Calls to renegotiate the agreements that govern the Antarctic, out of frustration at China’s and Russia’s opposition to establishing new areas for protection, would only put at risk the many benefits of the present Antarctic Treaty system. Instead, appealing to Beijing’s mercantilist interests, and greater scrutiny of China’s fishing industry, might eventually do the trick.
A special meeting under the ATS on the establishment of what are known as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean ended last month without agreement. Russia and China resisted the wishes of the other 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources. CCAMLR, the body that oversees conservation and “rational” use of the Southern Ocean for fishing, operates under the ATS.
Much strategic writing about Antarctica concerns threats to the ATS posed by dual-use civil/military equipment and possible future competition for mineral resources. But differences over krill and fish – the resources accessible right now – are a more immediate challenge.
It is not China that wants to overturn the ATS. China is successfully bending the ATS to its interests through its de facto veto of consensus-based decision-making.
Rather, it is NGOs, academics and countries that back MPAs that are frustrated by the consensus-based system. But tweaking would inevitably become talks on a whole new agreement, which would mean countries agreeing to give up commercial and strategic interests for the sake of the environment and a peaceful Antarctica. Now is not the best geopolitical moment to ask for that. Many of the strongest provisions of the Antarctic Treaty, such as the right to inspect others’ stations and the prohibition on military uses, would likely be lost.
The bid to increase Antarctic protections may be helped by shifting legal venues. The recently concluded but not widely ratified high seas treaty (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions Treaty, BBNJ) may be another route to declaring Southern Ocean MPAs, with only a two-thirds majority required. Even so, China insisted on including wording in the BBNJ about not undermining existing legal agreements, assumed to be a protection for its South China Sea claims. This wording might help preserve CCAMLR – or lead to another stand-off with arguments over legal definitions, disputed Antarctic claims and the kind of influence-buying that China exercises in UN forums.
By whatever means, it would take high-level political negotiations to change China’s stance on MPAs. It has happened before, with a Ross Sea MPA finally agreed. But there are also practical measures that could prepare the ground, targeting China’s interest in the “blue economy” – the use of oceans for economic growth.
China’s polar organisations fall under the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), which manages natural resources, not environmental issues. MNR works with Chinese provincial governments to rationalise old industries and grow new ones, such as krill processing and sea-based fish farming. Provinces also seek or provide subsidies for shipbuilding and fishing.
But like most subsidies, these policies don’t help the Chinese economy overall. Pro-MPA governments could produce economic analyses that make this clear. Beijing could be influenced by these arguments, as several krill vessels and processing centres have recently been delayed or cancelled on economic grounds.
Stronger moves in the World Trade Organisation against fisheries subsidies would also help, even against so-called “good” subsidies that cover the costs of meeting fisheries agency rules. Because CCAMLR has high requirements, China’s subsidies for krill-taking in southern waters are particularly generous.
And helping China establish alternative industries could limit interest in krill-taking, which drives Beijing’s opposition to the newly proposed MPAs. One example is developing fish food from algae or waste products for domestic use or sale internationally. Australian science could also investigate whether it is possible – and for China, potentially cheaper – to breed krill on land, particularly for nutraceutical krill oil.
Another idea is some form of climate change credits for leaving krill in the Southern Ocean, as krill sequester carbon through their waste and their bodies when they die. China has a poor record when it comes to blue carbon – think of all the greenhouse gases released when South China Sea islands were enlarged by dredging. But if such credits were confined to the Southern Ocean, it could be worth exploring.
Moreover, Chinese businesses are interested in Antarctic tourism. Selected concessions on tourism access and infrastructure could be offered to let China’s tourists directly see the environmental benefits of MPAs. Chinese public interest in Antarctic conservation, though small, is growing.
ATS members could also do more to help developing countries resist the Chinese fishing industry’s illegal practices, mistreatment of contract fishermen and unequal agreements, beyond the Southern Ocean. The industry does respond to international criticism, albeit grudgingly.
The aim in all these areas would be to appeal to interests beyond China’s fishing industry, which currently has a rigid grip on China’s polar policies, and to reduce the fishing industry’s power through international scrutiny.
The more pressure there is on China’s fishing industry, the more likely it is that Beijing might realise that MPAs are not in fact a barrier to an already overextended, expensive fishing industry, but a good – and easy – way to be seen to cooperate on the world stage.