Why Does China Suddenly Want Nuclear Icebreakers?

Beijing wants to join the race for Arctic resources and trade routes.

The National Interest
Date: April 14, 2019  Topic: Security  Region: Asia  Tags: ChinaXi JinpingArcticStrategyWar
By: Lyle J. Goldstein

A rather odd incident in the annals of U.S.-China relations occurred in September 2015. At the very same time that President Barack Obama decided to drop in for an unusual visit to the state of Alaska, a Chinese naval squadron of five ships suddenly appeared in the Bering Sea. They had left from a joint exercise with the Russian Pacific Fleet and did not tarry for too long off American shores. Did this movement constitute a clever warning, designed specifically to humiliate the American President on his own turf? Or was it pure coincidence—just a minor excursion into unknown waters for a Chinese fleet that was undoubtedly just beginning to stretch its sails on the global stage? Is it possible that China has military designs on the Arctic, of which this was the initial step?

Available evidence and simple deductive logic suggest that skepticism is warranted concerning the final question above. And yet it must be admitted now that Beijing’s interest in the Arctic is something more than a passing fancy. Two announcements from Beijing during the course of 2018 implied that the issue was assuming new significance within China’s overall foreign policy. First, there was the “White Paper” on China’s Arctic policy that elevated the approach to the “Polar Silk Road” strategy. Next, came the “bombshell” that China intends to build a nuclear icebreaker.

Some new details emerged in mid-March regarding the specifications of Beijing’s icebreaker. It will be 152 meters in length, 30 meters wide, and will displace 30,000 tons. Thus, it will be quite comparable to Russia’s giant Arktika-class. The vessel, that will cost China about 1 billion RMB, is to be powered by two 25MW high pressure reactors. According to an analysis in the Barents Observer, “Nuclear power has the advantage of long range and massive power.” Still, most of the writing about this prospective ship has focused on the implications that such an “experiment” could have for China’s nascent nuclear aircraft carrier project. But what of China’s Arctic ambitions?    [FULL  STORY]