A new bridge, located over 200 miles North of the Arctic Circle, is being reported as illustrating the reach and potential of the One-Belt, One-Road initiative – in some quarters.
To locals of Narvik, Norway, and the surrounding areas, the new Halogaland Bridge, crossing the Rombaken Fjord, is a very welcome addition to the local infrastructure, allowing considerable savings in time. The local population is justifiably proud, dubbing it the most beautiful bridge in the world. However, peculiar aspects of the bridge construction and siting have been absorbed into the wider debate about future links between East and West.
The leading contractor on the bridge was Sichuan Road & Bridge Co, a Chinese company, which was responsible for supplying and installing all steelwork in what is the largest suspension bridge North of the Arctic Circle. The bridge was opened in December 2018 in a ceremony that included the Norwegian Prime Minister and the Chinese Ambassador to Norway.
The Chinese-led One Belt, One Road initiative of re-establishing the centuries old East West Trade route immediately conjures up visions of the land route through Central Asia, or the maritime route passing India and entering the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. However, what is gaining ground is the concept of an Arctic Corridor, The North East Passage (or the Polar Silk Road), to connect the Northern areas of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia with China and this is where the bridge adds a further link in the chain. Not, as one would suspect, the end of the chain, but rather one of the first links in a new chain.
Interest is centered around the ice-free Norwegian port of Kirknes, located just 15Km West of Russia on the Barents Sea. It’s the first “Western” Port for any vessel arriving from China via the North East Passage. Savings in distance are huge – Shanghai to Kirknes, for example, is 30% shorter via the Northern route than Shanghia to Rotterdam via Suez.
A recent joint study by the Finnish and Norwegian governments outlined the concept of making Kirknes a hub port for the Northern Europe / China trades, with a proposed new 520 km railway to the Finnish city of Rovaniemi linking into existing infrastructure and directly to the Baltic States.
Of course, all of this would take a number of factors to align. Most notably a high degree of cooperation between Norway, Finland, Russia and China – historically uneasy bedfellows. There are also environmental considerations and an assumption that global warming will continue its assault on the pack ice.
Despite its remote location in the land of the Midnight sun, the most beautiful bridge in the world is not immune from the world of geo-politics and trade.