China will encourage ships flying its flag to take the Northwest Passage via the Arctic Ocean, a route opened up by global warming, to cut travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a state-run newspaper said on Wednesday.
China is increasingly active in the polar region, becoming one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland and agreeing to a free trade deal with Iceland.
Shorter shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean would save Chinese companies time and money. For example, the journey from Shanghai to Hamburg via the Arctic route is 2,800 nautical miles shorter than going by the Suez Canal.
China's Maritime Safety Administration this month released a guide offering detailed route guidance from the northern coast of North America to the northern Pacific, the China Daily said.
"Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transport and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation," ministry spokesman Liu Pengfei was quoted as saying.
Chinese ships will sail through the Northwest Passage "in the future", Liu added, without giving a time frame.
Most of the Northwest Passage lies in waters that Canada claims as its own.
Asked if China considered the passage an international waterway or Canadian waters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China noted Canada considered that the route crosses its waters, although some countries believed it was open to international navigation.
In Ottawa, a spokesman for Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said no automatic right of transit passage existed in the waterways of the Northwest Passage.
"We welcome navigation that complies with our rules and regulations. Canada has an unfettered right to regulate internal waters," Joseph Pickerill said by email.
Maritime experts say shipping companies would most likely be deterred by the unpredictable nature of Arctic ice, the total absence of infrastructure in the region, relatively shallow waters, a lack of modern mapping and increased insurance costs.
The route would also be strategically important to China, another maritime official, Wu Yuxiao, told the China Daily.
Melting sea ice has spurred more commercial traffic, and China wants to become more active in the Arctic, where it says it has important interests.
Chinese ships, even merchant vessels, using the Northwest Passage could raise eyebrows in Washington.
In September, five Chinese Navy ships sailed in international waters in the Bering Sea off Alaska, in an apparent first for China's military.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Jonathan Oatis)