It has threatened Taiwan, challenged its neighbors in the South China Sea, clashed with India high in the Himalayas and sought to disrupt the U.S.-led international order everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa and South America to outer space and cyberspace. Now China is opening another front in its quest to become a global superpower: the South Pole.
Beijing has used its economic clout and growing military strength to assert a role as a “near-Arctic” state to seek a security and economic role as a warming globe makes Arctic resources and trade routes more accessible.
On the other side of the world, China is expanding its footprint in Antarctica to become a “polar great power” by the end of the decade.
“China has an interest in being seen as an important player in all kinds of regions,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow with the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “Its ability to operate in [the polar regions] is ‘world-class’ if not ‘world-leading.’”
Beijing’s national security law has created a legal framework to exercise its claims. China is increasing its presence in Antarctica through scientific projects, commercial ventures and infrastructure investments.
Chinese military leaders describe the polar regions as “strategic frontiers” and zones for military competition with the West, analysts with the Brookings Institution said.
Although seven countries — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom — have made territorial claims to parts of Antarctica, no single nation claims sovereignty over the vast, icy region.
The southern polar region is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in Washington in December 1959. The treaty among 54 countries mandates that Antarctica be used for “peaceful purposes only,” that no new territorial claims will be honored and that any scientific research gleaned on the continent be shared with all other nations.
China established Great Wall as its first research station in Antarctica in 1985 and built at least four others: Zhongshan, Kunlun, Taishan and a base on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea.
“Scientists maintain that Antarctica holds large reserves of natural resources. It is also strategically located for military and space operations,” according to The China Story website, which says China has the largest national investment on the continent.
The U.S. military, which has described China as its “pacing challenge,” is keeping a close watch on Beijing’s activities in Antarctica. The Pentagon announced this fall that it was deploying an additional 420 National Guard airmen to Antarctica as part of the military’s Operation Deep Freeze to support “climate research and other scientific activities.”
Asked whether China’s stepped-up activity in the region was a source of concern, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in October that the U.S. military was working “very closely with Australia and New Zealand on a variety of exercises throughout the region.”
“Certainly, we know that China has a presence in Antarctica,” Gen. Ryder said. “We continue to see in certain areas, particularly in the Arctic, where China has claimed that it’s an Arctic nation when it is not, that as much as [China] starts to compete for various resources in that area and to put defense capabilities in areas that are concerning, then that’s something that we’ll continue to keep an eye on.”
Some worry that Beijing will use its scientific bases in Antarctica for military purposes, such as helping the People’s Liberation Army enhance its satellite command and control features for a possible missile attack. According to a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China has installed ground satellite tracking stations at its Zhongshan and Kunlun polar research stations.
The Pentagon is concerned that China is increasing its presence in the Antarctic through benign-sounding scientific projects and investments in infrastructure, “likely intended to strengthen its position for future claims to natural resources and maritime access.”
Defense Department officials said China’s strategy in Antarctica includes the exploitation of “dual-use” technologies — facilities and research that have scientific purposes but could also improve the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army.
“Beijing’s 2015 National Security Law identifies polar regions, along with deep sea and outer space, as areas for development and exploitation,” the Pentagon said in a recent report to Congress.
About 30 countries operate dozens of research bases of varying sizes and capabilities on the barren, wind-swept continent.
Only a handful of countries recognize Australia’s claim of sovereignty over more than 40% of Antarctica, and the U.S. is not one of them. Washington says it also has the right to stake a claim in Antarctica but has not taken the step.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute says China’s interests in Antarctica are based on economic, political, military and strategic interests, including access to Arctic and Antarctic minerals, fishing opportunities, hydrocarbons, and science and technology resources.
In February 2022, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $570 million initiative to boost Australia’s presence in Antarctica. Plans included the use of drones and long-range helicopters to chart unexplored sections of the continent’s interior.
While not identifying China by name, Mr. Morrison criticized countries that he said didn’t have the best interests of Antarctica at heart.
“We are stewards of some of the most important and most sensitive environments anywhere in the world,” he said, as reported by Voice of America. “We need to keep an eye on Antarctica because there are others who have different objectives.”
Beijing shot back by accusing Mr. Morrison of “whining” about a nonexistent threat from China. The government-run Global Times accused Mr. Morrison of serving as a “pawn” of the U.S. government’s anti-China policies.
“Australian politicians know well that China’s legitimate scientific expeditions in the Antarctic region are not challenging its national security by any means,” the Global Times reported. “Such false conjecture may provide material support for [their] anti-China agenda, but it is actually paranoia originating from their hostility toward China.”
Mr. Stokes, the analyst at the Center for a New American Security, said China is engaged in legitimate scientific research in Antarctica, including efforts related to climate and environmental issues, but he agreed that some of Beijing’s operations and assets in the region could be shifted to military use if necessary.
Officials in the Chinese Transportation Ministry have announced the development of a heavy icebreaker ship that could supplement at least two others that are being used for polar research projects.
“Those are state-owned icebreakers. They can definitely be leveraged in the future for military purposes,” Mr. Stokes said.