A Rock and a Hard Place: Talks on Hans Island to Restart

Hans Island, with Canada’s Ellesmere Island in the background [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
This week’s meeting of Arctic officials in Ilulissat, Greenland resulted in many notable developments involving governance in the circumpolar north as well as regional diplomacy. These included the commencement of the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, which had been struck at the last Arctic Council Ministerial in Fairbanks in May 2017, a deal which it was hoped would improve scientific diplomacy in the Arctic.

The meeting also marked the tenth anniversary of the Ilulissat Declaration [pdf], which was a watershed agreement by the five littoral states, (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States), surrounding the Arctic Ocean. The region was reaffirmed as a zone of development and peace. However, at the end of the meetings, it was also announced that the governments of Canada, Denmark and Greenland would be resuming efforts to finally resolve a muted but stubborn territorial dispute in the Arctic, namely the legal status of Hans Island.

Also known as Tartupaluk in Greenlandic, (in Inuktitut, ᑕᕐᑐᐸᓗᒃ), Hans Island is a 1.3kmrock lying between Canada’s Ellesmere Island (Nunavut) and Greenland in the narrow Nares Strait, and claimed by both Canada and Denmark/Greenland as part of their sovereign territory.

The island is uninhabited, and uninhabitable, and by itself has little economic value, but the surrounding exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is of great interest to both parties in the areas offishing and other potential resource extraction. The disagreement has been relatively obscure and low-key compared to other more prominent current island disputes, including the ongoing South China Sea imbroglio and the Chagos Archipelago row between Mauritius and the United Kingdom in the Indian Ocean, but nonetheless has been a complicated legal affair.

Map of Hans Island and surrounding region [Image via Wikimedia Commons]
It is implausible that the Hans Island dispute would involve any sort of gunboat diplomacy, or even low-intensity actions along the lines of the ‘cod wars’ fishing disputes between Iceland and the UK in the 1950s-1970s, given the robust relationship between Canada and Denmark, (and both countries being NATO members). However, a solution to the longstanding dispute has so far proven illusive, and the issue may become more pressing as the Arctic opens up resource development and shipping. Although there are other examples of past and present boundary disputes in the Arctic, including aboundary debate between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea which was settled amicably [pdf] in 2010, a US-Canada disagreement over a section of the Beaufort Sea, and the differences over the status of the underwater Lomonosov Ridge region which is claimed by Canada, Denmark/Greenland and Russia, the Hans Island issueis distinct in that the dispute is over land, instead of a waterway.

The Hans Island question first came to the forefront when the maritime border between Canada and Greenland in the Arctic was being determined in the 1970s. A 1973 agreement [pdf] on the continental shelf clarified the maritime boundary in the region, but the placement of the island directly on the border left that issue unresolved. An upgraded bilateral maritime demarcation agreement, completed in November 2012, also omitted a Hans Island solution.

The isolation of the region indicated the dispute was not seen as a priority for either actor. Yet by the turn of the century, when Ottawa began to pursue policies designed to enhance Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, Hans Island began to assume a higher priority. This issue, for example, factored into Canada’s 2004 budget debates by the government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, with Hans Island being folded into the debate, spearheaded by then-opposition leader Stockwell Day, over the need for improved spending on behalf of the Canadian armed forces.

Actions taken by Canada and Denmark to demonstrate their claims over Hans Island have been more akin to theatre as opposed to hard political pressure. This led some commentators to label the dispute a ‘whisky war’, as in 1984 a note advising that Hans Island was Danish territory was left on the rock, reportedly along with a bottle of schnapps. This was followed up by the placing of a bottle of Canadian Club whisky on the island by a Canadian expedition and the subsequent planting of Canadian and Danish flags. Although both Copenhagen and Ottawa pledged their support for a diplomatic solution, and have so far been content with an ‘agree-to-disagree’ status, arriving at a final agreement has remained difficult given the large amount of potential economic goods involved.

There have been two possible solutions to the dispute which have been put forward in recent years. The first would be the creation of a ‘condominium’ (or more formally, ‘coimperium’) arrangement, defined as two or more states ‘jointly exercising governmental authority’. In the case of Hans Island, the two parties would then work out the means of sharing resources.

Legal precedents exist for such an arrangement, with one of the most prominent being the joint Anglo-French administration of the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific until the state of Vanuatu gained independence in 1980. A much lesser known example would be Pheasant Island in Europe, which rotates between French and Spanish administration every six months as a result of a clause in the Treaty of the Pyrénées between the two countries in 1659. The condominium option for Hans Island was popularised by two academics, Michael Byers (Canada) and Michael Böss (Denmark), in the ‘Aarhus Declaration’ in 2015 which advocated joint administration of the island in cooperation with Greenlandic and Inuit communities.

port vila
Port Vila, Vanuatu [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The other option, which would have intriguing political ramifications, would be to split the island in half between Canada and Greenland, thus creating an unusual land border between Canada and the Danish Kingdom, and potentially the European Union, (although that is less clear, given that Greenland withdrew from the then-European Community in 1985). Presumably, this would also mean a 50/50 split of the EEZ as well as the resources within it. Although that suggestion has been periodically floated for years, the idea never gained serious traction.

The announcement at Ilulissat this week regarding Hans Island negotiations included the creation of a special working group to discuss both the island and associated differences over maritime borders in the nearby and Labrador and Lincoln Seas. According to a joint statement by the governments of Canada, Denmark and Greenland, the task force would explore various options to resolve the dispute and provide recommendations for a resolution, in the spirit of the previous 2008 Ilulissat agreement. The decision to restart Hans Island negotiations was praised by Greenland’s new foreign minister, Vivian Motzfeldt, who cited the talks as another reason why Arctic governments should strive to maintain good levels of cooperation.

Overhead shot of Hans Island taken by NASA Landsat 7 satellite [Picture by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons]
Although the talks are expected to be cordial, neither Copenhagen nor Ottawa can afford to be seen as too conciliatory given the political and economic stakes. Arctic sovereignty, and preparedness for the opening up of the Arctic Ocean, remain sensitive political subjects in Canada, especially with the opening up of the Northwest Passage (which itself has a disputed legal status), to shipping and other economic activities. The Danish government also wants to avoid any loss of political support in Nuuk which might be created by allowing Hans Island to fall under Canadian sovereignty, especially at a time when support for independence in Greenland remains strong. As with Copenhagen’s strong stance on the Lomonosov Ridge negotiations, Denmark wants to portray itself as dedicated to looking after Greenlandic interests in the wake of growing international interest, (including from China), in mining and other ventures in Greenland.

The successful resolution of the Hans Island disagreement could also affect the course of other boundary disputes such as in the Lomonosov region, and would further underscore the need for regional diplomacy on a variety of fronts as the Arctic continues to open up.

[Thanks to Mingming Shi for her assistance in the researching of this post.]

The Growing Role of ‘Track II’ Organisations in the Arctic

[Photo by Pixabay]
As the Arctic begins to be viewed in international relations as a distinct region, due to both its changed environmental conditions and the increasing economic opportunities which have captured the attention of many states well south of the Arctic Circle, regional organisations have also been pushed into the spotlight.

Adding to the political complexities of the region has been the sharp erosion of diplomatic relations between two major Arctic powers, the Russian Federation and the United States. While the US under President Trump has yet to articulate a specific Arctic strategy, the Vladimir Putin government continues to push forward with various forms of Arctic economic and military development. This included both an announcement by the Kremlin this week that polar studies would be assuming a higher priority in the country, and the recent news that a Russian floating nuclear power plant, the first of its type, had arrived in Murmansk before continuing on to the Chukotka region adjacent to the Bering Strait in the Russian Far East, where it will provide power to remote areas.

To date, although Russian/Western diplomatic conflicts since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 have only marginally spilled over into Arctic diplomacy, the matter continues to be the equivalent of ‘Banquo’s Ghost’ in many regional gatherings. In addition, as the main government organisation in the region, the Arctic Council, faces several imminent issues. These include the possibility of another list of potential observer governments when the next Council ministerial takes place in Rovaniemi in May 2019.

The question of the roles of Arctic versus non-Arctic states in regional governance, especially as the region opens up to increased economic activity, is another possible ‘grey rhino’ issue testing diplomacy and politics in the far north. With these questions in mind, examiningforms of Arctic cooperation beyond the governmental level is becoming more important in understanding the challenges to greater cooperation in the region. A study of ‘Track II’ organisations in the Arctic, and their current and potential roles, is therefore very useful in gaining a better understanding of where the far north may be heading regarding cooperation (or rivalries).

Posters at Arctic Frontiers, University of Tromsø [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Track II diplomacy is commonly defined by informal dialogues, often via conferences or like events, which bring together academics and scholars, researchers, think tanks, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and journalists/media specialists, covering particular geographic or policy areas. Often such dialogues also include the participation of governmental representatives, but with the general idea that their views are their own and not necessarily those of their administrations or agencies. Track II initiatives have often been useful in addressing traditional and non-traditional security issues affecting a given region.

It is not an accident that Track II events are frequently held in the Asia-Pacific [paywall] and Middle East/Southwest Asia, given their distinct diplomatic and political landscapes. In both of these regions, ‘Track I’, (meaning government-to-government), dialogues are sometimes hampered by differences over security policies and even diplomatic recognition. Track II events often address political and security concerns too politically difficult to be debated on the state level.

The advantages of Track II approaches include the possibility that useful information generated by it can be ‘pushed through the ceiling’ to the Track I level, and later shaped into official policy. Track II can therefore by an informal ‘brain trust’ for governments. These initiatives can also be used as informal communication outlets which can supplement official links, and in some cases, substitutefor missing ones. Track II mechanisms also have the advantage of being more flexible and resilient, especially in cases of non-traditional diplomatic or strategic matters.

Often the degree of informality in Track II encourages amore robust sharing of ideas and createsa social space for the further sharing of information and the development of ‘confidence-building’ measures. However, one shortcoming of Track II is the possibility they may become simple talking shops, disconnected from the actual decision-makers, especially if there is too great a division between the Track II and the governmental actors over policy directions. There also remains much debate over the degree to which Track II actually shapes state policy.

In the Arctic, there has been a prevalence of sub-governmental Arctic dialogues, but many of them fall more specifically into the category of ‘Track 1.5’ meetings, meaning initiatives with a greater degree of government participation, including up to the leadership level. Two of the most recent examples have been the Arctic Circle, created in 2013 in Reykjavík to bring together Arctic specialists from many different disciplines, and the older Arctic Frontiers, which has been held in Tromsø since 2007 and is commonly divided into policy, scientific and business streams.

There have also been more country- and subregion-specific themed conferences and events, including breakout Arctic Circle sessions such as the recent business-oriented conference in Tórshavn, as well as the US-based Arctic Encounter Symposium and the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC), which will be meeting in Tromsø this week. Each of these brings together governmental and non-governmental specialists in the Arctic for information sharing, and in the case of the larger Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers, there have also been occasions where government policies have been unveiled, taking advantage of the informal atmosphere.

There have also been examples of ‘Track III’ [pdf] dialogues related to the Arctic, meaning those in which there is a greater focus on academic discourse and relatively less government participation. Examples of these include the High North Dialogue which takes place annually in Bodø, the various thematic networks assembled by the UArctic collective of universities and institutes, as well as the former Trans-Arctic Agenda conferences in Reykjavík.

Although the Arctic has not experienced the same security challenges as the Middle East or the Pacific Rim, Track II has assisted not only in developing new policy ideas related to Arctic governance and problem-solving, but has also providedimportant lines of communication between Track I actors. As noted above, despite Russian relations with the West showing no signs of improvement, the Arctic is one area where engagement can continue between Russian specialists and their American and European counterparts.

Arctic Circle conference at Harpa, Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As well, during the diplomatic freeze between China and Norway between 2010-16 after the Nobel Prize incident, most bilateral government contacts were cut, but polar conferences such as Arctic Frontiers and CNARC were examples of multilateral cooperation where representatives from the two countries could continue to meet and share data. The holding of this year’s CNARC conference in Tromsø was another sign of the ongoing ‘thaw’ in Sino-Norwegian relations as well as the possibility of increased Arctic cooperation between the two states.

Also, with membership in the Arctic Council reserved for the eight Arctic states, Track II initiatives and their variations have also provided windows for non-Arctic states to both gather information about the region and to potentially form their own policies. What remains to be seen however, is whether Track II-type organisations will also lead to changes in the Arctic Council and potentially other Track I regimes. The Council itself was created in 1996 as a result of the successful creation [pdf] five years earlier of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which included support from various non-governmental sectors, especially in the scientific realms. As debate continues over potential new forms of Arctic governance, the growing list of Track II-type actors examining Arctic issues and policies may see their own visibility rise as both Arctic and non-Arctic states rush to keep up with changing events in the region.

On Your Marks… The Opening Stages of Arctic Shipping

Skyline of the port city of Dalian, northeastern China [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
With much of the Arctic Ocean becoming ice free for longer periods of time during the summer months, there has been a growing amount of enthusiasm from both governments and industries about the possibilities for expanded Arctic shipping. At the same time, preparations are being made to implement legal safeguards in anticipation of increased ship traffic, especially in the regions north of Siberia but also in other parts of the region.

With the largest coastline bordering the Arctic Ocean, Russia is especially upbeat about the possibility of mass maritime shipping via the Northern Sea Route (NSR), with one representative from the country’s maritime transport authority, Rosmorrechflot, suggesting that cargo transit in the NSR could reach twelve to fourteen million tonnes this year, up from 9.93 million in 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been candid about the potential role of the NSR in developing the country’s economy, noting during his ‘state of the nation’ speech in March of this year that the NSR was ‘key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East’ and that shipping through the sea route would reach eighty million tonnes by 2025. Unsurprisingly, when Moscow published its governmental policy [In Russian; draft English translation here] on the Arctic in early 2009, a plan approved by then-President Dmitri Medvedev, the NSR was prominently featured, specifically the development of the NSR for international navigation, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation and in accordance with international treaties.

At present, transits of the NSR, even in high summer, still require ships to be escorted by Russian icebreakers, but in the coming decades that may no longer be the case as climate change continues to erode the Arctic ice cap. Russia has been open to ‘internationalising’ the NSR, meaning allowing for the widespread use of the route by international vessels, looking ahead to the possibilities of collecting duties from foreign vessels seeking to use the waterway for cross-regional shipping. However, President Putin has pushed for the exclusive right of Russian tankers to transport fossil fuels via the Northern Sea Route. The question, however is which nations could and will take advantage of the NSR and other emerging shipping routes.

China has so far factored greatly [In Chinese] into Russian plans for the development of its NSR Arctic shipping, especially since 2014 when Western protests over Moscow’s involvement in the Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine resulted in economic sanctions against the Putin government. The two governments have spoken of an Ice Silk Road, (bingshang sichou zhilu 冰上丝绸之路), which would be connected to Beijing’s expanding Belt and Road initiative and bring out faster and cheaper Asia-Europe maritime transit. One centrepiece of the emerging ‘ice road’ has been the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas Project, which has been supported by Chinese investment and recorded its first formal shipments of LNG supplies to Europe last month. Beijing has trumpeted [In Chinese] the opening of Yamal in December of last year as the first major component of the Arctic wing of the Belt and Road.

China is also preparing to develop ports which could become Arctic shipping nodes in the near-future, including Qingdao, which is developing as a potential hub for various Arctic products including seafood, and Dalian, which was identified as an emerging Arctic shipping port at the China-Nordic Arctic Research Council (CNARC) conference in that city last year. Dalian was also the port from which the Chinese cargo vessel Yongsheng made its first successful transit of the NSR in 2013. Despite the fact that Sino-Russian Arctic partnership has been largely economic in nature, the United States has become concerned about falling behind in the region as the Arctic continues to develop.

Meanwhile, this week also saw the announcement of a decree by the Putin government that Arctic shipping through the NSR should reach the highly ambitious level of eighty million tonnes per year by 2024, one year earlier than previously reported.

Greenland’s Next Government: Continuity or Change?

Polling station at Godthaabshallen, Nuuk, Greenland. [Photo by Mikkel Møller Schøler]
This week’s elections in Greenland were carefully watched not only in the Arctic but also internationally, given the number of foreign policy questions which had begun to appear surrounding this vote. The 24 April balloting produced no majority for any party, but the Siumut Party [In Danish and Greenlandic], led by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen, won the most number of votes despite challenges from established parties like Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) headed by Sara Olsvig, and new arrivals including the upstart Nunatta Qitornal (NQ), a pro-separation party led [In Danish] by Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a former minister of business and foreign affairs, (along with other economic portfolios), with Siumut. Only incorporated in September 2017, the NQ was barely able to establish itself in time to be a contender for this month’s ballot. After the election, it was announced that former Greenlandic Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond would sit in the Danish parliament [In Danish] as a representative of NQ.

Siumut won 27.7% of the vote, down from 34.3% four years ago, and will again need to build a stable coalition, possibly with IA [In Norwegian] and/or some of the smaller parties, in order to continue governing. Suimut’s initial vote tally would give the party nine seats in the 31-seat parliament, with IA gaining eight seats. One potential partner is the Demokraterne Party [In Danish and Greenlandic], or Democrats, which ran on a pro-business platform and is supportive of Greenland’s fledgling mining industry. Demikraterne saw major gains in voter popularity, (19.5% versus 11.8% in 2014, obtaining six seats this year), and may be a factor in the political and economic directions Greenland will take in the near future.

Although domestic issues had dominated much of the campaign, including the omnipresent fishing industry, education reform, and improvements to infrastructure, two other matters, namely Danish relations, including the possibility of independence from the Kingdom of Denmark, and foreign investment, including in mining ventures, were never far from the debates. Siumut has taken a cautious approach to the independence question, especially in comparison with NQ, and Mr Kielsen had declined to publically set a target date for an independent Greenlandic state.

As for the mining industry, the enthusiasm for opening mines which was prevalent five years ago gave way to greater pragmatism after commodity and energy prices fell after 2014. However, should the prices of raw materials, including metals and minerals, rise again in the short term, climate change has made Greenland an attractive prospect considering the island’s large natural resource base [In French]. A ruby mine in Aappaluttoq in southwest Greenland began operations last year, and other possible mining projects under discussion include for ilmenite, an ingredient in paint and toothpaste, and nickel. Those who favour independence from Denmark in the short term may see mining as an income source which might successfully offset the annual grant, worth approximately 3.7 billion Danish kroner, (or about US$600 million), from Copenhagen. The grant, along with the Greenlandic fishing industry, encompasses the majority of the island’s GDP, and so there has been much discussion about better diversifying the economy.

Much attention has been paid to two developing mining projects which involve Chinese investment, specifically the rare earths, uranium and zinc mine at Kvanefjeld, supported by Shenghe Resources, in the southern part of the island, and far to the north at Citronen Fjord, a zinc mine with China Nonferrous as a major partner. As Beijing continues to expand its Belt and Road investment projects further into the Arctic, Greenland has been seen as a key player for Chinese economic interests in the region, especially since the United States has largely withdrawn from Arctic affairs in recent months under President Donald Trump.

The US has also been involved in a complicated dispute between Denmark and Greenland over the responsibility for the clean-up of former American military sites on the island. The United States Air Force (USAF) continues to maintain a cold-war era military base at Thule in Greenland’s far north. As a recent report described, the Danish government has often played a ‘Greenland card’ in its security relations with Washington, given the importance of Greenland to American strategic interests in the Atlantic Arctic during the cold war and in recent years as US-Russian relations continue to sour. There is therefore the question of what would be the American reaction should Greenland move closer to independence in the coming years.

In addition to mining interests, a Chinese firm, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe gufen youxian gongsi 中国交通建设股份有限公司), is seen as being in the running for a contract to expand one or more of Greenland’s airports in preparation for an expansion of the island’s tourism industry, a turn of events which has alarmed some policymakers in Denmark. During a visit [In Danish] by Prime Minister Kielsen to Beijing in autumn of last year, investment, including potentially in Greenlandic infrastructure, was a main discussion topic. The decision confirming which company will get the airport restructuring contract is expected to be announced by this September. As well, plans are underway between China and Greenland to open mutual diplomatic offices [In Danish] in each others’ capitals.

As negotiations begin this week to form a new coalition government in Greenland, it will not only be Denmark who will be watching the changes to Greenland’s foreign relations and trade under the next government very carefully.

Interlude: The Arctic’s Mirror Image? Juggling Politics and Climate Change in Antarctica

Argentine Foreign Ministry Building, Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In May of this year, the forty-first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting will be held in Buenos Aires, where the Treaty Secretariat is based. This will be the first such event since the landmark treaty meeting in Beijing, last year. While Antarctica is not experiencing the same political trials currently facing the Arctic, due both to the continent’s lack of a permanent population and to an extensive legal framework which prohibits most economic activities, the South Pole is hardly a politics-free region.

As in the Arctic, climate change is becoming an issue, with one glaring example the creation of a massive iceberg caused by a crack in the Larsen C glacier in the Weddell Sea during July 2017. The iceberg, designated ‘A-68’, had a surface area of about 5800 square kilometres when it broke free from the main glacier. The loss of surface ice in Antarctica may have a far more acute impact on the global environment than the melting of the Arctic ice caps. As a recent report described, melting Antarctic glaciers may have begun a process which would include a rise in sea levels, a feedback effect which would cause further ice melting, and accelerated climate change caused by the large-scale introduction of fresh water into the oceans. It has been estimated that melting of the entire Antarctica ice fields would result in sea level rises of almost sixty metres.

Climate change and the environmental protection of the continent are the main concerns of the members of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), which includes the original Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 as well as subsequent protocols. Among the consultative parties of the treaty, meaning governments which have conducted sufficient research activity in Antarctica, are Arctic states including Finland, Norway, Russia Sweden and the United States, as well as Arctic Council observers such as China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Other Arctic states such as Canada and Denmark are non-consultative members of the Treaty, meaning that their research profiles are not yet sufficient to engage in decision-making activities. Iceland, also a non-consultative member, was welcomed to the Antarctic Treaty in 2015.

Political map of Antarctica [The World Factbook (PDF at CIA Factbook) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The ATS also serves to place previous land claims in Antarctica in abeyance. Before the 1959 Treaty, seven countries, (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom), had made specific land claims on the continent, with the Argentine, British and Chilean claims overlapping. As well, the United States and the then-Soviet Union and Russia reserving the future right to make claims as well. The Treaty system also includes conventions on marine life, seals and other animal and plant life as well as the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also known as the Madrid Protocol, which entered into force in 1998. Article VII of the protocol specifies that ‘any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.’ Unlike in the Arctic, the legal framework in Antarctica continues to discourage resource extraction.

Under the terms of the Madrid Protocol, while the agreement will be subject to review in 2048, (but will not automatically terminate), there remains the question of consequences should the agreement erode in the coming decades and whether a door might be opened for a ‘resource scramble’ on the continent in the coming decades.

The Buenos Aires Antarctica Treaty meeting, which was originally scheduled to take place in Quito, Ecuador, before budget constraints prompted a change in venue, will be of a shorter duration than in previous years due to the last minute change in location. The gathering is expected to address recent environmental concerns as well as growing interest in Antarctic tourism and the issue of bio-prospecting. This refers to the studies of flora and fauna, (including micro-organisms), on the continent, work providing data which, according to Article III.1 of the original Antarctic Treaty, should be freely shared.

Argentina flag over Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
During last year’s Antarctica Treaty meeting in Beijing, the government of China published its first Antarctica governmental white paper [in Chinese], and also hosted a breakout session during the event entitled ‘Our Antarctica: Protection and Utilisation,’ which included speakers from Australia, Argentina, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The event was widely seen as China’s ‘coming out party’ which advertised the country’s growing polar expertise.

During a keynote speech by Zhang Gaoli, then-Vice Premier of China’s State Council, at the Beijing meeting, there were hints that the country would also be preparing for expanded economic activities take place in Antarctic in the future. In addition to highlighting Beijing’s central role in Antarctic governance and environmental protection initiatives, Mr Zhang also offered a five-point proposal for China’s future policies on the continent. These included advocating the peaceful use of the Antarctica and the establishment of a community to achieve that goal, perpetuating and improving the ATS, expanding the means to develop ‘equal-footed’ cooperation, maintaining the freedom of scientific development in Antarctica, and ensuring the environmental protection of the region.

In 1983, China signed on to the main Antarctic Treaty, and shortly afterwards began to construct its own research stations on the continent, the first being the Great Wall Station (Changcheng zhan 长城站), on the Fildes Peninsula, completed in 1985. Four bases are currently in operation, with the latest, Taishan Station (Taishan zhan 泰山站) situated on Queen Elizabeth Land in Eastern Antarctica, opening in February 2014. A fifth base [pdf] is to be situated on Inexpressible Island (Nanyan dao 难言岛) near the shore of the Ross Sea (Luosi Hai 罗斯海). Unlike Taishan, it would have the ability to stay operational throughout the winter season, and is expected to be fully operational by 2022. According to a report in the China Daily this week, preparations for the fifth base have been completed, including temporary housing and power and communications facilities.

Southern Hemisphere map mosaic at Te Papa, Wellington, New Zealand [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Chinese activities in Antarctica have been subject to scrutiny in some quarters. For example, concerns in Oceania about Beijing’s growing Antarctic interests have also been looped into cooling relations between China and Australia over the past year, with some alarmist Australian reports suggesting that China is positioning itself to engage in economic activities, (such as mining), and potentially military policies in Antarctica in the future. This despite negligible evidence of either as well as the ATS for which China has joined other states in pledging support.

As well, calls have been made within China over the past year for improved regulation of the country’s activities on the continent, especially in light of growing tourist numbers which reached approximately 5300, (second only to the number of American tourists), as compared to only one hundred in 2005.

Downtown Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As more countries are developing polar policies, the Antarctic joins the Arctic in in being subject to greater political scrutiny. Yet hovering over that issue is the ongoing question of the potential longterm effects on the rest of the world of climate change at both poles. As questions are appearing regarding the future of Arctic governance and the potential need for new regimes which could address Arctic economics and perhaps even security, the South Pole might act as a useful model during these debates.