oversized cargo. However, its capacity is not enough to pave a way through the ice. So I would not call it an arctic icebreaker; it’s simply an icebreaker,” the head of China Institute of Polar Research told Sputnik China.

    He also said that when Xuelong was moving to Antarctica thought the Bering Strait, it had great difficulties breaking the ice because of initial shortcomings of its type.

    “That made China to think about building a brand new arctic vessel. The icebreaking capabilities of the new ship will by far exceed Xuelong and it will receive equipment of the highest quality,” the Chinese researcher said.

    The new vessel will be 122.5 meters long and 22.3 meters wide, with a displacement of 13,990 tonnes and have a navigational capability of 20,000 nautical miles. The ship, which will have a crew of 90, will have a cruising radius of 37,000 km, and it will be fitted with twin propeller drives.

    The project was approved at the highest state level. The design contract, which cost more than $613 million, was signed with Aker Arctic Technology of Finland in 2012, and it will be built by Chinese Jiangnan Shipyard.

    The construction began in December 2016. The vessel is scheduled to be completed in 2019. It will not operate under the People’s Liberation Army Navy but as a civilian vessel under the Polar Research Institute of China.

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    Arctic exploration, fleet, icebreaker, Antarctica, Antarctic, Arctic, China
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