China ‘weaponising’ pandemic for covert Antarctic mission sparking ‘real concerns’

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Beijing has come under fire from the international stage for its recent actions, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who criticised its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, increasing aggression in the South China Sea and the imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong. But, experts now fear the Xi Jinping is turning the tide on those seeking to hold China to account, by using COVID-19 to its own advantage, “weaponising the pandemic,” in the words of Professor Klaus Dodds. The Royal Holloway Professor of Geopolitics revealed to how, as the pandemic forces many western governments to provide bailout programmes for its scientists in Antarctica, China and Russia continue to push forward with research and investments.

He said: “One of the things we’ve got to worry about is if the pandemic continues in the way that it is now, then one of the things that restricted access to Antarctica brings with it is less opportunity for third-parties to monitor what is going on.

“China has already said that it does not want third-party observers on fishing boats because of public health worries.

“So the pandemic, if you like, can be weaponised by states to say they don’t want others in close proximity.

“So what you might see in Antarctica is very different public health standards being applied.

“It then puts other countries in a very awkward position if consensus is the name of the game, in terms of how you handle that some countries might be scaling back, radically, what they do.”

While the West has been busy focussing its attention on problems on its doorstep, Russia and China maintain a continued presence on the continent and are reportedly pushing their luck for more access to fishing, oil reserves, and mining.

Currently, Moscow possesses more icebreakers than the US, and China is building more.

Even before that pandemic, experts warned that the two states could use these research vessels to further their claims on the continent, but now, Prof Dodds – who is also an Honorary Fellow of the British Antarctic Survey – says it will be very difficult to hold them to account.

He added: “Other countries might be a lot more relaxed about it and continue to work in Antarctica and might use the opportunity to do things that would have – in the past – been monitored and checked by others.

“That is a real concern, that China and Russia will seek to take advantage of this situation.

“Of course, what everyone is concerned about is how long this pandemic will continue to disrupt Antarctic operations.

“From the US and UK point of view, we tend to think quite alike on this issue, we put huge importance and emphasis on trust.

“One of the ways you maintain trust is you make sure others verify that you are respecting the rules of the Antarctic Treaty.

“So yes, there is a genuine concern.”

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Prof Dodds is not alone in his fears.

Donald Rothwell, an international-law professor at the Australian National University College of Law, recently said he believes China and Russia “will probably seek to maintain and even increase their Antarctic activities, especially if traditional Antarctic states begin to scale back their activities on the continent”.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, also told The Atlantic: “China’s interest in Antarctica is not limited to the short term or shaped by scientists.”

Instead, he fears the country may be laying claim on the continent for resource and military advantages, unlike most of the continent’s other members of the Antarctic Treaty System.

The global pact, signed in 1959, is dedicated to preserving and protecting the continent for scientific research and provides a safeguard against nuclear proliferation.

But, in practice, with no technical ruling government or permanent human colonies beyond scientists and support staff, sovereignty is a murky subject.

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

He continued: “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.

“That’s why consensus often leads to uncomfortable compromise, it’s a Catch-22 – you want to keep the big players, but it carries with it costs and dangers.”

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