In March 2019, the crew aboard China’s icebreaker Xuelong returned to Shanghai after completing four months of polar operations in Antarctica. In addition to conducting scientific experiments, the Chinese team began constructing the nation’s fourth research station on the icy continent, selected a site for a fifth and finished building its first permanent airstrip.
This flurry of activity in Antarctica reflects the PRC’s growing interest in the region, but also raises concerns about their motivations.
A spokesman from the Polar Research Institute of China explained that the infrastructure upgrades will enhance China’s capacity in understanding Antarctica. The new station will be situated in the Ross Dependency, a region claimed by New Zealand.
However, according to Professor Mary-Anne Brady, of Canterbury University in New Zealand, China’s intentions for the Antarctic go far beyond scientific research. In a recent article, she warned that satellite navigation infrastructure installed by China in Antarctica could soon lead to the PRC’s BeiDou technology eclipsing the American GPS system giving China a technological advantage over the USA.
Brady’s warning increased tensions and provoked a response from Chinese newspaper Global Times. The state-run media outlet published an article that called out the “double standards” and “rose-coloured glasses” of the Australian media, and labelled Australia’s “pronounced Cold War mentality” entirely baseless. The piece argued that Australia’s scepticism of China is unnecessary, and stated that “no country is given supervisory power over other countries.”
This last assertion is entirely false; Article 7 of the Antarctic Treaty, to which both Australia and China are party, guarantees free access and the right for any treaty state to inspect all stations, installations and equipment in Antarctica. This false claim demonises Australia to the Chinese public, and aggravates the icy political climate surrounding Antarctic use and governance.
In recent years, Australia has exercised this right to survey other nations’ Antarctic research stations, and has regularly conducted inspections of Indian, Chinese and Russian stations. The former head of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Tony Press, confirmed that no breaches of the treaty - which prohibits military activity - were identified during these visits.
Brady’s scepticism is not shared by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which used a spokesperson to attest to the necessity of satellite technology in Antarctica, stating that such technologies are essential for operating in Antarctica.
Since becoming a party to the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and opening its first research station in 1985, China has kept a clean record in Antarctica. Researchers from China have mapped nearly 300,000 square kilometres of Antarctica, contributed their data to more than 100 international research projects, and maintained a “really close working relationship” with Australian scientists, according to Nick Gales, the Australian Antarctic Division director.
However, China recently confirmed suspicions that in reality, despite being party to the Antarctic Treaty, its commitment to scientific research and conservation in Antarctica play second fiddle to its economic interests in the region. At the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) convention in October 2018, China was one of three member states to vote against a proposal that, if passed, would have created the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) around the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula.
The decision to block the creation of an MPA is disappointing, but not surprising: China harvests 30,000 tons of krill from Antarctic oceans annually. It’s no secret that the Antarctic region represents an enormous repository of natural resources. Many of these resources fall under the protection of the Antarctic Treaty, but that may not always be the case.
The treaty is up for renegotiation in 2048, and countries with heavy investment in the Antarctic will hold an ascendancy in the process of renegotiating the laws prohibiting resource extraction and commercial activity.
In the case of a collapse of the treaty before this date, which is possible given its failure to establish strong protocol for breaches, the region may become a global common, and a frantic scramble for resources could ensue. By consolidating its presence in Antarctica, China is ensuring that should this scenario transpire, it will be well-prepared to seize what it can. Moreover, expanding its Antarctic program lends a more substantial basis to any territorial or exclusive economic zone claims that China may submit, should the opportunity arise.
China’s investment in its Antarctic operations therefore not only benefits its scientific program but also confers substantial political advantage and potential economic return; and the same can be said for the many other nations with a growing interest in Antarctica, including Australia. Thus, it would be overly antagonistic to suggest that China has designs to militarise the Antarctic in the near future.
Nevertheless, Antarctica represents a largely untouched environment of stunning beauty and immense ecological importance. It is also one of the few domains where a peaceful and cooperative atmosphere pervades international relations, generally speaking. At the moment, the Antarctic Treaty System remains the primary safeguard for the conservation of this delicate region. As global interest continues to grow, it is paramount that the treaty is strengthened and enforced to ensure the stability of Antarctica well into the future.
From Australia’s perspective, this may include initiatives such as continuing to support the creation of MPAs, increasing the frequency of inspections of other nations’ Antarctic stations, and promoting international dialogue and communication around the future of the frozen continent.
Max Collett is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.