Pole Position

Universe in 2009 / by Jane Qiu /

China's expanding scientific soft power has the ability to reshape the flow of money, technology, and talent in the region.

The thawing of a part of China’s Cold War legacy is occurring at the coldest place on Earth, through a new partnership with South Korea. The two nations have crossed paths in their long-standing interest in polar research, but they now have a solid political foundation on which new scientific collaborations will be based: a government-level agreement, signed last year during South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Beijing.

“This agreement is of great significance and signals a step forward for polar cooperation between the two countries,” says Dongmin Lin, director of the Department of Policy Development, Korea Ocean and Research Development Institute in Incheon, South Korea. It also may be a bellwether of the increasing centrality of China to global science and the spheres of influence in the region.

Chinese and South Korean researchers have undertaken joint expeditions in the past, such as voyages through the Arctic and the Antarctic onboard China’s icebreaker Xuelong. Terrestrial biologists from the two countries are also conducting joint studies on how climate change affects polar vegetation.

But with this new agreement, polar researchers on both sides expect to see increased resources for more academic exchange, sharing of information, and enhanced logistic cooperation. South Korea will complete its own icebreaker, Araon, which will sail alongside Xuelong. And in late January 2009, the two nations expect to collaborate on glaciology after China builds its new station on Dome Argus, which, at 4,084 meters and temperatures as low as -90 degrees C, is the highest and coldest point in the Antarctic. The team hopes to extract the oldest ice core in the world, and with it a wealth of climate data.

“China is one of the most important partners for us,” says Lin. As China solidifies its scientific status on the world stage, South Korea is increasingly looking to its neighbor for collaborations in many areas, where it might have turned to the United States or Japan in the past. With China threatening to overtake the latter and become the second-biggest spender on R&D, China’s expanding scientific soft power has the ability to reshape the flow of money, technology, and talent in the region.

China’s polar-science endeavors, especially ones concerned with climate, are particularly suited for regional partnerships. While many European scientists focus mostly on their side of the Arctic, China and South Korea are more interested in the area around the Bering Sea, where local climate changes have a direct impact on the two countries.

Cultural similarities also have an important role in their close ties. Such common ground between Chinese and South Korean researchers makes understanding one another and reaching agreements easier, says Liu Xiaohan, a polar geologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Tibetan Research Institute. Lin agrees: “The emotional distance between the two countries is very close.”

These warm feelings are no small feat for former Cold War enemies. But despite such progress, the effects of old conflict are still apparent in the region, and they have not been entirely benign. When China and South Korea formally reestablished diplomatic relations in 1992, the move infuriated North Korea and also severely strained the relationship between Taiwan and South Korea. Now, in an effort to balance against China’s alliances, North Korea is making surprising diplomatic overtures to both Taiwan and the US.

North Korea responded to its southern neighbor’s science diplomacy by initiating “symphonic diplomacy” with the United States. When the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was invited to Pyongyang last February, it represented one of the US’s largest ever peaceful envoys to North Korea. Some see North Korea’s amiable gesture toward a nation it has long reviled as a warning sign for China.

Liu concedes that these joint polar research efforts are too small to directly impact the geopolitical landscape on a grand scale, but he thinks they can have an influence. “Formal scientific cooperation will certainly have political ramifications,” he says. Science, like sports and the arts, can lead to cultural and intellectual exchanges that ripple through societies and governments.

Indeed, China’s increasingly good relations in the post-Cold War era speak well for a future of openness, but North Korea remains a concern. The two nations are long-term allies with a relationship that is often described “as close as lips and teeth.” There is much to lose and little to gain in a political showdown between them, so future collaborations between China and South Korea must be taken with that in mind.

It may be that working toward a unified Korea and a peace treaty between China and Taiwan is the only solution for a long-lasting balance of power in this part of Asia, but scientific diplomacy can certainly play a part toward that goal. With China marshalling its neighbors’ common interest in science, there is reason for optimism, but only time will tell what these alliances mean for the region. — Jane Qiu is a science journalist based in London and Beijing.

Originally published January 7, 2009

Tags development growth technology

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