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

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

1 Billion People Used Facebook on Single Day

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the accomplishment in a posting on the social media site 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs