China’s march across Antarctic raises fears of expansionism
Near the ice cave on Inexpressible Island where Scott’s men sheltered for months, China is erecting its fifth base on the continent, a move that some observers liken to its creeping occupation of the South China Sea.
Some even fear that China’s activity, nearly 9,000 miles from Beijing, harbours an undeclared military objective banned by the Antarctic Treaty. They claim that it has placed missile guidance systems on the ice, powerful radar and telescopes capable of tracking the West’s satellites, missiles and drones. Others speculate that China is merely there to get its hands on the riches beneaththe ice.
A study by two US-based academics, one of whom is Leigh Foster, of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, believes that China has both military and economic objectives. “The use of this suite of technology means that in any future dispute, the targeting of Antarctic bases could be a reality, even if the conflict is not in the continent,”the authors say. They note, however, that “there are signs that in Antarctica, a South China Sea scenario could unfold where China is propelled by resource nationalism”. The Polar Research Institute of China estimates that there are huge reserves of oil and natural gas under the continent, the authors say in the study, published by The Diplomat, an online foreign affairs journal.
Antarctica is a continent that has no government. At a small office in Buenos Aires, behind a wooden door marked Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, a small team administers the seventh continent on behalf of the seven nations that claim territory there: Britain, New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile and Argentina. Scores of other nations operate permanent research stations on the world’s last pristine land mass that, aside from its energy reserves, contains the world’s largest stock of fresh water. Three of China’s five bases are on territory claimed by Australia.
China cannot make a claim on Antarctic territory while the treaty remains in force but its rapidly expanding presence on the ice ensures a seat at the table when, in 29 years, the treaty provides for nations to reconsider the ban on mining there.
Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese and polar politics, likens the bases that China has built across Antarctica to those built by the Soviet Union in the Cold War era. Professor Brady said: “It seems very much like the Soviet approach of putting your bases all around, because once a country has a base there is a customary law —no one’s going to put a base on top of you; that’s yours. That’s your property.”
No one really knows what goes on at China’s Antarctic bases. While, under the Antarctic Treaty, Australia has the right to inspect China’s bases on territory it claims, it has done so only twice in the past 30 years. The last time was nearly 15 years ago, a spokeswoman for the Australian government’s Antarctic Division said, while emphasising that the deep co-operation between Australia and China in Antarctica included using each other’s ships and aircraft to travel to and around the continent.
It is a benign portrait of China’s activities that is not shared by Professor Brady, who warned Australian MPs at a parliamentary hearing last year that China had “undeclared military activities” in Antarctica and was building its case for a territorial claim should the treaty collapse.