China’s interest in Antarctica has been a consistent—and proportionate—feature of its rise as a global power. Its interest stems in part from the frozen continent’s wealth of untapped natural resources that could potentially secure Beijing’s economic prosperity well into the future. The important question for policymakers, however, is not why China has polar aspirations but how it intends to achieve them.

Although there are limits to the utility of analogizing Beijing’s strategy to the ancient Chinese game of Go, it does offer a useful framework within which to assess China’s Antarctic objectives. The game—the original name of which, Weiqi, translates essentially as “encircling territory”—emphasizes a strategic model centered on building territory, creating connections, and forcing opponents into defensive positions. China’s quest to be recognized as a polar great power utilizes technological innovation, international influence, and strategic access in the South Pacific (a gateway to the Southern Ocean, surrounding Antarctica) as key objectives. Analyzing these objectives in the context of Go strategy offers Australia and the United States an opportunity to create an Antarctic policy underscored by strategic patience, relative advantage, and resolute unity.

The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) was established in 1959 following a US-led conference with eleven other nations that had participated in the International Geophysical Year. The intent of the conference was to “draft a treaty that would address military and geopolitical tensions, accommodate the various positions on claims and promote cooperation through science.” While the result was touted as one of the most successful multilateral treaties in history, it crucially overlooked several large but developing nations—China among them. In the subsequent decades, as China grew economically, it sought to redress its exclusion.

China committed significant resources to Antarctic infrastructure and consequently achieved consultative status in 1985 and has continued to work consistently on improving its infrastructure, policies, and scientific research in the decades since. By 2006, in a clear demonstration of intent, the People’s Liberation Army designated China’s vertical world map (featuring both the Arctic and Antarctica) as an official military map, placing the Antarctic continent front and center. China has used this worldview to determine the location of its BeiDou satellite constellation and receiving stations, but it may also be used to determine any number of military courses of action, including how to improve physical access to Antarctica.

In 2015, the government under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) made a rare public announcement that “polar regions, the deep seabed, and outer space” are China’s “new strategic frontiers.” More significantly, Beijing specified that these “global commons” are strategically important areas from which it will claim the resources needed for China to become a global power. Without secure access to energy imports, China’s economic projections appear dire.

While the mining of Antarctica for resources is currently prohibited under the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, Beijing maintains an eye on the vast resources it holds. Researchers estimate there to be “500 billion tons of oil on the Antarctic continent and 300 to 500 billion tons of natural gas, plus a potential 135 billion tons of oil in the Southern Ocean.” With time on Beijing’s side and a history of demonstrated strategic patience, future Antarctic resource exploitation offers a strong rationale for Chinese national interest in the frozen continent.

In addition to China’s strategic interest in polar resources, its physical presence and ability to influence Antarctic policy projects power. In 2013, senior Chinese polar officials stated that “China’s goal of becoming a polar great power was a key component of Beijing’s maritime strategy.” Specifically, as Anne-Marie Brady, a professor and specialist in Chinese and polar politics, argues, gaining “access to all the opportunities available in the Arctic and Antarctic are essential for China to achieve its goal of restoring its international status and becoming a ‘rich country with a strong army’ (fu guo qiang bing).”

A CCP policy journal further elaborates that “the existing international maritime norms have been set by the West, and in many ways they are disadvantageous to [China’s] maritime strategy. . . . China must defend its national interests and be very involved in the process and application of international law.” Strong statements of intent such as these provide important insight into CCP logic and policy objectives. The CCP is cognizant that a strong maritime strategy supports power projection and the equal attainment of polar great power status. In turn, achieving both is a vital requirement for undisputable great power status.

Go is about advantage when demonstrating patience. The game values tactics that reveal long-term and calculated strategic interest. This type of strategy is “rather uncharacteristic of American mindset and behavior,” explains author David Lai. “When Americans take action, they expect immediate return,” he writes. However, Go “offers Americans the opportunity to nurture such sensibilities.”

China’s Antarctic tactics include the pursuit of innovative capability developments and specialized hardware such as nuclear-powered icebreakers. Aligned with its aspirations to be considered a maritime power and its adoption of Mahanian principles of seapower, China has invested significant resources into enhancing its blue-water naval capability. In a 2014 speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly connected “China’s development as a polar power to the even more significant goal of China becoming a maritime great power.” Accordingly, substantial investment has been made in the development of nuclear-powered icebreakers. To date, the only other country with a like capability is Russia. China’s conceptual designs include a “38,000-ton vessel able to operate in up to three meters of ice.” The China State Shipbuilding Corporation, responsible for developing the country’s nuclear submarines, promotes the development of multiple nuclear-powered icebreakers for three “strategic demands”—namely, polar “shipping, energy, and national security.” While likely to have been initially developed to support China’s Arctic Ocean capabilities, the connection to the Antarctic program is apparent.

China also seeks to gain polar great power status by increasing its influence and creating the possibility of change within the ATS. Beijing’s grievances are primarily founded on its lack of participation in “the scramble for Antarctica during the ‘Heroic Age’ of Antarctic exploration”—a concern shared by several other developing nations, including India. China has publicly stated its desire to amend the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and “prohibits all activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except for scientific research.” Amending the protocol may be possible from 2048 if a “majority of all Parties, including three-quarters of the Consultative Parties” agree to changes and a legal regime on mineral resources is in place. To achieve change within the ATS, then, China must influence like-minded consultative countries to vote in favor of amending the protocol. It has some twenty-four years to prepare and execute a revisionist Antarctic strategy.

The creation of strategic partnerships for physical basing to support Antarctic logistics is a further component of China’s Antarctic strategy. Historically, Chinese expeditions have transited via Hobart, Australia, or Christchurch, New Zealand. While these locations currently remain viable options, political relationships with individual nations can be fraught and may present future geopolitical issues, especially when viewed over a long time frame. New Zealand, for instance, has implemented strict, long-standing legislation making the entire country a nuclear-free zone. The legislation prohibits nuclear-powered vessels from docking in any New Zealand port and was actively enforced in 1985 when New Zealand denied entry to the USS Buchanan, a US Navy guided missile destroyer. Accordingly, once China has fully operational nuclear-powered icebreakers, it will no longer be able to rely on New Zealand as a replenishment location.

The need for Beijing to diversify Antarctic gateway points and build liberties (a Go term that signifies adjacent empty space and is essential for building a territory) also drives Beijing’s strategy. One possible alternative for Antarctic replenishment and staging is the Solomon Islands. In April 2022, China signed a minimum five-year security agreement with the island nation. Leaked copies of the document indicate a provision for China to use the port for replenishment activities. Specifically, it says that “China may, according to its own needs and with the consent of the Solomon Islands, make ship visits to, carry out logistics replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in the Solomon Islands.”

Of course, the notion that China views the Solomon Islands as simply a replenishment port for Antarctic expeditions is a narrow oversimplification. China has demonstrated an ability to improve overall influence through the “string of pearls” concept. Economic support to build and restore civilian infrastructure equally benefits several underdeveloped nations struggling for resources, such as East Timor.

Recognizing that an opponent is playing a different game is critical for Antarctic stakeholders like Australia and the United States. Unlike chess, as Lai points out, the philosophy behind Go is “to compete for relative gain rather than seeking complete annihilation of the opponent forces.” To counter China’s Antarctic objectives, Australia and the United States must maintain a positive narrative toward the current ATS structure, while also encouraging joint scientific research with China to highlight the benefits of the current governance structure.

The ATS remains one of the most successful global treaties and stands to support scientific and environmental advances long into the future. As leading nations within the ATS, Australia and the United States must work harder to utilize public diplomacy and push a positive narrative regarding the status quo. In the context of wider global competition, it is no longer sufficient to simply expect the success of the treaty to stand on its own merits. The United States and Australia must improve their messaging campaign to match the strength of China’s information operations and aggressive narrative building.

The CCP is determined to challenge the rules-based global order, attain elevated status and power, and exploit untapped natural resources on the frozen continent. China’s strategy for Antarctica incorporates strategic patience, technological innovation, international influence, and access to South Pacific territories. To contend with China’s theory of victory, Australia and the United States do not need to annihilate or aggressively posture against China but rather develop a policy that centers on strategic patience and relative gain in Antarctica.

Jenna Higgins is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and a distinguished graduate of the United States Air Command and Staff College. She has maritime patrol and ISR EW experience in multiple theaters of operation. Jenna holds a bachelor of science in physics and a master of strategy and security from the University of New South Wales, Canberra, and a master of aerosystems from Kingston University London.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: 黃逸樂(世界首窮)