“We are men of action. We get things done.” With those words, Ahmed Ali Al-Subaey, the Saudi-born CEO of South Korea’s largest oil company, set the tone for a conference on Arctic shipping held, significantly, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of the world’s cargo ships traverse the Pacific as they service the economic powerhouses of Asia. Fully 77 per cent of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. In Beijing, this strategic weakness is referred to as the “Malacca dilemma.”
Some of the larger vessels can’t fit into the Panama Canal and must loop around the bottom of South America. Still more loop around Africa to avoid the pirate-infested approaches to the Suez Canal. The added distances impose unwelcome costs – in fuel, salaries and foregone business.
Now, all eyes are turning toward another entrance to the Pacific: the relatively deep, wide, pirate-free Bering Strait. To the east, the Northwest Passage offers a 7,000-kilometre shortcut between Northeast Asia and the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. To the west, the Northern Sea Route offers a 10,000-kilometre shortcut to Europe.
Within the next decade, the Arctic could experience a complete late-season melt-out – and, with that, a permanent loss of the multiyear ice.
This prospect is celebrated across Asia. The Chinese media call the Northern Sea Route the “Arctic Golden Waterway.” Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University estimates that the route along the Russian coast could save China a staggering $60-billion to $120-billion annually.