Why we should pay attention to China’s Antarctic moves

A Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III with Air Force’s No. 36 Squadron delivered a drill rig from Hobart Airport to Wilkins Aerodrome. Defence image.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

After Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent meeting with Penny Wong in land-locked 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, that had travelled to Hobart from Zhongshan in China. In Chinese, Xue Long means Snow Dragon. The icebreaker carries a crew of 34 and can accommodate 128 researchers. On board are 100 square metres of laboratory space and a helicopter. The ship provides annual resupply for China’s Antarctic stations via Prydz Bay. In a few years Hobart may host China’s planned nuclear-powered icebreaker.

We’ve long cooperated with China on polar logistics. Since 2016, China has provided support to our Antarctic program through its BT-67 Basler twin-engine turboprop intracontinental aircraft for transport and science surveys in Antarctica. We have in turn provided the Chinese with seats aboard our Airbus A319 on flights from Australia to Antarctica. China has foreshadowed that it wishes to construct an ice or compacted snow runway near its Zhongshan Station capable of being used by large intercontinental aircraft. China has approached us for advice on the construction of such an airfield.

There’s now concern that there’s emerging significant cracks in the geopolitical ice in Antarctica. The result is that the Antarctic treaty, that’s governed the continent since 1959, is under greater strain. In February, China opened its fifth research station, Qinling station, in the Ross Sea area. (Thirty-one countries and one international organisation have established 77 scientific research stations in Antarctica.) Last year the commander of the Iranian navy, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani announced that Tehran also had plans to build a permanent base in Antarctica.“Our future plan is to proudly hoist the Iranian flag in Antarctica and undertake collaborative military and scientific efforts in that region. It is not just military work. There has to be scientific work and our dear scientists are preparing to implement a joint effort in line with the guidelines of Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei” he said.

In an important article in the current issue of the prestigious US journal Foreign AffairsAustralian security analyst Elizabeth Buchanan argues that the absence of armed conflict in Antarctica has created a false sense of security, with policymakers assuming that cooperation there is a given. She argues that the status quo is fragile, even though 56 states are party to the Antarctic treaty, that’s moving into its seventh decade.

China and Russia are testing how much they can get away with. There are, for example, three marine protected proposals, (East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula), that are in stalemate, some for over a decade largely due to blocking by Russia and China. Buchanan suggests that China is “ready to pounce” if the Antarctic treaty system fails. She says that the system down south presents opportunity for abuse and cites satellites as a clear example.

Antarctica’s potential role in supporting satellites is hard to assess, not least because satellite technology is changing very fast. But Buchanan argues that systems such as the American GPS, China’s BeiDou, 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.

But it’s worth noting that China has built more stations in South America and Africa, so Antarctica’s contribution has become less and less important. Beidou, 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 is 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 independent Australian 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”.

But Buchanan is 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 its activities in the South China Sea have demonstrated Beijing’s willingness to openly ignore international law when it identifies a compelling strategic reason to do so.

As a claimant state to forty two percent of the continent, there are a set of measures we should take to manage our polar relationship with China and make sure the Antarctic treaty continues to serve our interests. First, the Antarctic 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. Australia, US, and UK have conducted the most inspections, (over the last twenty years we’ve done six). But we should step up our inspections of Chinese facilities in our polar territory and leverage satellite observation technologies to enhance transparency. Our defence scientists should be in the inspection teams.

Second, we should improve our understanding of China’s Antarctic capabilities, and breadth of activities. Only then will we be able to implement a strategy that can get ahead of the emergent Chinese polar presence. Third, we should ensure that we sustain scientific, logistic, and other forms of Antarctic collaboration with China only where it’s in our national interest and helps to advance the objectives of the Antarctic treaty system. Our researchers will need to be aware of possible impacts when dual-use or advanced technologies are employed in research, such as advanced instrumentation.

Fourth, our diplomatic efforts should focus on promoting China’s adherence to the rules and obligations of the Antarctic treaty, sending clear signals about the standards of behaviour necessary if China is to be regarded as a responsible Antarctic player. Fifth, given the track record Beijing has in moving rapidly on a broad front, (as in the South China Sea), we need to be prepared to respond to a rapid increase in the speed and scale of China’s actions in Antarctica. China’s long-term interests in maritime resource extraction diverge from ours. One concern is the potential use of scientific research as a cover for resource prospecting such as seabed mapping and remote sensing to give a good indication of resource locations.

Sixth, as a guiding principle, the Hippocratic oath, “First, do no harm”, should guide our relations with China on our southern flank. 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. Seventh, our intelligence community should regularly brief scientists and other Australian Antarctic officials about China’s aims in Antarctica and what scientific cooperation might illustrate about Chinese motivations.

Eighth, with the recent Australian visit by 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 cooperation in Antarctica at a high level. Ninth, we should cooperate much more with the US on Antarctic affairs. While they don’t recognise our polar claim, we share strong common interests in the Antarctic. Antarctica should be a topic at the next AUSMIN meeting to explore opportunities for further cooperation. We should also broaden and increase our Antarctic engagement with South Korea and Japan. In May India will host in Kochi the Antarctic treaty consultative meeting where treaty parties will meet to recommend measures to their governments. India has two research stations in Antarctica and expressed interest in strengthening its Antarctic connections with us. Hobart’s use as the gateway to east Antarctica should be promoted to the three Indo-Pacific countries.

Tenth, two years ago at the Quad group leaders’ summit, Australia, India, Japan, and the US launched the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, an initiative aimed at strengthening maritime security in the region. The objective is for regional countries to buy commercially available satellite tracking data of ships and combine it with data gathered from sources such as automatic identification systems, which broadcast a ship’s name, location, course, speed, and other data. Australia, with its Quad partners, should consider applications for the new system to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. The Quad countries are all active Antarctic players. The ship-tracking data from the plethora of satellites in low-earth orbit, (particularly polar orbits), is just as applicable to the Southern Ocean as it is to the high latitudes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There’s no technical reason why this data wouldn’t be available to go into the shared analysis and distribution network that’s envisaged through the Quad.

Finally, to ensure credibility with China on any Antarctic cooperation we shouldn’t be the one that always “folds” when China says, “Do this or else cooperation is at risk.” We should be prepared to walk away from aspects of cooperation when that’s the right thing to do to protect our national interest.