Published daily by the Lowy Institute

China's undeclared foreign policy at the poles

China has gone from being a minor player in the polar regions to becoming a major actor in a little over 10 years.

A Chinese Antarctic exploration team aboard the Icebreaker Xuelong. (Photo: VCG/Getty Images)
A Chinese Antarctic exploration team aboard the Icebreaker Xuelong. (Photo: VCG/Getty Images)
Published 30 May 2017   Follow @Anne_MarieBrady

In November 2014 the Chinese media deliberately mistranslated the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi had just given a speech in Hobart on China's polar agenda, with then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, standing beside him. Using standard political phraseology to describe China’s Antarctic agenda, as reported in English by the Chinese Foreign Ministry* and in Chinese by Xinhua News Service, Xi said 'The Chinese side stands ready to continuously work with Australia and the international community to better understand, protect and exploit the Antarctic' (emphasis added). But the Chinese Communist Party’s official English-language newspaper, China Daily, reported that Xi had expressed China’s continued interest in cooperating with Australia and other nations to 'know, protect and explore Antarctica' (emphasis added). 

To alter the words of China’s senior leader is an extremely serious matter. However, as China Daily editors would know, in materials aimed at foreign audiences China’s polar officials scrupulously avoid mentioning their government’s strong interest in exploiting polar resources, whereas in Chinese-language materials it is continually highlighted as the main reason for China’s investment in polar activities. During Xi’s 2014 visit to Australia there had been intense media attention on the question of China’s interest in Antarctic mineral resources. China’s Daily’s deliberate mistranslation of Xi’s words - which in Chinese political language are simply formulaic - was a means to draw away media attention from the issue.

China’s evolving polar strategy is effectively an undeclared foreign policy and polar policy debates in Chinese language are very different to the materials that are made available to foreign audiences. Qu Tanzhou, Director of the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration, says that the international community needs time to 'make a psychological adjustment' to accept China’s new strength in polar affairs. In the meantime, careful information management is an essential component in achieving this 'adjustment' in global public opinion.

From 22 May 22 - 1 June, China is hosting the annual 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Beijing, with 400 representatives from 42 countries in attendance. A day before the meeting began, China's State Oceanic Administration issued a report entitled 'China's Antarctic Activities'. The report listed many of China's scientific activities in Antarctica, but fell far short of a White Paper outlining China's Antarctic strategy and agenda that many observers have been calling for. At the meeting to release the report Lin Shanqing, Deputy Director of China's State Oceanic Administration, told reporters China had 'no immediate plans to exploit Antarctic resources', an accurate - and very careful - choice of words.

The 40th ATCM is China's debut as an emerging polar great power. In a little over 10 years, China has gone from being a minor player in the polar regions to becoming a major actor. China is now a member of a unique club of nations, the polar states: those few countries who are powerful at the Arctic and the Antarctic. Polar states are the global giants, strong in military, scientific, and economic power.

The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. China has doubled its number of bases in Antarctica and now has four research stations, two field camps, and three air fields there, and it is getting ready to build a fifth base in the Ross Sea region, not far from the USA's McMurdo Station. China has the second largest number of citizens visiting and working in Antarctica. Chinese polar scientists have made significant geographical discoveries and named hundreds of geographical sites. The Chinese Antarctic science programme has fully self-sufficient air, land, and sea capabilities in Antarctica. It has two ice-strengthened vessels operating in Antarctic waters, with a further vessel under construction. China's icebreaker has circumnavigated the continent twice, mapping uncharted Antarctic waters.

Expanding presence in Antarctica is understood by the Chinese government as a means to establish the necessary physical foundations for China’s Antarctic resource rights, Antarctic governance rights, and the future opening up of resources. China wants access to all available rights in Antarctica, what it calls the 'peaceful exploitation' (heping liyong) of Antarctica. China, like Russia, uses the undetermined sovereignty of Antarctica to locate satellite receiving stations for its military.  

China doesn't have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims) but it has steadily extended its presence over a triangle–shaped area in East Antarctica. Three of China's Antarctic bases, three of its air fields, and its two field camps are in this sector; which is within the existing Antarctic territorial claim of Australia. Through its advanced logistics capabilities, China is able to project its power and continually maintain its presence in this zone, something Australia, with its much more limited Antarctic capacity cannot do. China's bases are all in areas of Antarctica that it has identified as strategically important and rich in resources.

China is now proposing to have a massive zone surrounding its Kunlun Base at Dome A designated as an Antarctic Special Managed Area (ASMA). ASMAs are for the purpose of environmental protection, but China’s view is that ASMAs and other environmental management efforts are a form of soft presence for states that want to seize control over territory in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. China is seeking approval for the Dome A ASMA at the Beijing ATCM. China also wants access to a bigger krill fishing quota, and to ensure tourism numbers are not restricted as Chinese tourism is still expanding in Antarctica. This is what Chinese government officials mean when they talk of the "proper balance" between protection and utilisation of Antarctica.

Antarctic geopolitics are shifting rapidly and the clash between those states who promote environmental protection in Antarctica and those who are focused on accessing available resources is becoming more acute. Antarctica has always been a mirror for the changing global balance of power and geopolitical rivalry.

China’s focus on becoming a polar great power represents a fundamental re-orientation; a completely new way of imagining the world. The polar regions, the deep seabed, and outer space are the new strategic territories where China will draw the resources to become a global power. As China’s comprehensive national power grows, the government is taking advantage of every available opportunity in these three zones. Access to these areas’ resources and opportunities is essential for China’s continued growth, prosperity, and political stability. China is stepping into the power vacuum of global leadership since the Trump administration came to power, preparing to shape the new world order and protect international security. A new global order is emerging and China aims to be at the heart of it.

Editor's note: This link added after publication.

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