China’s Forays into Antarctic Region – Analysis

Encyclopaedia Britannica

“China is increasing its presence in the Antarctic through scientific projects, commercial ventures, infrastructure and capability investments, likely intended to strengthen its position for future claims to natural resources and maritime access. There are also concerns that China's infrastructure investments in the region could be used for military purposes in the future.”

Concerns over China’s expanding activities in the Polar regions seem to have grown with the recent reports of the construction of its new Antarctic station near the Ross Sea. The resumption of construction activities of China’s fifth research station—after a few years of delay—has generated quick responses from Western critics and think tanks, such as the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). While China said it would develop a ground station in Antarctica for “ocean observation satellite to promote the high-quality development of marine economy,” CSIS Report indicated that the new station would bolster China’s “surveillance capabilities” and thereby help support its intelligence gathering from Australia and New Zealand. According to CSIS, upon completion, China’s fifth research facility in Antarctica will have a 5000-square-meter station with a huge infrastructure for scientific research and observation, which will also include energy and logistics facility, besides a wharf for the country’s ice-breakers. It says:

While essential for tracking and communicating with China’s growing array of scientific satellites, ground stations can support intelligence collection. Importantly, the station’s position may enable it to collect signals intelligence from U.S.-allied Australia and New Zealand and could collect telemetry data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities in both countries. 

Dismissing reports of the Western media and think tanks, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said: "Such concerns are unnecessary…As a consultative state of the Antarctic Treaty, China has always carried out activities in accordance with the relevant provisions of the treaty. The construction of the station will be conducive to enhancing human scientific knowledge of Antarctica, providing a platform for cooperation between China and other countries in scientific expeditions, and promoting peace and sustainable development in the region." China also reminded that when a US team inspected the facility in February 2020, they were given full support by the station leader in Antarctica. The US State Department confirmed that there was no military equipment or support personnel at the site, as per its Report, published on February 7, 2022.

However, the US Department of Defence, in its 2022 Report, noted that China was “increasing its presence in the Antarctic through scientific projects, commercial ventures, infrastructure and capability investments, likely intended to strengthen its position for future claims to natural resources and maritime access. The PRC’s strategy for Antarctica includes the use of dual-use technologies, facilities, and scientific research, which are likely intended, at least in part, to improve PLA (People’s Liberation Army) capabilities.”

China’s fourth Antarctic base. Image courtesy: Captain Antarctica

The CSIS Report said that China’s activities are growing faster and its fifth station is just 200 miles from the McMurdo station, the US’s biggest facility in Antarctica. After 1984, China developed four major research bases in Antarctica which include Great Wall, Kunlun, Taishan, and Zhongshan.  While Great Wall and Zhongshan are permanent facilities, Kunlun and Taishan will function only during the summer. The research stations are run and maintained by China’s Polar Research Institute (PRIC).

China’s Antarctica engagements began in 1983 with its accession to the Antarctica Treaty, and its first expedition to the region started in the same year. In 1985, China became a party to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs) and ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol) in 1998. It also adhered to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR Convention) in 2006 and became part of the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 2007.

So far, China conducted 39 Antarctic scientific explorations since its first exploration in 1984 “accumulating rich scientific experience through survey findings, and has formed a research matrix of” several vessels, research stations, and a polar fixed-wing aircraft, according to a report. The report further revealed that “China is still in the second tier when it comes to polar science and research capability, and that there is a gap between China and advanced countries such as the US and certain European countries. There could be more than 4,000 personnel stationed at one US Antarctic station every year, but our research vessels can only bring slightly over 200 to the region each year. The difference in sheer manpower is huge..”

China’s Antarctic policy is getting evolved through its official statements and positions. Beijing published its first policy document (White Paper) on Antarctic activities in 2017 which provided some indications of its agenda and strategies. The White Paper says that China would “build a new permanent station and advanced icebreakers, develop aerial capability for survey and transportation, and design scientific apparatuses for the Antarctic environment. However, it does not elaborate on schedules and details.” The White Paper was bought out by the State Oceanic Administration and released in Beijing ahead of the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. Though the White Paper on Antarctic activities was released in 2017, there were not many details available, unlike its Arctic Policy White Paper published in 2018.

According to Cheng Xiao, chief scientist at China’s polar icebreaker Zhong Shan Da Xue Ji Di, even as China brought out national reports on the polar situation in the Antarctic and Arctic, “data used by Chinese scientists is primarily sourced from foreign peers, and the amount of original data is too scarce to match China's status as an international science and research power.” “It would be an urgent task for the country to innovate and improve its polar entry capabilities. Only when we can attain more first-hand observation, can we better participate in polar governance, build a community with a shared future, and have a better say in international affairs related to polar affairs,” Cheng said. Though China does not have any formal territorial claim on the Antarctic region, it has gradually expanded its activities during the last decade. This has obviously resulted in growing apprehensions about the Chinese ‘threat’ in the region. Reports often refer to “suspicious Chinese activities in Antarctic since 2014” which apparently involved ‘PLA experts,’ and “a permanent airstrip large enough “to accommodate large fixed-wing planes.” 

Admittedly, China's increasing presence in Antarctica is driven by several factors. One is China's growing economic and geopolitical influence in the world. Antarctica is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, and China sees this as an opportunity to secure access to these resources. China is also seeking to expand its presence in Antarctica as part of its broader strategy of projecting its influence and presence beyond its borders. Another factor driving China's expansion in Antarctica is its desire to enhance its scientific and technological capabilities to match its rivals in the region. China views its research activities in Antarctica as a way to develop new technologies and gain knowledge in areas such as climate change, environmental protection, and space exploration.

Consequently, China's growing engagements in Antarctica have raised concerns among some countries, particularly the United States and Australia. Some experts fear that China's involvement in Antarctica would have strategic repercussions, particularly given the region's importance for global climate regulation and biodiversity. There are also concerns that China's infrastructure investments in the region could be used for military purposes in the future. It is to address these concerns that some countries, including the United States, have called for a more robust governance regime for Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty, which was signed in 1959, established Antarctica as a scientific preserve and prohibited military activity on the continent. However, there are concerns that the treaty may not be sufficient to regulate China's expanding activities in the region. Of course, concerns have grown of China’s Antarctic projects which “point to the higher level of secrecy that shrouds China’s government and military, the aggressiveness of its military actions in the South China Sea and other parts of Asia, its support for Putin’s Russia, and its challenge to the current international system.” And, though these suspicions of China’s plans may generate different interpretations, it is true that the lack of trust between the United States and China continues to be a major factor determining the governance environment in strategic locales of the global system, including the Polar regions.

(The author, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU. Views expressed in the article are personal to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of AICIS.)
Article courtesy: Eurasia Review