BEIJING (AFP) - A 19,000-tonne cargo vessel is making the first journey by a Chinese merchant ship to Europe via the Northeast Passage, a shortened route that could revolutionise trade, state media reported on Saturday.
The Arctic route has become navigable due to global warming melting sea ice and promises to slash journey times by around 12 to 15 days, saving shipping companies and Chinese exporters millions in lower fuel bills and reduced operating costs.
A freighter belonging to Chinese shipping firm Cosco left the northeastern port of Dalian on Thursday and was expected to take 33 days to reach Europe via the Bering Strait and Russia's northern coastline, the official China Daily reported.
The SinoShipNews website said the vessel was headed for Rotterdam and was due to arrive on September 11.
The new route, which is now navigable for around four months of the year from the end of July, avoids the politically unstable pinch point of the Suez canal, and trims around 7,000 km off the journey, according to the China Daily.
Around 90 per cent of China's foreign trade is carried by sea and Beijing is also hoping the new shipping route can help develop the northeast.
In 2012, 46 ships used the Northeast Passage, compared with four in 2010, according to Rosatomflot, a Russian operator of icebreakers.
But the traffic is still negligible compared with traditional commercial shipping routes, such as the Suez Canal, which has 19,000 ships pass through it a year.
Previous estimates have suggested up to 15 per cent of Chinese foreign trade could use the Arctic route by 2020.
Europe is one of China's largest trading partners, with two-way trade last year worth nearly US$550 billion (S$692 billion).