With the February 2014 opening of the UFO-meets-Chinese lantern-shaped Taishan Station in Antarctica, China’s fourth research station on the continent, China’s plans for the poles has been made clear: for the Antarctic, the continent is a global commons, a region without sovereignty for the good of all; concerning the Arctic, China’s approach is less aggressive due to its geographical absence in the Arctic Circle, meaning that any presence in the region is contingent on partnering with member states from the Arctic Council.
But really, why is China so intent on building a large presence at the poles? The most obvious answer would be resources, and that is a big part of it; however, the other reason is to show that they can. Similar to the constant domestic media attention given to the December 2013 Chang’e 3 lunar exploration mission and its Jade Rabbit space rover, polar exploration and a permanent presence there is something that signals China’s ability to play in the big leagues. It is a big boy move for a country wanting to demonstrate its power and its capabilities, to its citizens and international entities alike.
With an absence of borders, the Antarctic region is open game for any nation who can afford to establish and maintain a permanent base on the continent. While a number of countries have made sovereign claims in the past (mainly Southern hemisphere countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina, but also the UK, France, and Norway), new claims cannot be made and old claims are unrecognized under the Antarctic Treaty System, first signed in 1959 by 12 countries, and currently with 50 signatory nations.
The Antarctic Treaty states that “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only” and that the region “shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” However, maintaining international harmony on the frozen continent may become increasingly difficult as 2048, the current expiration date for the treaty, approaches.
As a 2011 report from the Lowy institute in Australia suggests, the Antarctic Treaty was set up not with geopolitical squabbling over natural resources in mind, but instead militarization of the continent. The report goes on to suggest that estimates for Antarctica’s oil reserves can go as high as 203bn barrels, good enough for third-largest in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
With demands for natural resources likely to be at an all-time high in 2048, what is stopping some of the world’s largest oil consumers – traditionally countries with large militaries – from exercising force to take what is needed?
Klaus Dodds, professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway College, University of London, who specializes in the polar regions, believes that caution should be exercised when looking into natural resource reserves for the Antarctic: “There is lots of uncertainty and speculation over mineral resources [in Antarctica]. So I would treat that figure with extreme caution. Plus, terms like ‘undiscovered resource potential’ remind us that resources might not be discovered and might not be worth recovering.”
However, oil is not the only resource on offer in Antarctica, as Dodds acknowledges: “Fishing is something else and is indeed a valuable industry – it is regulated by regimes and states…Biological prospecting is growing in importance, and Antarctica is also valuable for other activities such as tourism.”
Overfishing and the rights to fishing grounds in Antarctica was once considered a major problem, leading to the establishment of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and enforcement beginning April 1982.
Species of fish that are particularly sought after in Antarctic waters include both the Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish – the former is sometimes referred to as “Chilean Seabass”, its trade name in the US and Canada. Generally, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country would have an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles off of its shores. However, with Antarctic claims not recognized, the regulation of all Antarctic fishing falls to the CCAMLR. This again exemplifies the difficulties of managing a region that has no borders and was set up with cooperation in mind, especially when large and powerful entities decide to buck the trend.
In November 2013, plans for two massive marine sanctuaries in Antarctica were scuttled as, for the third time, a consensus vote could not be reached. The proposed sanctuaries – one in the southern Ross Sea and the other an area off of East Antarctica – were both rejected by Russia and the Ukraine (in happier times), while China rejected the East Antarctic proposal (China has three of its four bases in the East Antarctic, an area claimed by Australia).
Why would the growing giants of China and Russia reject these proposals if intentions were not aimed towards exploitation?
According to statistics from the Chinese Tourism Academy, the number of outbound trips made by Chinese travelers in the first three quarters of 2013 grew by 18% year-on-year to 72.5m. And while Antarctica is not considered quite the exotic locale of Paris or New York, the number of Chinese tourists heading there for pictures of penguins is on the rise.
The Rhode Island-based International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) states on its website that Antarctic tourism is on the rebound after dropping from 46,000 visitors in 2007-08 to 26,500 in 2011-12.
However, as the global economy recovered, so too has tourism to Antarctica, with the IAATO reporting 34,000 visitors for 2012-13, an increase of 28%. However, from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica more than doubled, rising from 1,158 visitors (4.4% of all Antarctic tourists) to 2,328 (6.8%).
Source: The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO)
As the Antarctic Treaty has no specific guidelines detailing tourism regulations for the area, some have suggested that countries need to develop their own regulations in order to protect the region from man’s influence. And if the reputation of China’s international tourists is anything to go by, Beijing will need to step in soon.
One recent Chinese visitor to the region told the South China Morning Post that he thought that tourists from mainland Chinese behaved much as he thought tourists from other countries would.
“I didn’t see anyone throwing rubbish or spitting. The only problem was that sometimes tourists got a bit closer to photograph animals than the tour guide had advised them,” said Zhang Yifan, reflecting on a tour he attended with 200 other Chinese over the Spring Festival holiday in 2013.
While the exploration and exploitation of natural resources in Antarctica may be a long way off, in the Arctic, it is full steam ahead.
And for China, conspicuously absent from a geographic presence inside the Arctic Circle, this means geopolitical and economic alliances need to be made with one or more members of the Arctic Council, although China is still trying to push the idea of a global commons applying to the Arctic, albeit diplomatically.
The Arctic Council is an inter-governmental body that was founded in 1996 with eight original members – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – signing the Ottawa Declaration. The Council was established “as a means for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic States” with a specific emphasis on “sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”
China, well aware of the natural resource bounties of the region, for years pushed hard to gain access to the Council. However, the drama concerning China and Norway’s awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo threatened to derail China’s Arctic aspirations.
Despite the friction, China was accepted onto the Council with Permanent observer status in 2013, giving them the chance to participate in projects but no voting rights.
David Wright, a professor of history at the University of Calgary, has written extensively on China’s growing interest in the Arctic and feels that “it’s precisely because they don’t any physical relevance to the region that they make the global commons argument. They don’t want to see the A8 gobble up the Arctic’s natural resource wealth and navigation rights all by themselves. If China were an A8 state, there is no way it would ever make the global commons argument. It would be doing pretty much what the Arctic states are at the moment.”
“To be an Observer means that China, like other states, can make its interests known and its presence felt”, he says. “It can politic and schmooze and make its opinions known, but it can’t vote. In becoming Observers, observer states recognize and legitimize the sovereignty of Arctic states over the Arctic. I know of at least one Chinese Arctic scholar who was opposed to China’s seeking of Observer status for this very reason.”
No country is allowed to drill the North Pole, but countries are allowed to utilize their exclusive economic zones (again, defined as 200 nautical miles from the country’s coastline). However, further claims can be made regarding continental shelves outside those 200 nautical mile economic zones if it can be demonstrated that the seabed is a natural extension of the continental shelf.
Many countries are pouring money into Arctic research in attempts to prove extended shelf claims through mapping processes, with a 2013 claim by Canada, which prompted Russia to increase its military presence in the region.
For China, the intensifying interest in the region means that the time to act is now, and the country has certainly acted with adequate haste.
In January 2014, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) became the first Chinese company to be granted Arctic oil exploration licenses, teaming up with Icelandic partners Eykon Energy and Petoro Iceland. And in Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, China is aiming for greater cooperation, especially in the sectors of mining, fishing, and sea route development.
Greenlandic Deputy Foreign Minister Kai Holst Andersen told the China Daily in February that they were in China to promote investment opportunities in Greenland and that he hopes more investment will follow. “We are not a mining nation today. But we are definitely a mining nation of the future,” said Anderson.
Oil and fishing grounds are not the only reasons for China’s Arctic interest. With some geological surveys estimating that the Arctic could be largely ice-free in summer in a decade and completely by 2030, there is the growing prospect of a logistical dream channel through the Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the northern coast of North America.
In September 2013, the Danish MS Nordic Orion became the first large sea freighter to cross the Northwest Passage after traveling from Vancouver, Canada, to Pori, Finland with a cargo of coke coal. According to Nordic Bulk Carriers, the Danish operator of the ship, using the Northwest Passage increased transport efficiency greatly.
“The Northwest Passage is more than 1,000 nautical miles shorter than the traditional shipping route through the Panama Canal and will save time, fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but even more importantly increase the amount of cargo per transit by 25%.”
It is clear that China is ramping up its polar presence, but to what end? Is it all about oil or merely political posturing?
“I think China in the Arctic and Antarctic is just very keen to remind the world about the rights of the international community to global spaces including the central Arctic Ocean,” says Professor Dodds. “And I think wants to show off to the wider world that it can do what the Russians and Americans have done in the past.”
Professor Wright sees less evidence of politics and more of resource demand in China’s frozen forays:
“I see it as natural resources first, shipping lanes second, and then scientific research. China’s scientific research in the Arctic is serious and is not a handmaiden to resource and navigation interests, but it is secondary to them… China’s game in the Arctic is much more economic than military or geopolitical.”