Among a host of dramatic gestures, China’s government has reacted to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan by cutting off talks with the U.S. over climate issues — and faced criticism for doing so. The move was not the first time Beijing has prioritized geopolitical positioning over climate action, however, with its much less high-profile decision to block a rescue plan for Emperor Penguins two months ago now looking like an odd precursor to the post-Pelosi maneuvering.
That decision came at the 44th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Berlin. ATCM is a forum for parties to the Antarctic Treaty — essentially, 54 countries with an interest in Antarctic research or exploration agreeing to suspend territorial claims in order to cooperate on protecting living resources and the environment they depend on. This year’s meeting to discuss Antarctic management took place between May 23 and June 2, but with no media access, it was through anonymous briefings that it emerged a U.K. proposal to upgrade the protection status of Emperor Penguins had been blocked by China.
According to the Associated Press, delegates said “Beijing had made clear it wanted more time to consider the implications of upgrading the protection status of the penguins,” with Chinese documents citing the current stability of Emperor Penguin populations and lack of certainty around sea ice projections as explanations. However, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, the only environmental NGO invited to observe Antarctic Treaty meetings, called the decision “baffling” in the face of a well-researched action plan to protect the penguins, and South African newspaper The Daily Maverick convincingly questioned the credibility of the supporting evidence. The South Korean report submitted on the issue, meanwhile, suggested definitively that even “Under the most optimistic [sea ice projection] scenario, the global emperor penguin population is projected to decline by more than 50 percent.”
So what exactly was China waiting for clarification on?
One suggestion is that it really wasn’t about penguins. Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist in Chinese and polar politics at the University of Canterbury, wrote on Twitter that there are three alternative agendas in play for China: “1. China regards environment[al] protection in Antarctica as a form of ‘soft presence’ 2. China has a long-term agenda in Antarctica and seeks to access every available right there. 3. The core agenda of China’s interests in Antarctica have always centered on access to available resources, an inherently anti-conservation, anti-preservation stance that contrasts with the position followed by many other states engaging in Antarctica today.”
Expanding on these points, Brady’s 2019 book, China as a Great Polar Power, suggests that the Chinese government sees increasing its influence on the polar regions alongside efforts in the high seas, outer space and cyberspace, as key to a wider project of increasing its global role. In this context, where the Antarctic is seen as a resource to be exploited or dominated, control of funding and activity around it becomes political. Penguins, therefore, become political.
And this is not purely symbolic. In recent years there has been a broad sense that post Cold War international cooperation in both the Arctic and Antarctic has begun to turn to competition, and for China this has already solidified into notable action in the regions. In China as a Great Polar Power, Brady writes that in the 10 years up to 2019, as U.S. polar budgets were capped after the 2008 financial crisis, China invested more in polar capacity than any other nation. On top of this, as well as becoming a significant new funding source for scientific research, it also notably set up satellite receiving stations for BeiDou-2, its strategic weapons navigating system, over the Arctic Ocean — recalibrating its strategic thinking based on a vertical map of the Earth which highlights a more direct route to the U.S. than a traditional horizontal map.
Of course, China is not alone in these movements. In 2013, the U.S. announced a 50 percent increase in the number of missiles situated at Fort Greely, Alaska. These missiles are likely targeted at China, Russia and North Korea. Russia, similarly, reopened an Arctic base in 2014 and had its navy start patrolling its Arctic coast. Additionally, alongside this military positioning, as ice melts and technology opens up access to new resources that were previously unreachable, such as mineral deposits, there is every chance that the poles could become a more prominent location for geopolitical battles.
However, it was China that moved against the penguins and it is China that cut off climate talks with the U.S. And it shoulders responsibility for those two in the same way any other government shoulders responsibility for choosing geopolitical tactics over climate action.
Photographer: Giuseppe Zibordi. Credit: Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA
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