The New York Times’s Jane Perlez reports on yet another example of China flexing its muscles in places that have long been the purview of other governments: Antarctica. This has been going on for a spell — last year, China signed a five-year deal with Australia that allows China to use Australia’s bases to conduct more research on the White Continent.

Now things are heating up, based on expert commentary in Perlez’s story:

China’s operations on the continent — it opened its fourth research station last year, chose a site for a fifth, and is investing in a second icebreaker and new ice-capable planes and helicopters — are already the fastest growing of the 52 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty. That gentlemen’s agreement reached in 1959 bans military activity on the continent and aims to preserve it as one of the world’s last wildernesses; a related pact prohibits mining.
But . . . China is positioning itself to take advantage of the continent’s resource potential when the treaty expires in 2048 — or in the event that it is ripped up before, Chinese and Australian experts say.
“So far, our research is natural-science based, but we know there is more and more concern about resource security,” said Yang Huigen, director general of the Polar Research Institute of China, who accompanied Mr. Xi last November on his visit to Hobart and stood with him on the icebreaker, Xue Long, or Snow Dragon.
With that in mind, the polar institute recently opened a new division devoted to the study of resources, law, geopolitics and governance in Antarctica and the Arctic, Mr. Yang said.

Even the Australians — who signed the deal with China to help fund its budget-constrained Antarctic research — are getting tetchy:

“We should have no illusions about the deeper agenda — one that has not even been agreed to by Chinese scientists but is driven by Xi, and most likely his successors,” said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former senior official in the Australian Department of Defense.
“This is part of a broader pattern of a mercantilist approach all around the world,” Mr. Jennings added. “A big driver of Chinese policy is to secure long-term energy supply and food supply.”

Articles like this pop up in the mainstream media like clockwork every six months or so — see this one from the Economist from November 2013, for example.

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How worrying should this stuff be? On the one hand, if China decides it wants to try land-grabbing in Antarctica, it’s well-versed in the salami tactics necessary to change the facts on the ground. As I noted a few months ago:

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As China and its neighbors bicker over uninhabited island chains, it’s fascinating to read similar disputes over Antarctic territorial claims from a century ago. Because there was no permanent occupation of the continent itself at that time, claimant countries used a variety of gambits to try to strengthen their case for why they merited a wedge of Antarctica. These included: publishing histories that demonstrated past discovery of the territory; establishing temporary post offices on the territory; naming geographical points inside their claimed territory and then publishing atlases with those names. . . . Suddenly, China’s decision to issue passports with the Nine-Dash Line map on them look less loopy.

On the other hand . . .

For any of this to matter, you have to accept three assumptions on faith. First, and most likely, China would need to continue to view raw materials investments in a neomercantilist fashion. This is certainly possible. That said, the most prominent examples of this kind of thing are Chinese deals with countries under Western sanctions. Beijing has done pretty well for itself by exploiting sanctioned countries that need a big market. China has also been quite keen on setting up extraction shops in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia. The advantage of Antarctica is that the only indigenous population likely to get ruffled is not human.

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Second, however, China would have to blatantly subvert the Antarctic Treaty System, which outlaws the commercial aspirations that these stories ascribe to China.  China might want to change the rules, but blatant subversion really isn’t Beijing’s style. As that Economist story noted, “It seems to be in China’s best interest to go along with the status quo.”

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I suppose it’s possible that China could go the AIIB route and try to gin up an alternative international agreement with buy-in from other countries that want to commercially exploit Antarctica. But this leads me to the third assumption: exploitation of Antarctic resources will be profitable. If you read up on the political history of Antarctica, you quickly learn that this has been the assumption behind almost every great power push on the White Continent. And every time, that assumption has been proven wrong.

Resource extraction below the Antarctic Circle is possible, but there are an awful lot of places in the world where it is even more possible. At some point, technological innovation might make it cheaper to drill and mine. But by the time Antarctic coal is commercially retrievable, for example, it’s not obvious that Beijing will want to have much to do with the coal in the first place. In other words, it is possible that the technological change that enables countries to extract Antarctic resources also obviates the need for them.

I’m not saying that there is no reason for concern. But this is one of those stories where the International Fellowship of Pundits tends to stroke their chins and murmur about Great Games and sound very worried. And I think there are at least five parts of the globe other than Antarctica where any concern should be directed.

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