It was on 20 November 1984 that China dispatched its first Antarctic research expedition team, and by the end of this expedition, the country established its first Antarctic research station, the Great Wall Station on 20 February 1985. So far, China has done 35 national Antarctic expeditions and established two year-round research stations, namely the Great Wall Station (1985) in West Antarctica and the Zhongshan Station (1989) located in the Larsemann Hills, East Antarctica; one inner land summer station, the Kunlun Station (2009) located on “Dome A”, the highest place in Antarctica，and one camp, namely the Taishan Camp (2014) located in Princess Elizabeth Land.
China’s Antarctic Administration and Programmes
A very unique system to administer, supervise and manage Chinese Antarctic activities has been adopted in China. Both Arctic and Antarctic research expeditions, international cooperation and other activities are under two subsidiary bodies of the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), respectively the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA) and the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC). The CAA takes the responsibilities of organizing Chinese Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, administering the related Arctic and Antarctic affairs, drafting laws, regulations, standards and guidelines of Arctic and Antarctic affairs, coordinating with related international organizations. The PRIC is the other institution responsible for Chinese Antarctic activities: the main functions of the PRIC are to conduct research on science, technology and strategic issues in the Polar Regions, undertake environmental monitoring and conservation in the Polar Regions, operate research stations, vessels and aircrafts, and provide logistic supports to Arctic/Antarctic research expeditions, and carry out education programmes on polar science and promote international cooperation.
The Chinese National Antarctic Program is largely organized into a 5-year program called the “Chinese Polar Environment Comprehensive Investigation and Assessment Programs” (2015-2020). For Antarctica, the Program comprises three parts: the Antarctic Marine Environment Survey, the Antarctic Terrestrial Environment Survey and the Comprehensive Assessment of the Antarctic Environment. The program is implemented through a series of surveys and assessments, involving various disciplines. In addition, China continues to conduct routine observations at the Great Wall Station and the Zhongshan Station. To strengthen international cooperation in Antarctic research, international participants are encouraged to join in the Program through collaboration with national institutes and universities. Notably, China has been preparing to launch its fifth Antarctic research station, which is expected to be finalized by 2022.
After the establishment of the Great Wall Station, China obtained the status of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Party. In order to implement the Antarctic Treaty, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and other related legal instruments under the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), China had been updating its domestic law-making process. In 2004, the State Council issued No 412 Order diverting the licensing right of polar research expeditions to SOA. On 8 February 2018, SOA adopted and published the Regulations of the Environmental Protection over Activities in Antarctica (《南极活动环境保护管理规定》) in order to protect the Antarctic environment and ecosystem, safeguard and promote the secure and orderly development of China’s activities in Antarctica. On 10 September 2018, the 13th Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) published its programs of legislation, including the Antarctic Activities and Environmental Protection Law (AAEP) (“南极活动与环境保护法”).
Impact on the Antarctic Treaty System
Since the accession to the Antarctic Treaty in 1983, China has been strengthening its power and influence over the Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean through various activities such as insular fishing, ocean expeditions, annual Antarctic research expedition and tourism. In other words, Chinese involvement in Antarctica has been deepening consistently and constantly over the past four decades. At the same time, China’s Antarctic policy has also been evolving. Specifically, China’s national strategy, the “New Frontiers” national strategy, was presented worldwide in the speech “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind” given by China’s President Xi Jinping at the United Nations Office at Geneva on 18 January 2017. In his address, President Xi revealed that China continually calls for a better regime to promote international cooperation in the Polar Regions, the deep sea, the outer space and the Internet.
With regard to China’s international policy, China always advocates and supports international peace and cooperation, which is also the standpoint of China’s Antarctic policy. As an Antarctic Treaty Consultative Party with decision-making powers, China steadily upholds and safeguards the basic framework and principles of the ATS. Accordingly, China’s interests in Antarctica have been increasing, as China’s Antarctic activities have been constantly upgraded. Relying on its consultative status, China could have maintained and proposed more initiatives since 1985, but failed to do so. In recent years, however, attention toward Antarctic issues is rapidly increasing in China, as highlighted by the Fortieth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Beijing in 2017. More and more policy-makers, scholars and civilians has now shown an interest for Antarctica: it is thus legitimate to believe that China will play a more proactive role in Antarctica for the time being.