Book review: China as a Polar Great Power – as polar sea lanes open up, what are China’s plans?
Access to polar regions improves with global warming, and China has announced its intentions to be a polar power. Anne-Marie Brady looks at the implications of its activities in Antarctica and the Arctic
China as a Polar Great Power
by Anne-Marie Brady
Cambridge University Press
Climate change is normally seen as global threat, yet melting ice in the Arctic and Antarctic regions for better or worse opens new passageways for shipping and access to tremendous natural resources. It is not just those who border these regions that are taking notice – China has announced to the world that it too will be a polar power.
As the closest thing there is to a blank slate in geopolitics, China’s polar activities are also closely examined for what they might reveal about the future of global governance. In her new book, Anne-Marie Brady, professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, looks at China’s growing involvement in the poles, and guides readers through the principles of polar governance, the region’s strategic attractions, how China is positioning itself to take advantage, and what it means for the rest of the world.
Both poles offer huge advantages to the countries able to access them. As reduced ice cover offers a less dangerous sea route through the Arctic, China could be poised to save hundreds of billions in shipping costs to Europe and diversify its dependence from the strategically vulnerable Strait of Malacca. Militarily, if an ice-capable Chinese nuclear sub were one day positioned in the Arctic, its proximity would compromise America and Russia’s strategic deterrent.
But for a resource-hungry China, it is the promise of vast resources that most animates its efforts. Chinese scientists have described Antarctica as a “black treasure house” of coal, oil and other mineral reserves. The regions are also founts of fish and freshwater resources. As a Chinese military spokesman once asked: “China’s population accounts for one-fifth of the world’s population, so why shouldn’t we get a fifth of the interests in the Antarctic and Arctic?”
Positioning the poles as a common resource allows China to sidestep the fact that it is, geographically, far from a polar nation. To realise its polar ambitions, China must navigate governance arrangements specific to the poles as well as more general ones governing seas and the environment. The most prominent governing body is the Arctic Council, comprised of eight permanent members and 11 non-Arctic observers to which China was permitted to join in 2007.
In the Arctic, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea also has significant influence. In Antarctica, the cold war-era treaty governing the continent sidesteps sovereignty claims that existed at the time of signing, but prohibits other countries such as China from establishing new ones.
Given its emphasis on resources, China’s greatest concern is any effort to designate areas as off reach. In the Antarctic, bans on mineral exploitation will likely not be renegotiated until 2048, when the whole agreement can be revisited. Until then, “science is the currency of Antarctic” politics, Brady writes, and China is investing massively and collaborating widely.
In 2005 China’s top polar scientist expressed his hope that his country would be a “polar great power”. By 2014, when Xi Jinping affirmed that phrase for the first time, China’s polar investments had experienced a “great leap” but still trailed most nations involved. China now has four Antarctic bases built with an additional one planned, three Arctic research stations, a powerful ice-breaker with a second soon to be deployed, and an Antarctic-capable plane.
Brady estimates that China is likely spending US$30 million in annual operating costs for expeditions at both poles, up from an average of US$5 million per year as late as 2003. Scientific research likely commands another US$30 million per year, still a fraction of the US$129 million the US National Science Foundation spent.
Despite these efforts, Chinese polar science output remains “quite weak” in Brady’s assessment. But that is secondary to the fact that each new base gives China effective control over vast amounts of territory. And while Antarctica is not militarised, the American and Chinese militaries both have strong presences for logistical purposes.
China’s domestic propaganda apparatus is also working on the polar question. It draws on the same mix of historicism and national pride that it applies elsewhere. Questions about Antarctica’s mineral resources appear on high school geography tests. The government plays up its nationalist predecessor’s signing of a 1925 treaty guaranteeing China an economic interest in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. Documentaries and other television programmes play up China’s interests and are acutely sensitive to any sign the country is being excluded from its fair share.
The most telling detail in this book may appear on its cover: a map produced by a Chinese geophysicist and adopted for official use by the military in 2006. In it, the poles are positioned such that they are no longer the extremes of the Earth. Instead, America is, and China is at the centre of the world.
China’s call for an open Arctic can at times seem at odds with the position it takes regarding the South China Sea. Brady cites an internal government report in which China declares it respects Arctic nations’ claims and sees no contradiction with its own in the South China Sea. Brady does not further elaborate on the issue, but China’s sensitivity to the appearance of a contradiction may affect how it engages with the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea.
Brady’s academic style is well suited for a topic that is easily subject to dramatisation. She shines at reading through the lines of China’s words and actions – especially the disconnects between how China talks about the poles domestically and when in front of foreign audiences.
Brady believes that China’s actions at the poles demonstrate that it is unlikely to directly oppose existing international norms, but will not hesitate to go around or ignore those that don’t suit its interests. It is when new norms are being formed that she expects China to most press its influence.
She defaults to the stock recommendation that countries continue to engage with China. If “Chinese ambitions are successful, the inevitable outcome is a Sino-centric world that will make China the core node in a new globalised economic order,” Brady writes.
China’s growing assertiveness in its region often colours how its increased activity elsewhere is perceived. While China is sensitive to international regimes that it believes unduly privilege legacy powers or constitute improper interference in its domestic affairs, it doesn’t assert much in the way of sweeping global strategic interests.
Instead, its interest in the world beyond its region remains primarily exercised through the prism of its economy and its needs for stability. China, for now, isn’t asserting itself as a global power so much as it is defending the reality of the global presence an economy of its size demands. Brady shows that reality is as true in the poles as it is on every other continent.
Asian Review of Books