China is increasing activities in Antarctica and everyone is watching closely to see whether the Asian nation will seek to lay a claim in the region. Doing so would not only violate the Antarctic Treaty, but could also trigger a global conflict where major world powers rush in to secure a part of Antarctica for themselves.
China in Antarctica
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 countries. There are currently seven original claimants to Antarctica — Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Chile, Argentina, and the UK. An important part of the treaty is that there shall be no new claim in the region nor will there be an enlargement of an existing claim. China ratified the Antarctic Treaty in 1983. As a consequence, China cannot make a claim on any part of Antarctica. However, this is dependent on Beijing actually honoring the agreement. And the immense wealth of Antarctica actually gives the Chinese enough reasons to stake a claim on it and create a South China Sea-type conflict.
Antarctica is said to be home to massive amounts of natural resources. According to the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), there are almost 300-500 billion tons of natural gas and 500 billion tons of oil on the continent. Research suggests that Antarctica has 4 of the 10 minerals that have less than 25 years of global reserves. China believes that once the world’s resources start depleting, there will be a mad rush for them. This is why the Chinese are investing so much in the continent. Four of the five bases China has in Antarctica are located in regions identified as being resource-rich. There is also the military aspect of owning a piece of the frozen land.
“China is expanding its military and modernising its military and the Arctic and Antarctic have an important part to play in that… I’m talking in particular about the rollout of China’s GNS (global navigation satellite) system, which is called BeiDou, and BeiDou is a rival to the U.S.-led system GPS… Why this is all important is because of the GPS systems of China, Russia and the U.S.: in a time of war they become really crucial, they’re used for missile timing and positioning,” Anne-Marie Brady, from the University of Canterbury, said to ABC News.
Airport at the South Pole
Beijing has announced that it will be building its first permanent airport in Antarctica soon. With this, China joins countries like the U.S., Russia, the UK, and Australia, who also have permanent airports in the region. According to Beijing, the airport is aimed at offering support to future scientific expeditions. Though the Antarctic Treaty mandates certain environmental protocols to be observed when building infrastructure on the continent, it remains to be seen how strictly the Chinese will adhere to them.
“These treaties state that all human waste and construction material has to be removed when you leave the site, while nothing can be pumped underground… The site needs to be returned to its natural condition when the activity is completed, as opposed to creating a hazardous waste dump which contaminates the environment… Unfortunately, I’d say the current treaties and protocols are not good enough. This means a large project, such as an airport, poses real difficulties — especially if the airport does not have access to a sea port or the ability to remove rubbish and waste,” Stewart Schreckengast, a professor of aviation technology at Purdue University, said in a statement (Airport Technology).
Last January, a government white paper detailed plans for developing a “polar silk road” in the Antarctic, signaling clearly that China is looking to be a dominant player in the region. This has made Australia nervous, since the country is claiming 42 percent of the continent as its own.