China's new Antarctic base near Scott Base
China is to build a large new Antarctic base near New Zealand's Scott Base in a move an Australian state-funded think tank believes has strategic and military implications.
It may also have benefits for Christchurch, which will offer the easiest gateway to the new base.
China, India and South Korea are ramping up their moves in the region while Canberra is backing off, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi) says in Cold calculations: Australia's Antarctic challenges published today.
The report reveals China this year surveyed New Zealand's Ross Sea area and decided to build its fourth base on the continent 300 kilometres north of Scott Base at Terra Nova Bay. Italy and South Korea already have bases there.
Qu Tanzhou, head of China's Antarctic expedition team, said the new base will be built by 2015.
Aspi said China was also building a new icebreaker to service the new base and the existing three in the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT).
Underlining the region's strategic significance, Aspi said Iran was planning to build a polar base that would include space-related research among its activities.
While the Antarctic Treaty demilitarised the region, it was no longer demilitarised, Aspi said.
"Scientific research and development for military purposes can be carried out by civilian scientists and private sector contractors," the report said.
"Antarctic bases are increasingly used for 'dual use' scientific research that's useful for military purposes, including possibly for controlling offensive weapon systems."
Private security contractors perform many tasks for the military, including research and development, engineering and maintenance, program management, intelligence analysis and security for military facilities.
"The intensity of peacetime technical intelligence collection is increasing," Aspi said.
Countries could use Antarctic bases as ground stations for monitoring and controlling satellite systems.
"Satellite technology and research are now central to Antarctic operations. The inland environment of the continent is optically very clear and ideally suited for astronomical and space research. It's also remarkably quiet, with little human-made radio interference."
China's Kunlun Station at Dome A in the AAT is "ideally suited for sending, receiving or intercepting signals from satellites".
Verification and inspection of bases under the treaty is not taking place and Aspi says there would be a move towards the increased weaponisation of Antarctica through the use of Antarctic bases to control offensive weapons systems.
"That possibility is worrying."
A great deal was happening in the region as the new nations built up their presence as the region faces a series of crises over sovereignty claims, commercial fishing, tourism, the rise of China and mineral exploitation Aspi said.
The Antarctic Treaty, which governs the region, could break down as "illegal fishing become rampant, our territorial claim disputed, the environment irreparably damaged, and a 'cold rush' for oil, gas and minerals begin", Aspi said.
Ukraine had found an oil-rich area, Russia had publicly expressed an interest in the mineral potential and China wanted polar resources.
"The politics of Antarctica are starting to heat up," Aspi said.
"We need to ensure that our polar policy settings and capabilities are adequate for a new era in Antarctic affairs."
Aspi takes a swipe at the proposed Ross Sea Marine Protected Area which is backed by New Zealand and the United States, but which this year was rejected by other nations, including Russia and the Ukraine.
Washington and Wellington have returned with an alternative proposal, reducing the size of the proposed area by more than 40 per cent.
"This is a significant and somewhat baffling retreat at a time when there's a compelling scientific case for the size of the MPA and no clear indication that all members are at the negotiating table or even ready for good-faith discussions," the think tank said.
The backdown has ongoing implications and questions whether all future protected areas will "be designated around existing and potential fishing interests".