May 2019

China’s Interests in the Polar Regions

China is a relative latecomer to exploration and participation in the polar regions, but has invested significantly in resources, infrastructure and governance. The Chinese coined the phrase ‘Near-Arctic State’ and, despite China’s most northerly town sitting at 53º 29’ N (roughly parallel with Manchester in the UK), it declares a strong interest in the Arctic. This began in 1925 when China signed the Svalbard Treaty and in recent years they have stepped up their involvement, becoming an observer on the Arctic Council in 2013 and publishing their first white paper on the Arctic in 2018.  

Simultaneously they have taken an interest in Antarctica, signing the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and soon after becoming a Consultative Party. Minister Ma paid tribute to Guo Kun who died last month. Mr Kun was China’s Antarctic pioneer, establishing their first research station - The Great Wall Station - in 1985. Mr Kun subsequently led or participated in seven further expeditions to Antarctica.

Minister Ma acknowledged the criticisms levelled at China regarding its polar activities, its presumed exploitation of resources and impact on the polar environment. In particular, he referenced the recent Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, saying that “some people attacked China’s Arctic policy”. He quoted claims that “China could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence” and said that others had warned against transforming the Arctic “into a new South China Sea”.

Responding to this, as well as views that China’s Antarctic research stations could threaten the viability of other countries’ Antarctic claims, he said that the accusations are “groundless” and
“neither fair, nor responsible”. He expressed hope that this presentation would help create a better understanding of China’s polar policy.

This policy is based around four words: Understanding, Protection, Development and Governance.

Minister Ma explained that China has focussed on Understanding by investing in scientific research, run by the Polar Research Institute of China in Shanghai. They now have four Antarctic research stations and plans to build a fifth on Inexpressible Island. When questioned, the Minister could not comment on whether further Antarctic bases were planned for the future. Turning North, they now have the Yellow River Station in Svalbard and the China-Iceland Arctic Observatory in northern Iceland, inaugurated in 2018.

A growing fleet of vessels and aircraft is in the process of being updated, including the new home-built ice-breaker research ship, Snow Dragon 2, which was launched in 2018. At 122m it claims to be the largest icebreaker research vessel in the world and this “green ship” is equipped with an onboard helicopter and underwater robots.

The Understanding part of their polar policy extends into education, encouraging the study of polar science. The Chinese published 157 SCI papers on Antarctic research in 2016 and are sharing their data bank and ice core samples with international scientific organisations.  

The next key word is Protection, taking into account climate change, environmental and ecological adaptability and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. Minister Ma explained that China has supported and designated several Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) and that the National People’s Congress is in the process of preparing Antarctic legislation. A license is now needed to: collect meteorites, hunt animals or pick plants, establish buildings, enter ASPAs or import alien organisms into Antarctica. When questioned, the Minister could not confirm how this legislation will be enforced at this time.

The third area of interest is Development - by this they mean “stepping up technological innovation, environmental protection, resources exploitation and shipping lane development in the polar regions” with a cooperative approach. The Chinese government is actively encouraging Chinese companies to “leverage their advantages in capital, technology and market, so as to share in the economic and social development benefit of the the polar regions, especially in the Arctic”. While doing so, Minister Ma was careful to emphasise, the Chinese have also taken measures to protect Antarctic krill and signed the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.

A key part of this Development is the proposed Ice Silk Road which aims to capitalise on the disappearing sea ice in the Arctic. Chinese companies are being encouraged to build infrastructure, carry out commercial sea trials, study the hydrological conditions and promote the commercial use of the potential new Arctic shipping lanes.  

Minister Ma said that international law should be applied to resolve disputes over delimitation of the Arctic continental shelf and Arctic shipping routes. He also addressed the Chinese boom in polar tourism, stating that it cannot be totally prohibited but a balance should be struck between tourism development and environmental protection.

Finally, Governance. He underlined China’s commitment to polar governance in accordance with existing laws, citing their cooperation with the UN on polar affairs, and their role as hosts of the

Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in 2017. He was also pleased to emphasise the renewal of China’s observer status at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in May, stating that if China had not been abiding by the rules, this renewal would not have been granted. China has signed an Arctic cooperation agreement with Iceland in the North, and with New Zealand, Australia and Chile in the South. They also founded the Asian Forum for Polar Sciences with Japan and Korea.

Minister Ma said that President Xi Jinping’s five principles of foreign policy - peace, respect, cooperation, win-win, sustainable development - are also applied to the polar regions. He stated that the polar regions, deep sea, cyber space and outer space are all new frontiers belonging to mankind, embodying our shared future. “By actively engaging in polar affairs, China is promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind and advancing global governance,” he added.

Emphasising the importance of the UK-China relationship with regard to the Poles, the Minister referenced the UK’s pioneering role in polar exploration, world-leading academic research and technology. He said there are still opportunities for further cooperation with the UK regarding the protection of flora and fauna, studying the oceans and atmosphere, resource exploitation on the sea bed and the development of Arctic nations.

In his summary, Minister Ma recognised the role that the APPG Polar Regions has played (through hosting this talk) in enhancing understanding of China’s polar policy. He expressed hope that our cooperation on polar affairs would continue to grow during the “China-UK Golden Era”.

Minister Ma opened the floor to questions, and was asked about the Russian military presence in the Arctic, and to what extent China and Russia work together on commercial activity in the Arctic and northern sea routes. He replied that if the ice melt in the Arctic cannot be halted, the Chinese would aim to save time, energy and fuel by using new Arctic sea routes. To aid this, he said the Chinese and Russians are building more icebreaker ships, but they “don’t want the Arctic Sea to become a military wrestling ground, or see an arms race in the region”.

When asked whether China will play a leading role in the Russian development of natural gas, he emphasised that if China is to move away from coal powered energy, it is reliant upon Russia to provide natural gas as a replacement, while it investigates the possibilities for shale fracking in China itself. He said this is mutually beneficial for both countries.

When asked whether Chinese ships would abide by the new Russian regulations to provide 45 days’ notification before entering international waters in the Arctic, he said he thinks Chinese ships will respect the Russian regulations.