A polar great power?

Review of China as a Polar Great Power by Anne-Marie Brady. Cambridge, 2017.

Climate change is normally seen as a 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. Anne-Marie Brady, professor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, has a new book on China’s growing involvement in the poles, in which she 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 tremendous 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 Straits 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 called Antarctica 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 spokesperson 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 realize 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 eleven 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’s 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 icebreaker with a second soon to be deployed, and an Antarctic capable plane. Brady estimates that China is likely spending $30 million in annual operating costs for expedition at both poles, up from an average of $5 million per year as late as 2003. Scientific research likely commands another $30 million per year, still a fraction of the $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 militarized, the American and Chinese militaries both have strong presences for logistical purposes.

China’s domestic propaganda apparatus is also working to Sinicize the poles. In doing so, 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 programs 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 center 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 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 dramatization. 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’s examination of the dozens of agencies involved in China’s polar activities and the intersection of the party, military, and state is an excellent single-issue case study of how China’s party-state works—and doesn’t. Her four-page summary of how China’s most frequently used foreign policy maxims pertain to the Arctic—from face-seeking to “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys”—is illuminating. At the same time, the book, primarily a compilation of her previously published articles, sometimes loses a sense of coherency; the low-quality reproduction of the Chinese maps also offers little. Brady offers limited comparative analysis of other countries policies and activities in the Arctic, but when she judges that America has under-invested in the Poles, she erroneously claims the United States has spent $17 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the reason.

Brady believes that China’s actions in the Poles demonstrate that 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 globalized economic order,” Brady writes.

China’s growing assertiveness in its region often colors 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.

This review was originally published with the Asian Review of Books and the South China Morning Post