Chinese President to Visit Tasmania

Tasmania Antarctica China Diplomacy

Chinese President Xi Jinping will be making a short visit to Tasmania following his participation in the G20 meeting in Brisbane and his address to a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament on 17 November. The choice of destination is unusual and certainly not one which dignitaries visiting Australia often consider. So why Tasmania?

The visit to Tasmania in many ways reflects the trip which President Xi planned to make to the state of Sabah during his official trip to Malaysia a year ago. That visit was mysteriously cancelled before it took place, with no reason given for the cancellation.  Like Sabah, Tasmania is a relatively isolated and poor state which at times sees itself as being treated somewhat offhandedly by the federal government. As a result it is often seeking alternatives to federal funding. Chinese tourism has provided great economic benefit to Sabah and is increasingly doing so in Tasmania.  Smaller political units are of course also more susceptible to blandishments.

Official Chinese visits are never arbitrary and global strategies inform all overseas activities. The importance of Tasmania for China will grow with the extension of the Hobart Airport runway to accommodate international flights by as early as 2016. Air China and Sichuan Airlines have already expressed enthusiasm. Interestingly, this comes at a time when all Australian Federal Police (AFP) have been withdrawn from Hobart Airport as a cost-saving measure, despite repeated calls by the Tasmanian Premier, Tasmania Police and federal Tasmanian-based politicians for the AFP to remain.

Importantly, the new Hobart Airport will also provide a key transit point for the large and heavy aircraft which will be used to supply China’s Antarctic bases in future, constituting a provisioning and refuelling stop for the aircraft on their way to and from China. The Global Times has recently reported that China plans to build a fixed-wing airport near the Zhongshan Station on Larsemann Hills in Prydz Bay in East Antarctica, which will provision China’s four research stations on the continent. The survey will commence in December 2014.  The flight distance from Guangzhou to Hobart is approximately 8,000 kilometres, and from Hobart to Larsemann Hills a further 5,000 kilometres, making the Hobart stopover almost mandatory.

At present, China provisions its Antarctic bases through a maritime supply ship Xuelong, which takes months to complete its voyages. The new airport will give China access to Antarctica in perhaps a day or two.

That China is expanding its Antarctic presence and will want to use Hobart as a half-way base in provisioning its Antarctic assets should come as no surprise to Australia. The 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan published earlier this year noted:

China in particular is expanding its efforts in East Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, including in the Australian Antarctic Territory.  Since 1996 China has expanded its Zhongshan station near Australia’s Davis station, and built Kunlun, an inland station at Dome A, the highest place in the Australian Antarctic Territory. China has built a new summer station between Zhongshan and Kunlun; a new icebreaker; and a fifth Antarctic station is going to be built in the Ross Sea to the East of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

And in September 2013, Tasmania and China signed an agreement which has attracted remarkably little attention—the Memorandum of Understanding on Antarctic Gateway Cooperation between the Government of Tasmania and the State Oceanic Administration of China.

The Economist has detailed China’s new expansions in the Antarctic and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has reviewed the challenges which Australia now faces on the continent.  While Anne-Marie Brady’s recent book examines The Emerging Politics of Antarctica, Ben Sandilands pulls no punches when he assesses what the increased Chinese presence in the Antarctic will mean for Australia:

China’s announcement that it will build an airstrip a comparatively short distance from Australia’s Davis station will make it the dominant air power in this country’s large territorial claim in Antarctica by the end of this decade. It may also make it the major user of Hobart Airport as a technical stop for air services to the continent of ice, and its adjacent oceanic sedimentary basins, which are considered to have significant oil and gas potential…
However the scale of China’s ambitions suggests that apart from possibly providing a refuelling stop to Antarctica, Australia’s influence and presence in the vast territory it claims is about to be bypassed and turned into an historical footnote … Or to be blunt, it will render us a doormat rather than a gateway.

In the meantime, Tasmanian tourist operators have been issued booklets to get them ‘China-ready’ and business representatives are sweating on the new business opportunities which they see opening up. The lead writer for Hobart’s Mercury also sees the state being ‘exposed to literally billions of eyeballs and unprecedented international attention’.