The Scramble for Antarctica

Over the past two decades China’s annual Antarctic spending has tripled to $55m, three times its Arctic investment… The Southern Ocean is full of fish. A large petroleum field was recently discovered in West Antarctica. The continent also has deposits of coal and other valuable minerals. The Protocol on Environmental Protection, a document signed in Madrid in 1991 by countries involved in Antarctica, has imposed a mining ban until 2048, when it is to be reviewed.

China acceded in 1983 to the Antarctic Treaty, which maintains the continent as a demilitarised science preserve and forms the basis of a system of governance. The goal of its current five-year polar plan, says Chen Lianzeng of China’s State Oceanic Administration, is to increase the country’s status and influence. On November 7th China’s 30th Antarctic expedition, complete with construction crew, set sail from Shanghai. It will scout a site for China’s fifth station, in Terra Nova Bay. Its fourth base, Taishan, is still unfinished.

Sovereignty in Antarctica is disputed. States assert themselves by building bases. “You put a huge flag on a flagpole close to the research station,” says Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at the University of London. “It is not very subtle.” If China builds all five planned stations it will have more than either Britain or Australia, and only one fewer than America.

Science matters, too. It gives cachet and influence in matters of joint governance. In 2008 China built Kunlun station, a base with capabilities for deep-space research in a place so remote that it took six attempts to get there. The ice underneath could help scientists work out the climatic record of the past 1.5m years, which would be a scientific coup.But the influx of new Antarctic actors has rattled the old establishment and its former scientific hegemony. “China is saying, ‘We don’t give a damn about Shackleton, Scott, all these white European heroes. You can keep that. What we’re interested in is the future,” says Mr Dodds. The Chinese have raised even more concerns by giving Chinese names to more than 350 places, including Great Wall Bay.  Chinese scholars call the Antarctic Treaty a “rich man’s club”, in which China has only second-class citizenship—with some justification, says Ms Brady, since the choicest spots for research stations were snapped up by the first countries to arrive. Publicly, though, China buries its grumbles and complies with protocol. An inspection regime installed by the treaty is ineffectual, and there is little check on states’ affairs.

Meanwhile, the exploitation of Antarctic resources may come sooner than predicted. At a recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, delegates from 24 countries failed to agree on proposals for two marine protected areas. Plans for the reserves have been discussed for decades, but consensus was required and China, Russia and Ukraine withdrew their support. If Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are to remain some of the planet’s last unspoilt wilderness, an updated framework is needed, and quickly.

Antarctic research: They may be some time, Economist, Nov. 16, 2013, at 50

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