President Xi Jinping talks the talk on conservation, fails to walk the walk in Antarctica

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President Xi Jinping told the United Nations at the end of September that China was ready to take a global leadership role in ecological governance. But a month later that did not translate into a policy shift in Antarctica, as Beijing sided with Moscow to block the introduction of three marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean.

Environmentalists said they were disappointed by the failure to reach a consensus at an annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), held on October 27-30.

“Overall, the failure of global leadership to protect this critical ecosystem is deeply concerning,” said Andrea Kavanagh, the director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean work at The Pew Charitable Trusts, in a written statement.

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“On the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica and on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty going into force – an agreement reached near the height of the Cold War to protect an entire continent – establishing new marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean should have been an easy decision.”

Beijing has released a flurry of environmental pledges in the last few weeks, saying China will be carbon neutral by 2060 and capped by Xi’s online speech at the UN Summit on Biodiversity that included plans for legislation to preserve biodiversity. This was seen as China stepping into the environmental leadership role left by the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change.

CCAMLR has 26 members, including the US, China, Britain and Russia, and is integral to the Antarctic Treaty System to administer conservation initiatives in the region. The organisation is consensus-based, meaning all members need to agree for decisions to become policy.

The proposed protected areas – the East Antarctic, Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula – cover almost 4 million sq km of the Southern Ocean and if designated, would be the largest environmental protection initiative in history, according to the US-based Wilson Centre, a non-partisan policy forum.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry, who was instrumental in setting up the Ross Sea marine protected area in the Southern Ocean – the largest of its kind in the world – called on China to make good on its pledges in a commentary in The New York Times on October 26, ahead of the CCAMLR meeting.

“China could make a powerful statement about climate leadership by throwing its weight behind the creation of three new marine parks,” Kerry wrote. “And progress depends on whether China decides to join 24 countries and the European Union that already support approval.”

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Despite Xi’s ambitious pledges, Chinese oceanic studies scholars such as Qiu Jun, a researcher with the State Oceanic Administration, view marine reserves and conservation as moves by developed countries to protect their early mover advantage in ocean exploration and prevent these waters from becoming commons that can be shared and used by all countries.

China has critical strategic interests on the high seas and including more of these seas in protected areas restricts China’s maritime power and interests, Qiu wrote in a 2012 paper.

Chen Jiliang, a researcher with the Chinese environmental organisation Greenovation Hub, said he was not surprised by the stalemate. He said the programme for this year’s CCAMLR meeting had been cut back as it changed to an online format due to the pandemic, reducing time to discuss proposals.

He also said he was tired of seeing the same kind of thinking from China when it came to marine protected areas, referring to a 2015 article he drafted for China Dialogue, a non-profit that publishes ocean research.

“I think for international commons which are managed by multilateral systems, such as the high seas, when setting relevant strategies, China needs to avoid antagonistic thinking,” Chen wrote.

He said China needed to stop presuming that all proposals from Western countries were targeted against its interests, and it needed to respond to challenges as an important nation active in international governance.

Kavanagh from The Pew Charitable Trusts said that while this year’s meeting was a missed opportunity for marine protected areas, all CCAMLR countries should continue their work to get the areas designated in 2021.

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