The 14 million square kilometer “southern land” –- as the early 19th century explorers called Antarctica — with nearly 18000 km of coastline is at approximately the same elevation as Australia but is inhospitable due to extreme cold winds. The temperatures plummet up to – 90 degree Celsius in Antarctica’s interior regions in winter. To preserve its wilderness, an Antarctica Treaty was signed on 1 December 1959. China acceded to the Treaty in 1983. The Treaty and the subsequent convention agreements mandate Antarctica’s use for only peaceful purposes and do not allow territorial claims. A protocol signed in Madrid in 1998 bans mining indefinitely, though it is to be reviewed in 2048.
Global warming, meanwhile, is pushing the average temperature on Antarctica upwards and the summer temperatures in coastal areas of West Antarctica rise up to 15 degree Celsius. Amid the growing global hunger for more natural resources, the southwards momentum cannot be evaded for long. And as ice-sheets melt expanding the nearly 300,000 square km ice-free land there, this barren 98 % ice continent which receives more solar radiation than the equator could be up for grabs. It is this new arrangement that China is aggressively preparing to have a voice in.
The reflection of the Chinese resolve came from none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping in July this year when he counted poles as an option where China could explore for resources. The figures of Chinese spending are telling. On research in Antarctica, China spent USD 55 million in 2012 – three times it spent two decades earlier and double of what it spent last decade.
On a continent where sovereignty remains disputed, China has sought to get registered against established players by building bases on whatever available spots. Recently China sent its 30th Antarctica expedition team of 256 members to complete its unfinished fourth base in Taishan situated at Ross Dependency close to the main U.S. base — McMurdo Station. The expedition will inspect three other Chinese research stations – Great Wall Station on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, Zhongshan (Sun Yat-Sen) Station in the east at Larsemann Hills and world’s most inland base Kunlun Station at Dome Argus, the highest location on Antarctica. The mission will also scout a site for China’s fifth station in Terra Nova Bay.
Among all China’s bases, the Kunlun Station is most strategically located. The ice at Dome Argus is over 3,000 meters thick and research here could give critical insight about the earth’s climate up to 1.5 million years ago. Dome Argus could also be very useful for deep space astronomy. In a territory where groundbreaking research could bestow unprecedented international recognition, China plans to scale upwards by building stronger icebreakers, ice-capable airlines and a world-class deep space telescope at Kunlun Station.
In the absence of an effective administrative or inspection regime, every Treaty member tries to set standards. China has sought to gain attention by giving Chinese names to nearly 350 places. There is nothing to stop countries from doing geographical surveys. Beijing calls the Antarctic Treaty a “rich man’s club” which treats countries like China as second-class. To counter the domination of the established countries and further the resource exploitation, China strategically targets new proposals. At a recent meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, China along with Russia and Ukraine withdrew support to ensure that there was no agreement on proposals for two marine protected areas.
In any case, it could take at least 35 years for China to start exploiting the icy continent’s vast untapped resources. A head-on advantage vis-à-vis the US, the country with largest but financially strained Antarctica programme, could give China some long-term advantages if it could sustain the current momentum.
As for Antarctica – the world’s last enclave of unspoilt wilderness, time might be running out to delay an effective and updated regime, wrote The Economist. And China, for one, does not want to be left behind; there is a growing consensus in the country that the exploitation of Antarctica is only a matter of time and China should be ready to actualise its Polar Dream.
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