Polar Stakes: China’s Polar Activities as a Benchmark for Intentions

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 14

China's Icebreaker, Xuelong

On July 2, China’s polar icebreaker Xuelong set off on its fifth Arctic expedition. On board were scientists from Denmark, France, Iceland, Taiwan and the United States in addition to Chinese scientists, support staff and a team of journalists. During the 90-day voyage, Xuelong will make China’s first ever traverse of the strategically important Northeast Arctic shipping route (Xinhua, July 18, July 2). The trip highlights many states renewed interests in the polar regions, because of climate change, the shifting global balance of power and declining global oil stocks.

In the last eighteen months, two new nations have signed up to the Antarctic Treaty, the international regime which governs Antarctica. Meanwhile, in the Arctic, a host of non-Arctic states are petitioning to become permanent observers on the Arctic Council, the key forum for international cooperation on Arctic-related issues.

As one of those concerned states, China has interests in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Beijing’s annual spending on polar expeditions has trebled in the last ten years and it is making a massive investment in polar-related infrastructure. Last summer, the Deputy Head of the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration Chen Lianzeng stated that the overall goal of China’s current five year polar plan was to increase China’s “status and influence” in polar affairs to better protect its “polar rights” (Xinhua, June 21, 2011).

Many observers speculate China’s increased polar activities may challenge the interests of other polar states. These concerns are linked to a wider debate about China’s international behavior around questions such as whether China is a “reluctant stakeholder” in the international system and whether China will continue to support current international norms as it becomes more dominant. China’s polar engagement is a helpful case study toward better understanding Beijing’s global behavior and foreign policy.

China’s Polar Interests

China’s Arctic interests are attracting a lot of attention, due to the rapidly changing physical and geopolitical environment in the Arctic. China wants to be involved in any new norm-setting, which will develop as the melting ice leads to more opportunities for shipping, mining and fishing. A lot of other countries share those interests. Yet for all the attention it receives, China is not putting a lot of money into its Arctic program—about 20 percent of its polar program goes on the Arctic (the rest on the Antarctic). Compared to China’s budgeting elsewhere, the polar budget receives very little funding. On the Arctic, Beijing produces a lot of smoke, mirrors and big talk, which disguises their small investment.

Stymied by the one-China issue, China was a late joiner to the Antarctic Treaty (1959). Beijing acceded to the Treaty in 1983, launched the first Chinese expedition to the Antarctic continent in 1984 and rapidly built two bases, first Changcheng Station on the Antarctic Peninsula (1985), then Zhongshan Station (1989) on the Australian Antarctic claim. All along China’s engagement in Antarctica has focused on establishing a significance presence, which would enable to it to assert rights to be involved in decision-making.

China’s polar presence has undergone a “great leap” in the last ten years. In 2004, China built the tiny Huanghe Station on the Svarlbard Archipelago. In recent years many non-Arctic states who wish to engage in Arctic research have set up research stations at Ny-Ålesund on Svarlbard Island  under the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty [1]. Currently, China is negotiating setting up a second Arctic research base in Iceland [2].

In 2008, China built Kunlun Station at Dome A—a location so remote it takes two weeks to get there. Chinese scientists can only work there for two weeks a year but the station’s strategically-important location may eventually be worth it. There is talk of China establishing a fourth Antarctic base. At Dome A, China hopes to succeed in collecting the world’s deepest ice core, which could help reconstruct the climate record as far back as 1.3 million years (Nature, January 6, 2009). Such groundbreaking work is one of the key measures of influence in Antarctic science.

Dome A also has telescopes for deep space research. The project is a result of collaboration between Australian, Chinese and U.S. scientists, but in Chinese-language reports only China’s involvement is highlighted. Chinese scientists hope the research done here may lead to China’s first Nobel Prize for science (Qingdao Morning Post, July 2; State Oceanic Administration, November 2, 2011).

The new base at Dome A is part of a rush of new infrastructure investments, which will further boost China’s physical presence on the ice. Beijing spends considerably less funds on scientific research—officially the only legitimate activity for countries to be engaged in Antarctica. Unlike most Antarctic countries, China currently has no dedicated fund for Antarctic or even Arctic science, and scientists must compete for funds for their polar projects along with other scientific projects.

China spends around $15 million on annual expeditions to the Antarctic and Arctic. The cost of base maintenance and running the Polar Research Institute of China and the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration bring Beijing’s annual spending on polar affairs to around $60 million, roughly equivalent to what South Korea now spends in the polar regions.

Both Korea and China have made massive investments in polar hardware in the last five years, and this is what marks both of them as different from more established players, such as the United States, which capped polar spending in 2008 and is desperately in need of a new ice breaker. By contrast, Beijing recently spent $60 million to refurbish its Antarctic research bases and upgrade its national polar facilities in Shanghai. It also found $300 million for a new ice breaker and plans a new ice-capable plane, a new polar campus in Shanghai and a rapid expansion of the numbers of Chinese polar scientists from 200 to up to 1,000.

With the successful completion of the current five-year plan’s objectives in 2015, China will have caught up with most of the developed states’ Antarctic operational capabilities with two ice-fitted ships operational, ice-suitable long-range aircraft, and state-of-the art facilities at its polar bases. Beijing will not be spending as much, because it simply does not engage in as much science. In the 2011-2012 austral summer, China sent only 17 scientists to work at Changcheng Station while a mere six scientists worked at Zhongshan Station that year [3]. In the Arctic, China is even more of a bit-player when it comes to science, but any activities there are promoted heavily in Chinese media reports targeted at both domestic and foreign audiences.

Chinese Perspectives on Antarctic Governance

Some Chinese polar scholars refer to the Antarctic Treaty as a “rich man’s club” (furen de julebu) or a zone for “collective hegemony” (jiti baquan), and assert that China has been a “second class citizen” (er deng gongmin) within the Treaty [4]. In theory, Antarctica is owned by no one and open to all nations. Economic limitations, however, effectively exclude most of the developing world and many middle-income countries from developing Antarctic science programs. Moreover, the best locations for research bases and resource exploitation were taken long ago by earlier Antarctic players.

China’s central critique of the Antarctica Treaty System (ATS) revolves around the issue of the distribution of resources. Deciding who can control polar resources is a matter of global political and economic importance. As an energy-hungry nation, China is extremely interested in the resources of Antarctica (and the Arctic) and any possibilities for their exploitation. Chinese-language polar social science discussions are dominated by debates about Antarctic resources and how China might gain its share—mostly referring to access to mineral resources. Such discussions are virtually taboo in the scholarly research of more-established Antarctic powers. Nowadays (it was not always the case), scholars in those countries tend to focus on preserving the environmental heritage of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans. In Chinese-language debates, social and hard science scholars, government officials and journalistic commentators all appear to agree that the exploitation of Antarctica is only a matter of time and that China should prepare itself.

Chinese Perspectives on Arctic Governance

In a recent international presentation, two analysts at the Polar Research Institute of China described the country as being a “near Arctic” state [5]. This new phraseology is meant to underline China’s legitimate interests in the region. China would like to have a say in the governance measures adopted to deal with the changing Arctic environment, but the current institutional arrangements shut it out. In August 2011 an anonymous Beijing Review article—which also was reproduced on the website of the State Council Information Office also known as the party’s Office for Foreign Propaganda—adopted a belligerent tone on the issue of the most recent rejection of China’s application to be a permanent observer on the Arctic Council. The article asserted “By restricting observers’ rights and modifying observer application procedures, the Arctic Council has raised the political threshold for non-Arctic states to participate in Arctic governance,” and urged that “an end to the Arctic states’ monopoly of Arctic affairs is now imperative” (Beijing Review, August 30, 2011). The article noted India, Japan, South Korea and the EU also had made strong appeals for participation in Arctic affairs and China now will be working closely on Arctic issues with Iceland, Sweden and Norway. All three states have signalled their support for China’s greater involvement in the Arctic. Both Iceland and Norway have set up Arctic cooperation projects with China (China Daily, April 21; Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 30, 2010). Beijing hopes in a fairly short time period Chinese expeditions and international linkages will be sufficient to justify its participation in decision making on Arctic matters.

Polar Behavior as an Indicator for Chinese Foreign Policy

China’s behavior in polar affairs provides us with many clues to better understand Beijing’s attitude toward the international system. Principally, this behavior helps answer the debates over whether Beijing is a “reluctant stakeholder” in current international arrangements and whether they will continue to support current international norms and institutions as they become more dominant. Below I have summarized what China’s polar behavior reveals to us about current Chinese foreign policy.

  • Disjunction between Internal Debates and Official Behavior

In China’s Antarctic affairs, there is a clear disjunction between official statements and policy debates in Chinese. Although Chinese officials may be unhappy with the status quo in Antarctica, the requirements of governance necessitate that Beijing work within the existing structures and follow the current ATS policies. The only alternative to this behavior would be leaving the Antarctic Treaty—a step China is unlikely to take at present. These policy debates however should not be ignored. They reflect the fact that China wants change in some aspect of the international order and it is exploring its options. Situations with this kind of disjunction should be regarded as “watch this space.” 

  • Where China Cannot Affect Change, It Makes the Best Out of the Current Order and Quietly Pursues Own Interests

Despite the carping about the Antarctic Treaty in Chinese-language debates, China also benefits from the way that Antarctic governance currently is managed. There is very little oversight of states’ behavior there (technically, any state can inspect other countries’ Antarctic bases but few devote the resources to do this with any seriousness); moreover, most states ignore the legal requirement to make public their activities there. This non-accountable, non-transparent governance environment is as amenable to China’s interests in Antarctica as it is to the other major players there who set these norms. This situation is no doubt an important factor why—in a situation where there is at present no possibility of changing the international governance arrangements—China publicly is accepting of them while still continuing to pursue their own interests. Beijing’s current behavior at the various forums of the ATS is similar to its behavior in many other multilateral organizations. China may not like certain aspects of the current order but it takes such benefits as it can. 

  • Where the Possibility of Creating New Norms Exists, Beijing Acts Assertively

When it comes to Arctic affairs, China’s official statements aimed at foreign audiences now appear to match the stridency of the earlier Chinese-language policy debates among scholars. In recent years, China has shown a preference for action, rather than talk, in its international behavior (zuo er bu shuo). Yet in the Arctic, where China is a relatively weak player, Beijing is limited even in terms of the scientific projects it could engage in there. The climatic and political environment is changing fast in the Arctic—faster than China can step up its polar capabilities. Beijing consequently is signalling its interests now, adopting a strident tone and asserting its right to have a say in future governance arrangements. This is a new trend that should be closely watched here and elsewhere. 

  • Determination to Restore and Demonstrate China’s International Status

China is a rising power and seeks vehicles to demonstrate that power. Beijing is determined to restore China’s international status. The polar regions, as well as Outer Space, are convenient locations to demonstrate this new status. 

  • Talking Up China’s Achievements to Domestic and International Audiences

The Chinese media has been instructed to “talk up” China’s polar achievements for domestic political reasons. This media campaign, however, also can help to build China’s case that it has extensive and legitimate interest in the Arctic region, and should thus be given a say in Arctic governance. China has made a major investment in upgrading its foreign propaganda (waixuan) operations in recent years. The objective of this is to boost China’s soft power and to help mould international public opinion to adopt a more positive view of China [6]. 

  • Willingness to Forge Unlikely Partnerships to Achieve Particular Goals

China has stated it wants a say in Arctic governance and does not like the current order. China wants to be a part of norm-setting there; norms that will help protect its own national interests. It is not yet powerful enough to go it alone in challenging this order, so the government has identified and enlisted a number of key Arctic states that it is working with to become a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. Here China is forming a mini bloc, one formed not through any ideological common ground but through strategic interests. A similar situation could occur in the Antarctic through the Asian Forum for Polar Science—a body founded in 2003 including China, India, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. 

  • China’s Economic Might is Helping It to Buy Friends or Quiet Rivals

China is offering financial investment to three Arctic states to encourage their support for a more permanent role for China at the Arctic Council. China’s rapid expansion in Antarctic affairs—all of it on the Australian Antarctic claim—is causing alarm in some quarters in Australia [9]. Beijing seems to be succeeding in appeasing some of the concerns by offering generous research and funding opportunities to Australian scientists. In Australia, as with all the other developed states in Antarctica, since the global economic crisis begun in 2008, Antarctic spending has barely increased to keep pace with inflation. Only China, India and South Korea are significantly increasing their Antarctic budgets at present [7].         

  • Resources are a Major Driver of China’s Foreign Policy

In the polar regions, China, as elsewhere, appears to be fixated on potential resource-acquisition—a major driver in China’s current foreign policy. A second related issue is China’s attitude to the environment. In the polar regions, as elsewhere, China prioritizes development first and protection of the environment second.


It appears that in polar affairs at least, China achieves many gains out of the current international order, so to classify it as a “reluctant stakeholder” there would be a slight exaggeration. There are clearly areas where China would like to shape international governance to better suit its own national interests. China’s ever-growing economic power—at a time when Western governments are under massive financial pressure—is enabling it to strengthen its global influence, in the polar regions as elsewhere. Where new norms are being forged, as in the Arctic and possibly in time in the Antarctic; observers can expect Beijing to be assertive in demanding a right to have a say given its investment. 


  1. Treaty Concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen (Paris, February 9, 1920) https://www.austlii.edu.au/au/other/dfat/treaties/1925/10.html. This Treaty granted sovereignty over the Svalbard (formerly known as Spitsbergen) archipelago to Norway, while permitting all signatories to the treaty equal rights to Svalbard resource exploitation or trade. There are currently over 40 signatories to this Treaty. In 1925, the then-Republic of China signed the Spitsbergen Treaty. In recent years many non-Arctic states who wish to engage in Arctic research have set up research stations at Ny-Ålesund on Svarlbard Island.
  2. Author’s Interviews, Chinese and Icelandic Polar Specialists, 2012.
  3. See Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Antarctic Interests,” in Brady, ed., The Emerging Politics of Antarctica, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012.
  4. Jingfang, Tu (Polar Research Institute of China [PRIC], China) and Xia, Zhang (PRIC), “Foundations and Prospects for China as a Near-Arctic State Participate (sic) in Peaceful Use of Arctic,” International Association of Arctic Social Sciences Association Conference, Akureyri, Iceland, June 2011.
  5. Ellie Fogarty, “Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia’s Interest,” Lowy Institute Policy Brief, August 3, 2011, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/antarctica-assessing-and-protecting-australias-national-interests.
  6. See Anne-Marie Brady, “The Beijing Olympics as a Campaign of Mass Distraction,” in Anne-Marie Brady, ed. China’s Thought Management, London: Routledge, 2011.
  7. See Anne-Marie Brady, “Conflict or Cooperation? The Emerging Politics of Antarctica,” in Brady, ed., The Emerging Politics of Antarctica.