China’s First Indigenously Built Icebreaker Departs for First Arctic Mission, Success Could Signal Expansion of Chinese Icebreaker Production

On July 15, the Xuelong‑2, China’s first domestically-built polar icebreaker, departed for its first research mission to the Arctic Sea since entering service in July 2019. According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency, the goal of the three-month mission is to conduct a series of studies on biological diversity and ecosystems, ocean acidification, and chemical pollutants in the Chukchi Plateau, the Canada basin, and the central part of the Arctic.

The voyage is intended to assess the ability of the Xuelong-2 to perform in accordance with its design specifications, including its ability to break ice of up to 1.5 meters in thickness.  It is noteworthy that the voyage is taking place during the Arctic summer, when the Xuelong‑2 will face relatively mild conditions. While this means that the vessel will not be pushed to its limit, the Xuelong‑2 already completed a mission to Antarctica in December 2019, where it made port calls at two Chinese research facilities. Prior to departing on this latest mission, the Xuelong‑2 underwent 45 days of maintenance at the state-owned Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.

If China, based on the success of these recent missions, seeks to use its existing shipbuilding manufacturing base to quickly reach scale with a surge in development efforts of its own icebreakers, it has the potential to alter the current landscape of the Arctic energy transportation sector. Currently, Russian exports of Arctic oil and gas to China rely on Russian icebreakers and ice-hardened carriers to reach Chinese customers. 

There are even signs that China aims to surpass the world-leading capabilities of Russia’s ice-breaking fleet, with China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation announcing plans in December 2019 to build its first heavy icebreaker with an ice-breaking capability of 3 meters.  This would be similar in capability to Russia’s latest nuclear-powered Arktika icebreakers and would give China independent navigability in the Arctic, without having to depend on Russia.

As China pursues these ambitions, one aspect of Russia’s effort to maintaining its status as the world’s leading producer and operator of icebreakers, the Arktika program, is running three years behind schedule. During recent sea trials of the Arktika, an electrical propulsion motor failed, showing that achieving this goal will not be smooth sailing for Russia.