China's polar ambitions cause anxiety

It's set to expand presence in Antarctica and the Arctic in positioning itself as a polar power

Chinese tourists going abroad must be used to it by now - the lists of dos and don'ts to prevent them from tarnishing their country's image.

"Do not spit phlegm or gum" and "don't take a long time using public toilets" are just two of the exhortations in a 2013 pamphlet from the National Tourism Administration.

But the latest set of regulations is different, with rules against collecting soil, rocks and animals, carrying toxic objects and leaving behind solid waste. They are meant to protect Antarctica's environment and promote sustainable development of China's activities in the region, said the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration.

The rules - released by the State Oceanic Administration earlier this month - include a ban on violators from the area for three years.

They come at a time when the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica and the Arctic has spiked. Antarctica attracted 5,289 Chinese visitors last year - making up 12 per cent of visitors - overtaking Australians as the second-largest group of travellers there.

Up in the Arctic, Chinese tourists going to the Russian Arctic National Park and the Finnish Lapland have risen as well.

The regulations also come amid closer scrutiny of China's expanding polar activities.

Tourists are the most visible signs of the growing Chinese presence in the polar regions, which now feature mainly scientific research activities, but will increasingly include economic activities.

This is occurring as global warming causes ice melt in the polar regions, leading to possibilities in shipping and the exploitation of natural resources there.

This increasing Chinese presence in the poles has drawn mixed responses from other parties, whether those with direct stakes like the Arctic states and claimant states to Antarctica, or those with no direct claims but which want a piece of the action.

China is set to expand its activities as it positions itself as a polar power, in line with its foreign policy to be a global presence. As early as 2014, then director of the State Oceanic Administration Liu Cigui wrote: "Today, we are already standing at the starting point of a brand-new historical era, of striding towards becoming a polar-region power."

Its 13th five-year development plan of 2016-2020 includes a major programme to explore the polar regions. China's polar ambitions are a function of its rise, said Dr Liu Nengye of Adelaide University.

"China is now able to reach remote parts of the world, be it the Arctic, Antarctica, deep seabed or outer space," he said in an e-mail interview. He added that economic interests are key, but there are geopolitical reasons as well.

The rest of the world, particularly nations that have been driving polar policies, "may be worried that they will no longer play leading roles in the international decision-making process or at least (are) not as comfortable as they used to be", he added.


A key foreign relations moment for China this year was the publication of its first White Paper on its Arctic policy last month. Dr Liu said it was well crafted, adding: "It clearly explains China's objectives in the Arctic and reaffirms China's full support of the existing Arctic international legal regime."

The sovereignty of the Arctic states - those that ring the Arctic Circle like Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States - is also respected, he noted.

China positions itself as an important stakeholder as a "near-Arctic state" whose climate and environment are affected by changes there.

While scientific and environmental research is talked about in the policy paper, economic activities also figure strongly. China wants to take part in the development of Arctic shipping routes.

It wants to develop a Polar Silk Road to link with its Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure along land and sea routes that link China to Africa and Europe.

Beijing is keen on the Polar Silk Road because it not only cuts by about a third the travel time from China to Europe, compared with the route via the South China Sea and Indian Ocean now, but also runs through an area free of pirates.

It also wants to take part in the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mineral resources, utilise fisheries and other living resources and develop tourism in the Arctic.

In addition, it wants to take part in shaping its governance.

Response to the White Paper has been mixed among Arctic states.

Canadian analysts worry about its ambiguity on Canadian jurisdiction over the North-west Passage that runs through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. While the White Paper acknowledges the sovereignty of Arctic states, it also says international law needs to be observed.

"We don't know how China places the hierarchy between Arctic states and international law," Universite Laval professor Frederic Lasserre told CBC News.

He found the ambiguity over what China wants to do in the Arctic "a bit troubling".

But the Russians have welcomed China's engagement in the Arctic. China National Petroleum Corporation has a 20 per cent stake in the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, and the two nations are looking to cooperate on developing rail and port facilities at Arkhangelsk city near the Arctic Circle.

China has also cooperated with Nordic state, including Iceland, on scientific research. What worries the West is that China and Russia appear to be stepping up military cooperation, having held naval drills in the Baltic Sea last year.

Chinese naval vessels have also at times operated close to the Arctic waters, noted Dr Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand.

However, he added: "There is little sign that Beijing has any interest in sending military vessels to the Arctic on a regular basis, especially since doing so would likely prompt a strong reaction from both Russia and the United States."


In Antarctica, China's activities are also coming under greater scrutiny.

China runs four research stations there and is building a fifth that is expected to be completed in 2022.

Antarctica is not governed by any one country but by the Antarctica Treaty signed in 1959. China is one of 29 consultative nations of the treaty that govern the territory.

One of the treaty's objectives is to keep Antarctica demilitarised and nuclear-free, and ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only.

China published a White Paper on its Antarctic activities last May that focused heavily on its scientific concerns and interest in cooperating with other states on projects related to the environment and climate, noted Dr Lanteigne.

However, a report published last August by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said China "has conducted undeclared military activities in Antarctica, is building a territorial claim, and is engaging in military exploration there".

It also said China is looking for resources, including minerals, hydrocarbons and fish.

All territorial claims have been suspended since the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961, while the Madrid Protocol forbids any activity related to mineral resources other than for scientific research. This protocol is up for review in 2048.

The report said that for the Chinese, the protocol simply postpones what they believe is the inevitable opening up of Antarctic resources. It suggests that China should be encouraged to issue an official Antarctic strategy.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University in New Zealand, who wrote the report, said in an e-mail: "China needs to clearly signal its intentions and strategic interests in the Antarctic, as other Antarctic states have done before them."

As a consultative nation, China is entitled to help shape the evolution of Antarctic governance, she added.

As a non-Arctic state and non-claimant to Antarctica, China is seeking to walk a fine line between avoiding being seen as a "gatecrasher" and not being marginalised, said Dr Lanteigne.

Dr Liu thinks that China's interest in the polar regions differs from its areas of core interests such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. Thus "Chinese diplomacy in the polar regions can be collaborative and cooperative, rather than provocative and challenging", he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline China's polar ambitions cause anxiety. Subscribe