Since the launch of Xuě Lóng 2 (literally, China’s “Snow Dragon 2”) in late 2018, images of Chinese icebreakers on the Polar route of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have become more and more common on media outlets around the world. Images that leave a sweet-and-sour taste, as they imply that one of the few sanctuaries in the world (that is, the Polar region) is no longer immune to large-scale human activity. Global commons have now become central in debates between civil society and national governments with people taking to the streets for the protection of the atmosphere, high oceans, outer space and the fair use of the Internet. Antarctica, the other end of the Arctic’s looking glass, seems to remain untouched by worldwide commotion. At least, for the moment.
Antarctica is one of the few places in the world where human activity has been strictly regulated since the early 1960s, when the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) came into force (specifically, it was signed in 1959 by 12 countries). Simply put, one of the key aspects of the ATS is that Antarctica is supposed to be “untouchable”. In fact, the sole human activities allowed on the continent are tourism and scientific research, and even those are subject to a regulatory system.
Antarctic tourism for the 2017-2018 season counted almost 52,000 visitors, most of whom arrived from the US and China. According to estimates from Ctrip, China’s biggest provider of travel services, Chinese tourists in Antarctica for the 2018-2019 season are bound to increase up to 10,000 against the 8,200 of the previous season. If these estimates are correct, this year one out of five tourists in Antarctica will have been Chinese.
Moreover, China has been the only country to build research stations on the continent from the 2000s onwards, since other states with an interest in Antarctica ceased construction works in the late 1990s (see the map below for a longitudinal visualization of active research stations in Antarctica by country of origin). China currently maintains four active research stations in Antarctica, all of which were built after 1983 when the country formally entered the framework of the ATS. The “Kunlun station” (established in 2009), in particular, made the news a few months back when China put forward the proposal for a “code of conduct” or an “Antarctic Specially Managed Area” (ASMA), aiming to limit (non-Chinese) activities around the station: an operation that remains in a “grey zone”, as it raises the issue of sovereignty in the continent. Indeed, Antarctica is “a continent with no government” composed of territories that are claimed by “Antarctic powers” – i.e., New Zealand, Australia, France, Norway, the UK, Argentina and Chile. The US and Russia have also built research stations in Antarctica, despite not enjoying the status of claimant states. Three out of four active Chinese research stations, including Kunlun, are located on the Australian claim, thus further complicating the matter of sovereignty over the areas surrounding research stations. On the border of the Australia/New Zealand claims is a fifth Chinese station, currently under construction, specifically located in Terra Nova Bay where the Italian research station “Mario Zucchelli” also is situated. China’s fifth station is scheduled to become operative in 2022, and capable of accommodating up to 80 people when in full capacity.
With China paying increased attention to Antarctica, the ambiguity of the country’s strategy in the polar region has the potential to become an increasingly pressing matter at the international level. In fact, although the ATS forbids military and mining activities, it does not offer any indication on the consequences of violations from the part of ATS signatories. A serious flaw, as Antarctica, after all, continues to play host to an unestimated amount of untapped natural resources in a global economic system that is moving towards a scarcity of raw materials and that is already foreseeing China’s future quest in the mineral sector to support the pace of its industrialization. China’s hunger is primarily stressed by the country’s proposal within the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs) of a re-interpretation of the “inviolability clause” contained in the ATS in favour of a “responsible use clause” of Antarctica and its resources. Still, natural resources are not the sole characteristics of the continent to kindle China’s interest: a station by the South Pole, in fact, would be perfectly positioned to increase the accuracy of China’s global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), thus to better sharpening the country’s ability to geo-spatial position electronic devices.
As in many issue-areas of today’s world, the vagueness of the ATS’ provisions runs the risk not to champion with efficacy Antarctica. As this “vagueness” is surely less politically costly for ATS signatories, it ensures higher levels of compliance in collegial decision-making amongst ATS member states. At the same time, though, it exposes the ATS’ provisions to interpretation, and Antarctica to lose its “untouchable” status with repercussions on the values that inspired the core character of global commons as a whole.