The rushed release of the U.S. Navy’s Arctic Strategy this month served up a welcome warning that “China’s growing economic, scientific, and military reach, along with its demonstrated intent to gain access and influence over Arctic States, control key maritime ports and remake the international rules based order” is a threat to all in the Arctic Region. Unfortunately, as the U.S. government rushes to focus on the North Pole, Antarctica, a far greater geo-strategic prize, is being ignored, left to the tender mercies of aggressive Chinese expansionism. China’s long march to the South Pole merits far more attention from America’s strategic tastemakers as good management of this challenge today will do a lot to prevent a far greater crisis a decade or two from now.
China is a relative newcomer to Antarctica, becoming a consultative member of the Antarctic Treaty only in 1985. China was embraced as it entered the Antarctic. Chile, Australia, the United States and other countries helped China, hosting Chinese scientists, providing logistical support, and sharing best practices with the new arrival. The collaborative Antarctic Treaty System got China off to a good, safe start in the unforgiving South. But the once-dutiful newcomer, after benefiting from the collegial support of longstanding Antarctic Treaty System stakeholders, is now busy de-legitimizing the consensus-based Antarctic Treaty in ways great and small. China is thinking ahead, and preparing for 2047, when central aspects of the Antarctic Treaty will open for a potentially catastrophic renegotiation.
Concern for the Antarctic Treaty System is warranted, and even though Antarctica is off America’s diplomatic radar, some in America are “keeping an eye on the People’s Republic of China’s conduct in Antarctica.” In a recent email exchange, outgoing White House National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien urged greater vigilance. He wrote, “as we have seen in Hong Kong, the South China Sea, cyber economic espionage, and in trade, the Chinese Communist Party willfully disregards international agreements when it is convenient to do so.”
China has been stress-testing Antarctic Treaty System norms for years, steadily shifting from an eager-to-please Antarctic contributor to an oft-aggrieved and demanding Antarctic presence.
Base inspection reports, filed the few times other Antarctic stakeholders have gained a brief entry to China’s Antarctic holdings, began identifying China’s disregard for basic Antarctic Treaty environmental requirements years ago. Inspectors noted environmental violations, procedural violations and China’s apparent reluctance to host foreign scientific researchers. But after suffering no consequences for these initial—and relatively forgivable—violations of Antarctic norms, China’s disregard for the Antarctic Treaty has only grown.
More recent violations of the Antarctic Treaty are concerning. Australian observers bluntly state that “China has conducted undeclared military activities in Antarctica, is building up the case for a territorial claim and is engaging in minerals exploration,” all activities that are expressly forbidden by the Antarctic Treaty. Continuous failure of Antarctic stakeholders to promptly and loudly identify, highlight and then sanction China’s bad behavior—or to attempt to address other Chinese violations of international law through easy-to-impose Antarctic sanctions—has only led to ever greater, ever bigger, and increasingly flagrant Chinese violations of Antarctic protocol.
As China’s Antarctic violations grow bolder, China has also made it tougher for Antarctic stakeholders to differentiate between China’s scientific and military endeavors. O’Brien cautioned that as China’s “military-civil fusion strategy” has become the norm, the Chinese Communist Party “often operates opaquely, manipulating ostensibly civilian scientific, academic and commercial agreements to advance its military goals.” As China deployed radars, satellite tracking, telemetry and command stations at China’s Antarctic holdings, Treaty stakeholders have done nothing as Chinese commentators openly discuss the military utility of deploying such dual use tools in a continent China is obligated to keep weapons-free.
China wants to move faster than the Antarctic Treaty System allows. In 2018, China started building a fifth Antarctic “research” station before even bothering to submit a draft of the new station’s Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation. The new base is under construction and expected to open in 2022, yet China has refused to complete a Comprehensive Environmental Evaluation that is, supposedly, required before a national entity embarks upon new Antarctic developments.
While Australia is beginning the decades-long process of seeking approvals and building a permanent cement runway near the country’s 73-year old Davis Station, China is, in an unprecedented step, demanding Chinese sovereignty—basically the equivalent of an Air Defense Identification Zone—in an almost 20,000 square kilometer “Antarctic Specially Managed Area” around China’s tiny Kunlun Station, effectively imposing a 340-kilometer barrier for flights between the American-administered Amundsen-Scott South Pole station and Australia’s proposed future airfield at Davis Station.
China’s proposal for an Antarctic equivalent of an Air Defense Identification Zone is unjustified. Kunlun is currently a seasonal “research” camp, subjected to such intense environmental extremes it can only be manned for two months at a time by up to 24 people. But Kunlun is located on “Dome A,” one of the most scientifically—and militarily—useful sites in the Antarctic ice sheet. If China unilaterally forces the proposed Kunlun “Code of Conduct” on Treaty members without push-back, China will have successfully imposed severe scientific and transit restrictions upon the entire international community, effectively seizing ownership of a future key Antarctic air transit route and grabbing the only place in the world where terrestrial observers can enjoy an unblemished window into space without needing a satellite.
In the Antarctic, the only other “Specially Managed Area” for a base covers the big Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station—a station that was established back in 1956 and has been under continuous operation since. The base, which operates year-round and hosts about 200 staff members in the Summer, dwarfs China’s part-time 20-24-person Kunlun camp at “Dome A,” and yet, Amundsen-Scott’s scientific endeavors and space observatories manage with a far less restrictive code of conduct.
At sea, China is already busy salami-slicing away what little order Antarctica’s consensus-driven governance can offer, with Chinese diplomats recently enticing Russia to help sink proposals for new marine protection areas in Antarctic seas. China’s obstructionism is convenient; it comes just as China prepares to send a grey-zone, paramilitary fleet of enormous, ice-hardened government-subsidized krill harvesters into the Antarctic.
What To Do?
China has long operated with impunity in under-regulated geopolitical environments, and has suffered few consequences from exploiting—or even claiming—unmanaged territory. A diplomatically savvy, expansion-minded China is tough to resist. But Chinese hegemony over Antarctica is not inevitable. Antarctic stakeholders can resist Chinese aggression and obstruction, and plenty of tools are available right now to rebuff China’s aggressive tactics.
Simple base inspections, for example, offer a perfectly viable means to compel Antarctic stakeholders to operate within the norms of the Antarctic Treaty System. If funded and appropriately resourced, base inspections can occur far more often. Problematic intelligence on certain base activities can be shared, and troubling inspection results can be publicly denounced and more widely disseminated than they are today. Antarctic Treaty members are allowed to offer interested partners deep technical training on how to appropriately conduct challenge inspections and can be given tools needed to leverage other mechanisms ensuring lawful order in the South. Creative steps towards enforcing illegal and unregulated fishing in the Antarctic, or in providing logistical support to physically challenge unmerited and territory-grabbing “codes of conduct” are all viable options for those interested in maintaining rules-based order in Antarctica.
To encourage more equitable positioning in the Antarctic for long-term Antarctic stakeholders, like-minded partners can do far more to ensure every Chinese violation of Antarctic norms is met with some measurable diplomatic, economic—or even military—consequence. China’s nest of bilateral agreements for logistical support or other Polar-associated projects outside the Antarctic Treaty offer ideal pressure points if China continues to violate Antarctic or other international norms.
It is important to explore the use of Antarctica to open the aperture for restraining China’s efforts to redefine international norms in other places. If Antarctica is a important for China is it appears, then the prospect of imposing real Antarctic consequences upon China for defying international norms outside of the Antarctic region may well be a fruitful endeavor. At the U.S. State Department, a dedicated Polar Ambassador, enjoying support from an active, multi-agency staff, would be a worthy addition. With an empowered, strategic leader and a database of China’s nest of obscure bilateral and private-sector agreements within easy reach, America can help like-minded participants in the Antarctic Treaty System quickly craft unified responses to China’s Antarctic obstructionism.
Time is short. Unless creative and collaborative initiatives are quickly put into place to restrain those countries that refuse to comply with international agreements in Antarctica, China’s dominance in the South Pole will be inevitable. China is on a long march south. In aggregate, China’s illegal appropriation of the South China Sea, coupled with China’s efforts to suborn Southeast Asia and China’s strangely disproportionate attack on Australian sovereignty suggest that China has a long-term goal of clearing a secure trade route to the open and resource-rich Antarctic continent.
With an entire continent up for grabs, the stakes are enormous. And as China races to meet a 2048 deadline to deploy a “world-class” military, the threat cannot be more clear. Aspiring to field the world’s best military force a year after a key portion of the Antarctic Treaty System will be opened for renegotiations—negotiations that may well destroy the entire Antarctic Treaty—is a pretty blunt indicator of China’s long-term intentions for the South Pole.
Be warned. If long-standing Antarctic Treaty stakeholders refuse to enforce Antarctic Treaty norms now, Antarctica will be little more than a resource-rich continent for the mighty to seize.