EU ‘on collision course with China’ as it steps up to become ‘global leader’ in Antarctica

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Brussels is increasingly not only looking north, to the Arctic, but also south, to its polar opposite as an area of interest for the future. The Antarctic region and issues pertaining to it – particularly research, climate awareness and ocean governance – have slowly emerged on the policy agenda in recent years. In theory, the region is protected under the Antarctic Treaty System – a global pact signed in 1959 to preserve and protect the continent for scientific research and provide a safeguard against nuclear proliferation. 

But, with its influence over so many of the member states of the treaty, the EU will attempt to shape future policies in Antarctica, Royal Holloway Professor of Geopolitics Klaus Dodds has told

He said: “I think the EU is a polar power and it has multiple interests, some of which is simply about being an organisation of 27 states. 

“For example, in the Arctic, there are obviously EU member states like Finland and Sweden that are Arctic nations. 

“Then in the Antarctic, France is an EU member state, but also an Antarctic claimant – Norway is too and an associate member.

“For the moment, we are transitioning from the EU, but until recently we were an EU state and a claimant state.

“But we’ve seen the EU invest heavily in polar science in both the Arctic and the Antarctic as part of its interest in climate change.” 

Prof Dodds, who is also an Honorary Fellow of the British Antarctic Survey, says the EU sees itself as a “global power” which will use this influence to push its own agenda in the likes of fishing. 

He added: “They are also a huge fishing actor, interested in commercial fishing in both the Southern Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. 

“The EU also thinks of itself as a global power, so being involved in the government of the Arctic and Antarctic would be considered as in its best strategic interest.

“So you’ve got a variety of issues by which the EU becomes interested in both the polar regions – it might be through France, it might be climate change, it might be environmental protection – but it will be resources and it will be strategic interest.

“It’s in their interest that peaceful collaborative government prevails over spaces like the Antarctic. 

“I think the EU will have an impact on things like funding.” 

China is currently stepping up its interests in Antarctica, building more icebreaker ships, in what experts have already warned could lead to future tension.

It is also trying to contest marine protected areas, to allow for more fishing, which some believe is a proxy for mineral mining.

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Prof Dodds, who studies the international governance of the polar regions, says the EU is risking a future dispute with the likes of Beijing by throwing its weight around in these areas.

He added: “So what the EU will do to show its hand is will fund areas of research that will display the scope and range of their interest. 

“For example, in the Arctic, one of the things they did was fund the MOSAiC Expedition which is a German icebreaker in the centre of the Arctic ocean doing research.

“That’s a really powerful way of saying the EU is at the heart of things.

“Another thing is to become involved in promoting marine protected areas.

“But that will put them on a collision course with China, who doesn’t want more marine protected areas.”

Prof Dodds says we will see this situation pan out in the next few years, as the EU increases proposals to member states to exercise its influence.

He continued: “So it’s that kind of thing, where through policy development, the EU can make it clear in terms of whether it agrees or disagrees with others.

“I think you will see both the EU and China trying to act in what we call norm entrepreneurs – meaning trying to fix and shape the rules of the diplomatic geopolitical game.

“So how do you get people to do what you want them to do? One of the ways is through proposals.

“The EU is a member of a particular element of the Antarctic Treaty System that deals with fish, but it is also represented in the system by the simple virtue that many of its states are part of the system.

“So the EU can exercise influence through its member states, as well as the EU as an entity in Brussels.”

Having left the EU following Brexit, Prof Dodds now believes the UK faces a crucial decision on how it decides to move forward in these regions. 

He continued: “I think the polar regions present both opportunities and dilemmas for the UK as it transitions out in terms of a post-EU future.

“In Antarctica, the US and the EU often align with each other – we have shared interest – but in the Arctic, we must find a way to work with the US, the EU and other non-EU states like Norway.

“And, of course, in both regions we have China and Russia, two countries which are not natural allies.”

In 2048, several elements of the Antarctic Treaty will come up for contention, but Prof Dodds warns that the big players like China will “chip away” at the treaty well before then.

He explained: “In the next five to 10 years, a lot of this tension will make itself known, so there’s no point obsessing about dates on the treaty.

“What’s going on now is a source of concern, not what happens in 2048 – a lot of these things are already revealing themselves.

“We’ve got to stop thinking of these places as remote, unimportant or disconnected, they’re not – they are centre stage in global politics.

“Western countries want to hang on to the treaty, so what China will do is it will keep chipping away at the terms – in the sense of the collective will and determination of the others to try and block them – because they don’t want China to walk away, or Russia.”

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