Thousands of miles from Washington, Beijing or Taiwan, the race between China and the West is heating up — in the coldest place on the planet.
China has restarted construction on its fifth base in Antarctica for the first time since 2018 and is making “significant progress,” according to new analysis. The U.S. has three year-round research stations in the Antarctic.
The new Chinese site could be used to strengthen its intelligence-gathering capabilities in the area, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, said in the report released Tuesday. And it comes as China is “undertaking the most significant expansion of its footprint there in a decade,” according to CSIS.
The report, “Frozen Frontiers,” also detailed China’s moves in the Arctic, where it is stepping up investments with Russia to exploit potential new shipping routes freed up by melting sea ice.
China has stressed that its ambitions in Antarctica and the Arctic region, which are both home to research stations from the U.S. and its allies, are purely scientific. The Foreign Ministry said Thursday that the concerns about the new activity were “unnecessary” and that the construction was in full compliance with international rules and procedures.
It “will be conducive to enhancing human scientific knowledge of Antarctica, providing a platform for cooperation between China and other countries in Antarctic scientific research, and promoting Antarctic peace and sustainable development,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular news briefing.
But China’s accelerating developments are seen by some in the West as part of a wider effort to strengthen footholds for its military around the globe.
“If they see themselves as an incoming superpower with global ambitions, why would they not want to” expand their presence there, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. “Why should the Antarctic be any different?”
CSIS analyzed January satellite images from the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies showing construction work being carried out at the new base on Inexpressible Island, almost 2,000 miles south of New Zealand. It's also some 200 miles from the United States' own McMurdo Station, the largest base on the frozen continent.
After several years of inaction, the site now has a number of new support facilities, with groundwork already in place for a larger structure, the satellite images show. Once completed, the 5,000-square-meter site is expected to include a scientific research and observation area, an energy facility, a wharf for its two Xuelong, or “snow dragon” icebreakers, and other buildings, CSIS said.
Like the U.S. and other countries, China is treaty-bound to limit its Antarctic activity to “peaceful purposes,” although military personnel are allowed to carry out scientific research. However, CSIS said a satellite ground station at Beijing’s new base will “have inherent dual-use capabilities” — scientific and intelligence.
The ground station, it said, could be used to collect signals intelligence and telemetry data from rockets launched by U.S.-allied Australia and New Zealand.
China has stressed its ambitions in the region are purely scientific.
“China has made remarkable progress in deep-sea and polar scientific research, and significantly enhanced its capability to understand, protect and utilize both deep-sea and polar regions,” Han Zheng, who was then vice premier and has now been appointed vice president, said in January.
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But its own military-affiliated National Defense University said in a 2020 textbook that "mixing" civilian and military facilities was "the main way for great powers to achieve a polar military presence."
According to the Department of Defense report last year, China’s strategy for Antarctica is partly based on these “dual-use technologies” — facilities that are ostensibly scientific but improve the country’s military capabilities, too.
Since the 1950s, the American military has participated in Operation Deep Freeze providing logistical support to the U.S. Antarctic Program and the National Science Foundation.
But CSIS told Reuters that while the U.S. still maintains a larger research presence in Antarctica — including the biggest facility in its McMurdo station — China’s footprint is growing faster.