Chinese Antarctic Rescue a Positive Signal

The rise of China means another partner in global burden-sharing.

January 7, 2014

Above: A Russian icebreaker leads an American ship in Antarctica, 2006. (Credit: U.S. Government)

Last week, a Chinese helicopter crew rescued 52 people trapped on a Russian icebreaker stuck in Antarctic pack ice.

A difficult mission like this would, in the past, usually have fallen to the United States – and indeed, a U.S. ship is in turn now rescuing the Chinese crew from their own trapped vessel. But China has now joined the small ranks of those nations with the capacity to help in such a situation.

This situation – a Chinese air transfer of an international team on a Russian ship to a waiting Australian icebreaker, accompanied by a U.S. follow-up mission – is symbolic of international cooperation in Antarctica as a whole.

It is an entire continent, rich with minerals, which the world has collectively agreed to share for scientific purposes, with no military or resource extraction activities.

Rare global cooperation

The Antarctica Treaty System began in 1961, at the height of the Cold War, when 12 global and regional powers were already active on the continent. Today, 50 countries are party to the treaty, including China, which joined the system in 1983.

Unlike the original 12 powers, China is a latecomer to the Antarctic and never had claims there. Its first of three (soon to be four) research bases opened in 1985. Since 1984, China has had 30 Antarctic missions, including the Chinese icebreaker expedition that helped rescue those on the Russian ship.

Such expeditions are often written off in the West as some elaborate “long game” to win resource mining rights when the treaty is renegotiated in 2048. In fact, it is, of course, simply a return to form for a nation that once sent navigators and traders all around the Indian Ocean for centuries before their European counterparts secured their places in history.

Moreover, as seen in the recent rescue, the presence of Chinese missions in the Antarctic is clearly proving useful and should not be dismissed. Rather than launching a long-term plan for a resource grab, which is a difficult assertion to prove (or disprove), China seems to be joining fully into the global community’s cooperative activities on the continent.

Special criticism?

Curiously, however, criticisms seem to be reserved for China and not Russia, who inherited (and now maintains) the Soviet Union’s active Antarctic presence. While Russia comes in for its share of critiques on activities at the opposite pole – though it, too, has abided by international laws and treaties there – it has not taken heat for anything it does in Antarctica.

A broader anti-Chinese attitude seems to be the culprit. Russia, while an established player on the scene, is a declining power, while China is on the rise once more and vying for the top spot against the United States.

At the risk of cheap word play, it’s worth remembering that the United States’ decision to “open” the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s was supposed to create a “multi-polar world” and end the bipolar division of the world between the United States and USSR.

Now that China is assuming its role as an independent and peer pole at the top of the hierarchy of world powers, some in the United States want to put the cat back in the bag. This reaction is foolish in light of the country’s debt burden, domestic challenges and overstretched global military presence.

Sharing the world’s burdens

American thought leaders and establishment representatives, such as former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and World Bank President Robert Zoellick, have long admonished China “to become a responsible stakeholder” in the global system.

He and others argued, with good reason, that “China has a responsibility to strengthen the international system that has enabled its success.”

Now that China is proving that it is indeed living up to its obligations, Americans should welcome it. They should see China’s arrival on the world stage with open eyes. This means viewing China not merely as a competitor but as a capable partner in global affairs – someone who has the capacity to help out when things go wrong.

China should receive U.S. encouragement in places like Antarctica, not what is essentially a cold shoulder. After all, next year, it might be an American crew that China rescues. Americans wouldn’t want their anti-Chinese biases coming back to bite them.

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Takeaways

China has now joined the small ranks of those nations with the capacity to help in technically complex emergencies.

Chinese expeditions in Antarctica are often written off in the West as some elaborate “long game” to win resources.

China is returning to form as the nation that once sent navigators all over the Indian Ocean for centuries.

With China assuming its role among top world powers, some in the US want to put the cat back in the bag.

Now that China is proving that it is indeed living up to its obligations, Americans should welcome it.

Next year, it might be a US crew China rescues. Americans wouldn’t want anti-Chinese biases coming back to bite them.