While being under the increasing pressure of climate change, the Antarctic is attracting the strategic attention of China. Since 1983, China is a member of the 1959 international Antarctic treaty. This international treaty defines Antarctica as a scientific preserve and bans all military activity on the continent (The Antarctic Treaty). The only extractive activities are conducted for scientific purpose. More than 13 countries are represented on the continent by scientific bases. The treaty will be re-negotiated in 2048. This deadline is already creating new international tensions.
However, in the Antarctic, it appears that China’s activities are ramping up, both on the continent and on the ocean (Craig Hooper, “New polar Strategy Must Focus On China’s Long March to Antarctica”, Forbes, 2021/01/10).
This growing activity takes place on a continent completely covered by ice and a glacial ocean that climate change alters quickly (Julie Brigham-Grette, Andrea Dutton, “Antarctica is Headed for a Climate Tipping Point by 2060, with Catastrophic Melting if Emissions Aren’t Cut Quickly”, The Conversation, 17 May 2021).
In the meantime, the Chinese mineral and biological needs keep on growing. As a result, it is now time to understand Beijing’s strategic design for the Antarctic. Could we be witnessing something similar to China’s strategy in the Arctic region (Jean-Michel Valantin, (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Towards a US-China War? (1) and (2): Military Tensions in the Arctic”, The Red Team Analysis Society, September 16, 2019)?
Identifying China’s increasing presence in the Antarctic
Installing the Go board
Factually, from 1985 to present days, China’s presence in Antarctica has been quite small. For example, there are only four small Chinese bases, which, together, can accommodate only 180 workers. Comparatively, there are 22 U.S. Antarctic bases that host 1400 workers all year long, and 450 workers and researchers in Chile’s 11 bases (Craig Hooper, “With New Gear and Bases, China is Beginning to Make a Play for Dominance in the Arctic”, Forbes, 2020/12/23).
However, since 2014, there has been a significant increase of the Chinese activities on the continent and on the Antarctic Ocean.
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China is ramping up its presence, through the construction of a fifth base that may open in 2022. It also builds a permanent runway, that will establish a direct line between the new base and China’s mainland. An extension of the Great Wall base is under way, while a Chinese company is building a runway close to the Zongshan station, both being part of the first Chinese bases. Since 2010, the Chinese authorities are installing satellite communication and telemetry devices in their different Antarctica holdings (Craig Hooper, “With new Gear…”, ibid).
Meanwhile, the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong supplies the Zongshan station. Since 2013, the Xuelong (“Snow Dragon”) has also done numerous arctic tours. Furthermore, since 2019 another icebreaker, the Xuelong 2, has started navigating in both the Arctic and the Antarctic (“MV Xue Long 2”, Wikipedia).
In 2020, Beijing also demanded Chinese sovereignty on a 20.000 square kilometres area around the Kunlun area. This is tantamount to creating an air and space sovereignty zone. This zone would create a territorial discontinuity between the American Amundsen base and the future Australian Davis base (Craig Hooper, “New polar Strategy…”, ibid).
In the same dynamic, since 2015, the Jiangsu Shen Lan Distant Water Fishing Company has been building two modern giant krill fishing vessels. The first one, the Shen Lan, was launched in May 2020. This vessel, and its forthcoming twin, and the four other already existing Chinese krill fishing ships turn China into a massive krill harvesting power (Mark Godfrey, “Glitzy New Vessel Leads Chinese Foray into Antarctic Krill Fisheries”, SeaFoodSource, 19 June 2020).
Krill is a microscopic crustacean that lives in very large schools. One cube meter of seawater may contain up to 20.000 individuals. Krill is the very basis of the whole halieutique, mammal and avian life in the Antarctic. Under the Antarctic treaty, it is possible to harvest only a total 620.000 metric tons of krill a year (Godfrey, ibid).
There is a rapidly growing Chinese demand for krill meat and oil, because of its sanitary qualities. And on top of the Shen Lan 1 and 2, two or three more Chinese krill fishing ships are currently built up or drawn. This means that the Total Allowable Catch limit for China will be under growing pressure. And this pressure may very well increase as 2048, the time-limit of the current Antarctic Treaty draws near.
Satellites for the Antarctic
On the ground, China installs its Beidou system in Antarctica. Beidou, the Chinese GPS, is a space-based dual, i.e civil-military, technology system for air, space and maritime navigation. So it is also able to monitor and support air and space weapons systems. In 2010, Beijing has installed a Beidou system, in the Great Wall and Zongshan stations and, in 2013, in the remote Dome A Kunlun station (Peter Wood, Alex Stone, Taylor E. Lee, “China’s Space Ground Segment, building the Pillars of a Great Space Power”, Blue Path Labs Report for the China Aerospace Studies Institute, U.S Air University, March 1, 2021).
Beidou will also be an integral part of the equipment of the 2022 China’s fifth station. (Anne-Mary Brady, “China, Russia Push GPS Rival in Antarctica”, The Australian, September 6, 2018).
Australia air observation have also antennae systems at the Taishan station (Jackson Gothe-Snape “China Unchecked in Antarctica”, ABC News, 12 April 2019). According to Eric Chol, those antennas may be infrared devices used to track satellites launching (Eric Chol, Il est Midi à Pékin, 2019).
High ground: strategy, strategies
It is interesting to note that the different ways China installs itself in Antarctica are close reminders of its Arctic, seafood access and space strategies.
Indeed, as in the Arctic, the Chinese navy learns to use its Xuelong and Xuelong 2 icebreakers ships in the Antarctic Ocean. The navigating difficulties met by the Xuelong in 2014 are nothing but steps on the learning curve of its crew. This navigating experience will be important to ensure a regular, or permanent, link between the stations and mainland China (“Antarctic Rescue : Chinese icebreaker Xue Long “stuck in ice””, BBC News, January 4, 2014).
Convergence with the Belt & Road initiative
The installation of Beidou systems are congruent with the Arctic, space, and Belt and Road strategies (Toru Tsunashima, “Chinese Beidou eclipses American GPS”, Nikkei Asia, November 25, 2020). Indeed, the Beidou systems stations are systematically installed in the Belt and Road member states. It is also true in Sweden and in Norway, even though they are not official members of the Belt& Road initiative (B&R) (Wood, Stone and Taylor, ibid).
However, those two countries are at the European end of the Russian Northern Sea route, which extends from the Bering strait to the Atlantic from the Barents Sea and the Norway coasts. Thus, installing Beidou systems is quite helpful for the growing number of Chinese ships that use the Northern Sea route / “polar silk road”.
The warming effects of climate change on the Arctic Ocean are the basic condition for the opening of this route. Also, as Chinese cargo ships use this route increasingly frequently, Beijing turns it into the “Polar silk road”, meaning the arctic segment of the B&R (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Is the West Losing the Warming Arctic?”, The Red Team Analysis Society, December 7, 2020).
Food security from the Cold
One must also note that the drivers of Beijing’s Antarctic interest appear as being the same as for other areas, i.e. accessing resources, reinforcing food security and increasing geographic influence. For example, China’s food security strategy reveals itself with its (over) fishing capabilities and dimension (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Chinese Fishing Fleet, Influence and Hunger Wars”, The Red Team Analysis Society, April 20, 2021). The new krill fishing vessel and its coming twin are part of the humongous Chinese distant water fishing ships fleet.
The purpose of this fleet is to position its “squads” of ships in a dominant position. Doing so, they can exploit ocean biological resources. And they do so from the South China Sea to the Guinea Gulf and Bolivia economic exclusive zone (Valantin, ibid).
As it appears, Beijing is also becoming increasingly active, alongside Russia, in contesting and blocking addenda to the Antarctic treaty. For example, for the five past years, both countries have systematically refused to validate the creation of three marine protection zones. Thus, de facto, the concerned areas remain potentially open to fishing exploitation (Alvaro Etchegaray, “The Growing Cloud of China in Antarctica”, SupChina, November 3, 2020).
So, in the Antarctic, the Shen Lan ship starts its activities while Chinese companies declare their intent to fish two to three million tons of krill a year. That is to say a much larger total than allowed by the Antarctic treaty (Mark Godfrey, ibid).
So, the ways and means of the increasing presence of China in the Antarctic could thus be an extension and a transposition of the different other segments of the “Middle Kingdom” great strategy.
Projection of the “Chinese Need in the Antarctic
Thus, Beijing is increasing its land and ocean Antarctic presence. In the same dynamic, it puts under pressure the norms that define the international status of the South pole continent (Alexander B. Gray, “China’s Next Geopolitical Goal: Dominate Antarctica”, The National Interest, 20 March 2021). And this happens for the same reasons as elsewhere. The Chinese government and companies have to find resources to satisfy the immense needs that drive China’s growth.
Building bases, developing ultra-modern ground for space infrastructures, and increasing maritime capabilities necessitate an incentive of a unique magnitude. This incentive is the Chinese “power of need”. We mean by this the enormous need that drives the economic and material development of the 1,4 billion people strong “Middle Kingdom”.
In the 1980s, an emergent Chinese middle class of 300 million people started discovering consumerism. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of other Chinese people escaped from the clutches of poverty and hunger (Jean-Michel Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road, from Oil Wells to the Moon… and Beyond”, The Red Team Analysis Society, July 6, 2015).
So, the Chinese “power of need” is the immense and permanent need for different kinds of resources and products. Those are necessary to answer the basic and developing needs of a giant country going through a triple cycle of economic growth, consumerism, and very rapid urbanisation (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, 2011).
Taking the high ground on a warming planet
As in the Arctic, this reinforcement of China’s presence in the Antarctic happens in the context of the global competition for mineral, energetic and biological resources on a warming planet. Indeed, the warming Arctic and Antarctic are extreme environments, going through profound and rapid alterations because of climate change.
Contrary to the Arctic, the Antarctic warms up because of the Ocean, not because of the atmosphere warming. This process is destabilizing the massive continental glaciers. The thermic fluctuations may have dire consequences on the global ocean level during the coming decades (Alexandra Witze, “East Antarctica is losing ice faster than anyone thought”, Nature, 10 December 2018, Sarah Sloat, “An Enormous Cavity Inside an Antarctic Glacier Harbors a Dangerous Threat », Inverse Daily, February 1, 2019 and Chelsea Gohd, « Over a Third of Antarctic Ice Shelf Could Collapse as Climate Change Warms the World », Space.com, 11 April 2021).
Those alterations already start to open chunks of ground to “geological exploration”. It is interesting to note that a similar phenomenon takes place in Greenland. And that Chinese companies also try to develop Greenland’s new ice-free ground (Jean-Michel Valantin “Arctic China: Towards New Oil Wars in a Warming Arctic?“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 14 September 2021 and Mark O’Neill, “China’s Vote damages China’s Rare-Earth Plans”, Ejinsight, 15 April, 2021) .
The race is starting
In other words, the development of China in the Antarctic projects the mammoth Chinese “power of need” throughout the ice continent and its ocean.
So, China installs infrastructures that will allow to “import” more and more capabilities in the Antarctic. Meanwhile, the need for resources is going to become always more important. And from a strategic point of view, the Antarctic may very well be a gigantic resources deposit.
We now have to explore the mammoth geopolitical consequences of the Chinese Antarctic strategy, on an Indo-Pacific as well as world scale.