China expands Antarctica research bases
A Chinese icebreaker will soon sail into New Zealand's Ross Sea Antarctic Dependency to begin the process of building a research station near Scott Base.
The station, housing up to 20 people, would be shaped like a Chinese lantern, China's state news agency Xinhua reported.
The voyage of the 14,997-gross-tonne Xue Long (Snow Dragon) research ship marks an escalation in China's bid to expand its presence in Antarctica.
Political analysts say Beijing is setting itself up for possible territorial and mineral claims in the event of a breakdown in the Antarctic treaty system under which the continent is effectively a global common.
Xinhua reported that the ship was at the Zhongshan Station in Australia's Antarctic area.
The ship had unloaded construction material for a base 520 kilometres away, it said. Named Taishan and China's fourth station, it is in Princess Elizabeth Land, 2621 metres above sea level.
The ship would then go to the Ross Sea's Victoria Land for "site inspections for another research station", Xinahua said.
China has its eyes on Terra Nova Bay, 300km north of Scott Base, where Italy has a base and South Korea is building a lavish centre.
"As a latecomer to Antarctic scientific research, China is catching up," Qu Tanzhou, director of the State Oceanic Administration's Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, told Xinhua.
The new Ross Sea base would be a logistics hub for personnel and materials "such as oil and equipment, expanding the research range", Qu said.
Noting the nearby presence of the United States McMurdo Station, Qu said "international co-operation is important in Antarctic exploration".
The US Christian Science Monitor said that China's expansion was a possible sign that it could be gearing up for a power play in negotiations over how to manage the region's oil and minerals.
It said the Antarctic Treaty was up for renegotiation in 2048, meaning that states with prospective interests in the resource-rich region had sought to guarantee a voice in negotiations by ensuring they had an investment there - a scientific base, the bargaining chip of a region where science was supreme.
"The new base will consolidate China's presence in east Antarctica," said Anne-Marie Brady, a researcher at the Wilson Centre in Washington DC, who is writing a book on China's polar strategy.
"China is playing a long game in Antarctica as are a number of other states, such as Korea, India, Russia, who have explicitly stated their interest in Antarctic mineral resources," she said.
Klaus Dodd, a professor of geopolitics at the University of London and an expert in polar governance, said there were fears over what China was doing.
"Geopolitically, Antarctica is viewed by China as a territory that might become increasingly significant," he said.
"There are concerns that it might be increasingly positioning itself to act decisively."
In October, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said it believed China's new base in the Ross Sea might have strategic and military implications.
"Scientific research and development for military purposes can be carried out by civilian scientists and private sector contractors," the institute said.