A major milestone was achieved in China’s long-term Arctic strategy last week when a Chinese icebreaker successfully navigated the Northwest Passage. This passage through Arctic waters is seen as one of the first steps in establishing a Chinese presence in the resource-rich region of the Arctic.

Snow Dragon, China’s lone icebreaker, became the first Chinese vessel to transit the major shipping routes through the Arctic, having previously completed the Transpolar Sea Route, the Northern Sea Route, and now the Northwest Passage.

China’s State Oceanic Administration said the mission helped “acquire navigation techniques and experience in the complicated and frozen environment of the Arctic … and obtain first-hand information on its shipping routes.”

Despite not being an official “arctic” nation like Russia and the United States, China has recognized the potential for vast untapped natural gas and oil resources in the region. It intends to partner with Russia to develop an “Ice Silk Road” to combine their efforts at harnessing the Arctic’s economic possibilities.

Russia has been actively expanding its presence in the Arctic, and already has over 40 operational ice breakers to support its economic and military missions in the area. As part of a growing trend of melting polar ice, more shipping routes are opening all throughout the Arctic, the result of which has encouraged a sort of Arctic economic arms race to exploit commerce routes and areas of natural resources.

Still, despite the possibilities of a lucrative Arctic shipping lane, which will cut China’s access to European ports from 35 to 22 days, relatively few ships have made the passage so far. Only 19 ships actually completed the journey in 2016. China’s eagerness to get in on the action shows that it sees itself as a significant stakeholder in any future development of the region.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which operates the United States’ sole icebreaker, has long sounded the alarm about American weakness in securing the Arctic waterways. Earlier this year, Admiral Paul Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, described America’s dire situation by saying “They’ve got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and right now we’ve got a pawn and maybe a rook.” He said. “If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate right at the very beginning.”

Image courtesy of Timo Palo via Wikipedia