The Snow Dragon was trying to cut a patch for the Academic Shokalskiy, which has been trapped since Christmas Day with 74 people aboard, the BBC reported.
The Chinese vessel came within 7 nautical miles of the Russian science ship before it had to turn back.
Alok Jha, a journalist on the Shokalskiy, said "the ice was too thick for it to get through."
A French vessel also was unable to get through the ice, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue. It said another boat, the Aurora Australis, was due to arrive at the Russian vessel Sunday.
The Shokalskiy is trapped in thick wind-driven sheets of ice about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania. The team says the ship is well stocked and the crew and passengers are in no danger.
Expedition leader Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, said "The vessel is fine, it's safe and everyone on board is very well," CNN reported. "Morale is really high."
He said the ship was surrounded by ice as thick as 10 feet.
Despite being trapped, the researchers are continuing their experiments, the BBC reported. They are measuring temperate and salinity through cracks in the ice.