Why we should pay attention to China’s Antarctic moves

3D rendering of the Qinling Station project. Image: China News Service

3D rendering of the Qinling Station project. Image: China News Service

After Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent meeting with Penny Wong in landlocked Canberra, it was surprising he didn’t head to Hobart for a photo op next to the Xue Long, one of China’s three icebreakers. The ship provides annual resupply for China’s Antarctic stations. In a few years, Hobart may host China’s planned nuclear-powered icebreaker.

We’ve long co-operated with China on polar logistics. China has provided support to our Antarctic program through its intracontinental aircraft for transport and science surveys in Antarctica. We have in turn given the Chinese seats aboard our Airbus A319 on flights to Antarctica.

There’s now concern that there are significant emerging cracks in the geopolitical ice in Antarctica.

The Antarctic treaty, which has governed the continent since 1959, is under greater strain. In February, China opened its fifth research station, Qinling station, in the Ross Sea area. Last year, the commander of the Iranian navy announced Tehran had plans to build a permanent base in Antarctica.

In the current issue of the Foreign Affairs journal, Australian strategic analyst Elizabeth Buchanan argues that the status quo is fragile, even though 56 states are party to the Antarctic treaty. She suggests that China is “ready to pounce” if the Antarctic treaty system fails.
Buchanan warns that the system down south presents opportunities for abuse and cites satellites as a clear example. She argues that systems such as the American GPS, China’s Bei Dou, the European Union’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS all rely on Antarctic ground receivers to function. Although these systems are central to scientific research in Antarctica, and therefore legitimate under the Antarctic treaty, “they have clear military-security applications” she observes. more stations in South America and Africa, so Antarctica’s contribution has become less and less important. Bei Dou, GLONASS and GPS aren’t dependent on ground stations in Antarctica. The US Centre for Strategic and International Studies recently suggested that China’s Qinling base was perfectly located in relation to the older Zhongshan station to together spy on Australia and New Zealand, particularly the satellite launch location in the Northern Territory.

But as Antarctic researcher Claire Young has pointed out, building an Antarctic station would be an inefficient way to spy on the Northern Territory. Many Southeast Asian and Pacific countries are closer, and some would be more hospitable hosts. The growing number of Chinese satellites going over Australia could also do the job.

Buchanan is, however, undoubtedly correct to highlight that China has positioned itself to take advantage of today’s status quo. Its activities in Antarctica are establishing a significant presence by creating “facts on the ground”, just as it’s done in the South China Sea.

As a claimant state to 42 per cent of the frozen continent, there are several measures we should take to manage our polar relationship with China and ensure the Antarctic treaty continues to serve our interests. The treaty allows unannounced inspections of stations, ships, aircraft, and equipment to instil confidence that countries down south are operating in conformity with their treaty obligations. We should step up our inspections of Chinese facilities in our polar territory, and our defence scientists should be in the ¬inspection teams.

Our diplomatic efforts should focus on promoting China’s adherence to the rules and obligations of the Antarctic treaty. China’s long-term interests in maritime resource extraction diverge from ours. We shouldn’t help China use Antarctic research for resource exploitation, gather information on advanced technology with clear potential for military purposes, or to act in environmentally harmful ways. Our intelligence community should regularly brief scientists about China’s aims in Antarctica.

With the recent visit by the Chinese foreign minister, we’ve resumed our Foreign and Strategic Dialogue and the Annual Leaders’ Meeting. We must be realistic: Communist Party officials can’t really depart from approved lines, so little creativity is possible. Their starting point is that any issue is our fault. But we should talk to ¬Beijing about areas of research co-operation in Antarctica at a high level.

Finally, to ensure credibility with China on any Antarctic co-operation we shouldn’t be the one that always “folds” when China says, “Do this or else co-operation is at risk”. We should be prepared to walk away from aspects of co-operation when that’s required to protect our southern flank.

Anthony Bergin is an Expert Associate at the ANU National Security College.
This article originally appeared in the Australian 4 April 2024

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Why we should pay attention to China’s Antarctic moves

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