New Chinese Fishing Vessel Bound for Antarctica Signals Other Possible Beijing Ambitions Near the South Pole

On May 25, a newly constructed Chinese fishing and processing vessel, the Shen Lan, departed from a Chinese port for its trial voyage before being deployed to the Antarctic region, where it is reportedly to be used to fish and process krill, a lucrative crustacean used for oil and feed in China. 

China’s intensified krill fishing in the region, however, is seen by some as precursor – or even serving an exploratory purpose – with regard to Beijing’s broader ambitions in the region to conduct resource extraction in the energy and mineral-rich region.  Although mining and energy prospecting are prohibited under the Antarctic Treaty, signatories including China and Russia, have intensified efforts to challenge these restrictions.  It is expected that both countries will seek to nullify this aspect of the agreement when the Treaty is placed under review in 2048. 

As it stands, China already operates four research stations (with a fifth one to be operational by 2022) in Antarctica, with remote sensing capabilities that have applications for mineral and oil exploration as well as marine surveys and military reconnaissance.  Among other considerations, the South Pole is also geographically important for the effective deployment of global satellite navigation systems.  China has reportedly deployed, for example, Beidou ground satellite receiving and processing stations at its Antarctic research stations.

As for the krill oil market, it is projected to be worth $400 million by 2025, and the Antarctic’s Southern Ocean is expected to become a critical source for supply, as sources in other parts of the world (such as in China) steadily deplete.  In recent years, the Chinese fishing industry has targeted Antarctic krill with local and national government support.  In 2019, Beijing announced the planned distribution of approximately $850 million in subsidies to small companies processing krill product.  There is concern, however, that increasing exploitation of krill in the Southern Ocean could damage the local ecosystem and have climate change implications.  The Southern Ocean reportedly plays a critical role in absorbing heat and carbon from the atmosphere.

The Shen Lan was built by Finland’s Wartsila Ship Design Company under a contract with Chinese marine engineering firm, Shanghai Chonghe Industry Group (also known as, Chong He Marine Heavy Industries Co.)  In March 2020, the Chinese firm commissioned Wartsila for a second (reportedly larger) krill processing vessel.