The Antarctic Treaty System: A Useful but Imperfect ‘Guardrail’ for China-US Relations

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The Antarctic Treaty System: A Useful but Imperfect ‘Guardrail’ for China-US Relations

Unlike the USSR, China, as a latecomer, has no vested interest in the existing rules of the ATS.

The Antarctic Treaty System: A Useful but Imperfect ‘Guardrail’ for China-US Relations
Credit: Depositphotos

While international travel may be returning to pre-pandemic levels, China-United States relations are not. The future of the relationship is indeed not optimistic. Even Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s special envoy during the normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations in the 1970s, openly warned of the danger of “World War Three” and paid a visit to China at the age of 100 in July 2023.

It is a painful experience to watch the deterioration of China’s relations with the U.S.-anchored West. However, that is the reality, and “the elephant in the room” in contemporary discussions of most international issues, be it Southern Ocean fisheries, Arctic warming, or high seas sustainability. Even the remote and icy Antarctic is unfortunately not isolated from geopolitics.

China is now building its third all year-round research station on the Ross Sea Ice Shelf. Once that is completed in 2024, China will enjoy the same number of permanent research stations in Antarctica (Great Wall, Zhongshan, and Ross Sea New Station) as the United States (Amundsen-Scott, McMurdo, Palmer).

Meanwhile, the process of establishing three Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean has been deadlocked for over a decade due to opposition from China and Russia. There are  voices warning that the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is now “on thin ice” when it comes to governing this region toward a sustainable and peaceful future.

Times have changed, but history sometimes repeats itself. There is nothing new about power, geopolitics, or ideological differences in Antarctic governance. The Antarctic Treaty itself was born during the Soviet Union-United States Cold War in 1959. Moreover, the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established in 1981 as a response to the Soviet Union’s expanding krill fishing interest since 1962.

Initially, the U.S did not invite the Soviet Union to the first Washington Conference that aimed to create a condominium for the Antarctic in 1948. The Soviet Union campaigned for being included in Antarctic discussions by establishing research stations: Mirny in the Australian Antarctic Territory in 1956 and Vostok at the Southern Pole of Cold in 1957. The adoption of the Antarctic Treaty was therefore seen by the Soviet Union as a victory, ensuring that no agreement on the global commons can be made without Moscow’s participation on an equal footing with the United States.

It is fair to say that the Antarctic Treaty is a U.S.-led initiative that well accommodates claimant states as well as another superpower’s pride and interests. The basics of the Antarctic Treaty System still work today. The treaty devotes the continent to peace and science. Article 4 applies a bifocal approach to “freeze” any territorial claim in Antarctica. Therefore, existing sovereignty claims by Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, Norway, New Zealand and the United Kingdom will neither be denied or recognized by the rest of the world.  Even though China is a latecomer that ratified the Antarctic Treaty in 1983, the Treaty provides the United States and China the same legal basis to reject any existing territorial claim, while withholding their own.

As for the Antarctic environment, the 1998 Madrid Protocol almost eradicates any opportunity for commercial mining in Antarctica, except for a small window open for review in 2048. CCAMLR is widely considered one of the most successful and effective organizations for ecosystem-based fisheries management. Notably, CCAMLR was established at a time when the Soviet Union was rising as a distant water fishing power. By the end of the 1970s, the Soviet Union commanded “more than 50 percent of the world’s tonnage of fishing vessels and 69.1 percent of the total number of floating fish factories and carriers.”

Today, the Soviet fishing fleet is gone, while China is the world’s largest distant water fishing state. In any case, CCAMLR is still performing its function.

In an era of intensified China-U.S. rivalry, should we maintain “business as usual” in Antarctica? The simple answer is no, because China is not the Soviet Union.

China’s rise in Antarctica is like the Soviet Union’s in many ways, such as building more stations and eyeing krill fisheries. However, unlike the Soviet Union, China, as a latecomer, has no vested interest in the existing rules of the ATS. This is reflected in the negotiations regarding the establishment of Southern Ocean MPAs, which is turning CCAMLR into a tense battlefield between China, Russia, and the Western bloc.

Although pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept) is a foundational principle for any country under international law, from the Chinese government’s perspective it is arguable that China is just exerting its right in CCAMLR’s consensus-based decision-making process to block any new MPA proposal. Given the United States officially backs the proposals of MPAs in East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea, CCAMLR is now a testing ground for American diplomacy on how to strike new deals with a competitor, and a rising power.

Both U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are seeking to establish “guardrails” for China-U.S. competition, with the hope that bilateral relations will not end up in disastrous situations, such as a war over the Taiwan Strait. In the Antarctic context, the ATS also needs to evolve to better act as a guardrail for China-U.S. rivalry.

For example, in order to keep the Antarctic as a peace zone, there need to be clear rules about what is allowed as “dual-use technology” in Antarctica, such as satellite navigation systems and their receiving stations. Another example could be the regulation of “research fishing” in the Ross Sea MPA. Clarification is required about research fishing activities so that it won’t create a loophole for commercial fishing in established Antarctic MPAs, similar to controversial Japanese “research whaling” in the Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary.

In today’s new era, the ATS is a good old guardrail that should be enhanced. In this refurbishment process, both the United States and China, along with third countries, can act proactively, take initiatives, and invest resources to strike new rules. Once major powers have vested interests in a sound governance regime, all of us may then enjoy a “rules-based order” in Antarctica for decades to come.