Rune Rafaelsen is mayor of Kirkenes, a town in the far northeastern corner of Norway, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, close to the Russian border, with about 3,500 inhabitants. His bold plan could raise the profile of his remote Arctic town – with a little help from Chinese investors. The Norwegian mayor is courting Chinese investors to build a Polar Silk Road
While the melting sea ice has alarmed scientists and residents, newly accessible waterways mean commercial ships are increasingly plowing along polar lanes. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on the planet.
The mayor of Sør-Varanger admits he usually don’t need help to be seen or heard. “I’m big-mounted,” he says. “But when the ice is decreasing, you can go from Asia to Europe through the Northern Sea Route and my town Kirkenes is the first western harbor you meet when you start out from Shanghai and go along the Russian sub-Siberian coast. Then it’s time to speak out load,” adds Rafaelsen.
Politicians don’t grasp what’s on offer
A top leader of a Chinese shipping company agrees. “We welcome the projected development of a seaport on the Barents coast and a railway connection to Finland,” he says.
However, Rafaelsen needs politicians in Oslo, the capital of Norway, to grasp what is on offer when the Arctic ice is melting. It’s a historical chance for the struggling town of Kirkenes, for Norway and for the Nordic countries in general. His tiny town could be turned into a major logistical hub, including a massive port and train line to Rovaniemi in Finland and further southwards to Helsinki and even across the Baltic sea to Estonia.
A route between China and Europe would be 40% shorter than sailing via the Suez Canal. In 20 years’ time the Arctic could be completely ice-free in the summer according to researchers. Ole Arve Midsund, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute says, “In 20 or 30 years, probably, there will be no more ice at the North Pole during the summer, and the Arctic Ocean will become accessible.”
“Yes, I have used the words ‘Singapore’ and ‘Rotterdam’,” says Rafaelsen. “Norway can become Europe’s logistical center on the northern sea route. If this does not have national economic significance, I don’t know what has. Our problem is that there is no interest in central political circles,” he adds.
Even NATO should embrace such a solution if Rafaelsen’s dream ever should be realized.
Lack of money
Kirkenes is the last northern port for the popular coastal cruiser Hurtigruten but apart from being a tourist destination, the town has traditionally relied on fishing and iron-ore mining. The municipality has given a green light for a new, bigger harbor, but it doesn’t have the money to build it.
Nevertheless, the Chinese state-owned Cosco Shipping Group is already well established in Europe. It is the third largest container company with a mission to globalize Chinese economy. The company has invested in port terminals for new “silk roads” that were previously neglected by private European operators.
Also Russia has taken advantage of the climate change and opened a northern maritime route connecting Europe to Asia, reducing navigation time by one-third. The cargo volume shipped via this route increased 25% in 2017 for total approximately 10 million tons. By 2025 that number could reach 40 million, according to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources.
Russian and Finnish interest
Rafaelsen is a member of Norway’s Labor Party and is a die-hard booster of his little town. The lack of interest and financing have done little to dampen his enthusiasm. Along Russia’s huge, desolate coast, specially built ships with icebreaker function are still needed for much of the year. But in Kirkenes, less advanced cargo ships could take cargo from China and sail south along the Norwegian coast towards Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Gothenburg. Some of the cargo could be transported onwards overland.
The Finnish city of Rovaniemi by the Baltic Sea is connected to the rest of European rail network. “This allow cargo vessels to bypass North Cape, saving them several days,” says Rune Rafaelsen.
However, an Arctic railway would need buy-in from the Norwegian and Finnish governments. Late 2018, a binational working group study concluded that the project, estimated to cost more than $3 billion, would not be “financially feasible.”
Memorandums of Understanding
In Helsinki lives Peter Vesterbacka, the developer of the game Angry Birds. His energy matches that of Rafaelsen. His company, FinEstBayArea Development (FBA), has signed a Memorandum of Understanding for financing of a $15billion/€13,5 billion private mega project to connect a tunnel to the high-speed Rail Baltica line that is expected to be completed by 2026. This would ultimately connect Finland by rail to not just Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania but Poland and in turn, southern and western Europe.
Vesterbacka is a Sinophile who travels to China twice a month, talking about turning the region into a trade bridge between western Europe and China. His company Finest Bay Area Development Oy has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Sør-Varanger Utvikling, a local publicly owned Norwegian development company.
Norwegian Mayor Courting Chinese Investors to Build a Polar Silk Road
“I have promoted Kirkenes a lot in China,” says Rafaelsen. “The Chinese have been here to look at the possibility, and they are interested,” he concludes.
Norwegian Mayor Courting Chinese Investors to Build a Polar Silk Road, written by Tor Kjolberg