The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long‘s rescue of the passengers aboard the stranded Russian research vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy has made headlines around the world. Since December 24, the Russian ship has been stuck in pack ice near Antarctica’s Cape de la Motte, approximately 1,700 miles south of Tasmania. MV Akademik Shokalskiy was about midway through the month-long Australasian Antarctic Expedition, run by the University of New South Wales, to retrace the 1911-13 journey of the Australian explorer of Antarctica, Douglas Mawson while also conducting climate science research.
Australia’s icebreaker, Aurora Australis, first set out to rescue the 52 passengers on board. France’s L’Astrolabe icebreaker, also sailing near Antarctica, tried to help. But when neither ship could perform the rescue due to challenging weather conditions and thick sea ice, China’s icebreaker, Xue Long, stepped in. Xue Long had been nearby in the Southern Ocean, two months into a five-month expedition partly to begin construction on China’s fourth Antarctic research station. But Xue Long also could not safely break through the ice to reach Aurora Australia. In the end, the decision was made to rescue the passengers using the Xueying 12 helicopter on board the Xue Long. After five flights carrying 12 people at a time, all of the passengers were brought first to Xue Long and then by barge to Aurora Australis. The Russian vessels’ 22 crew members are remaining on board the well-provisioned ship in the hopes of eventually steering it out of the ice.
Western media coverage of the rescue
It’s interesting to compare how various media outlets are reporting this story.
The New York Times reports, “In a dramatic operation displaying unusual international harmony in one of the world’s most remote and inhospitable places, a red-and-white Chinese helicopter on Thursday rescued 52 passengers trapped for more than a week aboard an icebound Russian research ship in Antarctica, ferrying them a dozen at a time to an Australian icebreaker.”
Less colorfully, the Sydney Morning Herald states, “Xueying 12, a helicopter on board Xuelong, on Thursday successfully evacuated all the 52 passengers aboard the Russian vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy that has been stranded since Christmas Eve to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis.”
The Guardian, which actually had its science reporter Alok Jha and video producer Lawrence Topham on board the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, says, “A helicopter sent from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long landed next to the trapped Akademik Shokalskiy on Thursday afternoon and the first group of passengers were evacuated shortly after 8pm local time.” (Video from The Guardian here).
And in Russia, RIA Novosti’s article only briefly mentions China’s involvement: “The evacuation of passengers began on Thursday, when the Chinese arrived to the place of the helicopter.”
Coverage of the rescue, and China’s activities in the Antarctic, was more neutral than just a few months prior, when Xue Long set out on its current voyage. A November story in The Guardian was then headlined with: “China eyes Antarctica’s resource bounty: Experts raise concerns over China’s ambitions in mineral-rich continent as Snow Dragon icebreaker embarks.” More recently, Business Week offered somewhat snarkily, “Luckily for people stranded since Christmas Eve in Antarctica, China is trying to become a global power in science.” But on the flip side, rather unluckily for the Chinese (and Australians, French, and now Americans), they’ve all been distracted from their scientific goals at hand.
The Australian academics’ commemoration of an Antarctic voyage that took place one century ago has drained the region’s human resources by necessitating the diversion of Chinese, French, and Australian expeditions from their main tasks. The Australian government will foot the $400,000 rescue bill, but no amount of money can make up for the lost time on the Chinese, French, and Australian expeditions in the short operating season in Antarctica. Now, the U.S. Polar Star is going to help assist the vessels stuck in the ice, further putting a strain on the human and technical capabilities in Antarctica. Experts – like the French polar chief, who has already done so – thus might want to raise concerns over the ambitions of Western researchers seeking to retrace the paths of explorers from 100 years ago (while, it should be noted, also carrying out some scientific research) rather than focusing on the supposed resource grabs by Asian states.
Chinese coverage of the rescue
In China, Xue Long’s participation in the rescue has been covered in a more valiant light. The most interesting story I’ve come across is on People’s Daily, the official national daily newspaper, one that is effectively the voice of the Communist Party of China. The article says that though the rescue was “difficult,” “Xue Long stubbornly persist[ed].”
The article continues, “Despite expedition tasks…Xue Long is still in a humanitarian spirit, to postpone the expedition plans to change course, rush to the rescue, and the first time arrived at [the] site of the incident.”
The state-published newspaper also noted that Russian media said the rescue was particularly challenging. The author explains (translation via Google Translate): “After the 52 passengers were rescued, RIA Novosti and other major media reported the first time, a Russian TV station called ‘an extremely difficult task.’ Russian television stations and other media focused on a report of the Chinese helicopter carrying rescue trapped passengers throughout the course of the ‘most difficult part of the’ back and forth several times to emphasize the helicopter, and recalled the Xue Long icebreaker to rescue course.” The article concluded by mentioning how Chris Turney, the leader of the Australasian Antarctic expedition, and Guardian reporter Alok Jha, “have expressed gratitude to the Chinese, Xue Long rescue aid workers and other relevant personnel.”
Thus, international and popular perception of the Chinese icebreaker’s participation in the rescue seems important to many in China. A commenter on an article on sina.com expressed, “Congratulations! Good job, China! Chinese saved the world! This is truly a model of international cooperation. Hope to hear more positive news from China.”
Further highlighting the importance of Xue Long’s mission in the eyes of Chinese officials, Xinhua reports that President Xi Jinping personally requested an “all-out” effort to ensure the safety of the staff on board, asking them to remain calm. He also greeted the crew in a special message.
China (and South Korea) to the Rescue at the Poles
The simple fact that China had the infrastructure – not just an icebreaker, but also a helicopter – to rescue the people on board the Russian ship demonstrates that Asian involvement at the poles can benefit all users of the region. Even if one were to cynically argue that countries like China and also South Korea are just exploiting the poles for national gain, at the very least, with more icebreakers and crew members trained in search and rescue present in the Antarctic and Arctic, the regions become safer places for all involved. Let’s not forget that in December 2011, the Korean icebreaker Araon rescued the 32 crewmembers on board the Russian fishing trawler Sparta after it struck ice in the Ross Sea off Antarctica. Two years later, a similar story has played out again, this time with China instead of Korea coming to the rescue. It won’t be surprising if these two Asian countries become more involved in polar search and rescue – and in fact, perhaps their participation in multilateral training and exercises in the region should be encouraged.