News / Asia

Chinese Polar Ambitions Rise with Global Temperatures

A combination of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) images show September Arctic sea ice in 1979, the first year these data were available, and 2009 in this image from a report released in 2010
A combination of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) images show September Arctic sea ice in 1979, the first year these data were available, and 2009 in this image from a report released in 2010
Ivan Broadhead

China has been active in Antarctic exploration and scientific research since 1984, but only recently signaled its intent to become a hands-on player in Arctic affairs. As Beijing implements an unusually ambitious shift toward the poles, its goals and motivations are drawing scrutiny.

Antarctica’s pristine environment is currently protected by the Madrid Protocol, a 1991 pact negotiated by then-Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his French counterpart.

The pioneering international agreement bans the exploitation of the southern polar region’s natural resources including coal, metals, and oil fields potentially as large as Saudi Arabia’s.

Marking the protocol’s 20th anniversary, former prime minister Hawke says he hopes its terms will be upheld beyond the agreement’s expiration, in 2048.

“It’s very important, fundamentally because Antarctica remains the only environment left in the world where scientific research can go on unimpeded by any form of pollution," said Hawke.

But, in this era of energy insecurity and improved extraction technologies, the moratorium on the exploitation of Antarctica’s natural resources looks increasingly susceptible to challenge.

Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at Christchurch University, is pessimistic that the ban on mineral exploitation in Antarctica will survive beyond 2048.

“The global economy is so dominated by the need for oil. Unless there was a major shift in how people live their lives, particularly in developing countries, I think we’re just going to go on and on trying to find new locations to exploit oil," said Brady.

A floating oil platform is tugged from harbor in Russia's northern port of Murmansk August 18, 2011. The Gazprom platform was to embark on from Murmansk port, launching an Arctic oil exploration effort
A floating oil platform is tugged from harbor in Russia's northern port of Murmansk August 18, 2011. The Gazprom platform was to embark on from Murmansk port, launching an Arctic oil exploration effort

Several nations are already believed to have undertaken feasibility studies for oil extraction in Antarctica. Concerns about China’s intentions grew last year when the land and resources minister, Xu Shaoshi, visited his country’s Zhongshan Antarctic base.

Rebecca Lee of the Hong Kong Polar Museum Foundation says China’s polar interests are more about national prestige and scientific research, not territorial gain or mineral wealth.

“Weather change can impact our life, our future, our agriculture, our economy. So we need to understand; not [take], not occupy,” Lee said.

But while China appears content to preserve the status quo in Antarctica, it has had only mixed success reassuring skeptics about its plans in the Arctic.

Beijing’s effort to achieve permanent observer status on the Arctic Council - a governing forum constituted by the eight Arctic states including the United States, Canada, Russia and Scandinavian countries - has twice been rejected.

Anne-Marie Brady says that Beijing is signaling it has legitimate interests in the northern polar region. She believes this represents a move away from China’s usual non-confrontational approach to international relations.

“In the Arctic, they want to have a leadership role in future decision making. And, this is actually a big shift in Chinese foreign policy. With this, they’ve actually stuck their oar in,” Brady added.

China’s interest in the northern polar region partly derives from the changes global warming could have on northern sea routes. As Arctic ice melts, sea lanes in the previously un-navigable Northwest and Northeast passages could potentially be ice-free within a decade.

The Russian research vessel the Akademik Fyodorov with miniature submarines on board sails in the Arctic Ocean in this Reuters Television image (File)
The Russian research vessel the Akademik Fyodorov with miniature submarines on board sails in the Arctic Ocean in this Reuters Television image (File)

The potential to sail these new routes, controlled by Canada, Russia and the U.S., is both an economic and security issue for China.

Its merchant shipping fleet, delivering exports from Shanghai and Hong Kong to markets in Europe and North America, could cut 6,500 kilometers off voyages usually undertaken via the Suez Canal. The pirate-infested Gulf of Aden would be avoided altogether.

Cheng Baozhi, an assistant research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, argues that non-Arctic states cannot be users of Arctic shipping routes without having a role in the region’s decision-making processes.

“Cooperation is the trend. [But] military conflict, we cannot say it is impossible. Although they have no direct territorial link, the Arctic has [an] impact for the social and economic development [of] states in the Northern Hemisphere: China, Japan, Korea,” said Cheng.

The melting ice raises worries that Chinese interests are moving to invest in, and extract, the Arctic’s considerable natural resources.

A man cycles through the Norwegian Arctic settlement of Ny Alesund as the first snows of winter arrive (File)
A man cycles through the Norwegian Arctic settlement of Ny Alesund as the first snows of winter arrive (File)

Beijing’s relations with Norway highlight the importance China attaches to such strategic procurement. Disgruntled at Norway for awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, Beijing has frozen political and trade ties with Oslo for a year.

Yet it has ensured this freeze does not extend to preventing state-owned enterprises from investing in Norwegian-based energy concerns like silicone and solar panel producer, Orkla.

In Iceland, Chinese tycoon and reputed former propaganda minister Huang Nubo continues to worry locals with his bid to buy 300 square kilometers of farmland. He says he plans to build a resort on the plot of land, which comprises just under half a percent of the country’ total landmass.

Birgir Armannsson, a member of Iceland’s parliament, observes that, although Reykjavik enjoys good relations with China and there are no reasons to doubt Huang’s integrity, he is nonetheless a polarizing figure.

“In times of [financial] crisis, there are all kinds of buccaneers," said Armannsson. "I ask myself, why is this person so interested in buying a lot of not so good farming land ... There are possibilities for hydropower, possibly geothermal power, but we don’t have the whole picture.”

China’s efforts to expand its presence in the Arctic comes as other countries, including the United States, struggle to fund expeditions and infrastructure in the costly polar environment.

Both U.S. polar icebreakers have been out of service for some time, forcing researchers to lease vessels from other countries for the annual mission to resupply the McMurdo research station in Antarctica.

Meanwhile China plans to increase its polar activities aided by a new icebreaker expected in 2013. The sister ship to the Snow Dragon will give Beijing the capacity to permanently deploy a vessel in Arctic waters.

You May Like

In China, Mixed Signals on Ebola Controls

How authorities are monitoring at-risk individuals remains unclear, including whether there are quarantines for Chinese health workers returning from West Africa More

Video Women Voters Anxious Ahead of US Elections

Analysts say if women are focused on national security, it could be bad news for Democrats More

Solar's Future Looks Brighter

New technology and dropping prices are contributing to a surge in solar power More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Women Voters Anxious Ahead of US Electionsi
X
October 31, 2014 4:10 AM
Public opinion polls show American voters are deeply dissatisfied with their government and anxious about threats from abroad. This is especially true for a key voting group both Republicans and Democrats are trying hard to win over: women. Analysts say if women are focused on national security, it could be bad news for Democrats, with majority control of the Senate at stake. VOA’s Cindy Saine looks at the crucial role women voters will play in deciding the elections.
Video

Video Women Voters Anxious Ahead of US Elections

Public opinion polls show American voters are deeply dissatisfied with their government and anxious about threats from abroad. This is especially true for a key voting group both Republicans and Democrats are trying hard to win over: women. Analysts say if women are focused on national security, it could be bad news for Democrats, with majority control of the Senate at stake. VOA’s Cindy Saine looks at the crucial role women voters will play in deciding the elections.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.

All About America

AppleAndroid