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China's New Antarctic Research Station Renews Concerns About Potential Security Threats

FILE - People attend the launch ceremony of China's first domestically built polar icebreaker, Xuelong 2, or Snow Dragon 2, at a shipyard in Shanghai, Sept. 10, 2018.
FILE - People attend the launch ceremony of China's first domestically built polar icebreaker, Xuelong 2, or Snow Dragon 2, at a shipyard in Shanghai, Sept. 10, 2018.

China’s inauguration of a new scientific research station in Antarctica last week has renewed debate about the purpose and impact of the rapid expansion of Chinese presence on the continent.

Situated on Inexpressible Island near the Ross Sea, Qinling Station is China’s fifth scientific outpost and third research station on the continent that can operate year around. The station covers 5,244 square meters (6,272 square yards) and can house up to 80 people during summer months, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.

Qinling Station is near the U.S. McMurdo Station and just south of Australia. A Center for Strategic and International Studies report published last April said its position could allow China to “collect signals intelligence from U.S.-allied Australia and New Zealand” as well as gather “telemetry data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities in both countries.”

Some analysts say while Qinling Station is built for scientific purposes, some of its capabilities may be “inherently dual-use.”

“China can potentially leverage some of those resources and capabilities for military or intelligence gathering purposes,” Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at CSIS, told VOA by phone.

He said China continues to build more Antarctic research bases because it views the icy continent as part of the “strategic frontiers.”

“Since it is an area that is further from China’s immediate periphery, Beijing wants to be on the cutting edge and be perceived as a global leader that’s on par with the U.S.,” Hart said, adding that China’s long-term goal is to have a voice in Antarctic governance by cementing a foothold there by establishing scientific research bases.

In response to concerns about China potentially collecting intelligence on Australia and New Zealand through the station, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the base is built and operated “in full compliance with international rules and procedures.”

“The station will contribute to humanity’s scientific understanding of the Antarctic, provide a platform for joint scientific exploration and coordination between China and other countries and help advance peace and sustainable development in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wen-bin said during the daily press conference February 7.

Despite Beijing’s reiteration that the station abides by the rules of the Antarctic Treaty, which outlaws the military use of the continent, some experts say China’s pattern of building its research stations across Antarctica raises legitimate questions about its significant presence on the continent.

China’s pattern of building Antarctic research bases “raises questions about whether it is committed to the principles of the Antarctic Treaty and whether it plans to potentially assert a claim to Antarctica,” Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at Australian National University, told VOA by phone.

Since China has expressed the ambition to become a great polar power, Rothwell said, China’s rapid expansion of research bases in Antarctica aligns with that goal.

“Over the last decade, China has sought to be seen as a serious state actor in polar affairs,” he said.

China is gaining “credibility as a serious Antarctic state through its scientific research program and its engagement in the Antarctic Treaty system,” Rothwell added.

The day that China announced the opening of Qinling Station, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the completion of the building of the research base would “provide a strong guarantee for scientists in China and around the world to continue to explore the mysteries of nature and bravely ascend the peak of science.”

He also called for “better understanding, protection and utilization of the polar regions to make new and greater contributions to the benefit of humanity and the building of a community with a shared future for humanity.”

While the Qinling Station has begun operation, Hart said, more elements with potential dual-use capabilities may be added in the future.

“The capacity for this station to support habitation is already up and running, but there are more elements of the overall facility that will be built out in the future,” he told VOA.

“The main one for potential dual-use applications is the antennas and other electronic equipment that can support communication with China’s satellites,” Hart said.

In a 2022 report on China’s military and security developments, the U.S. Department of Defense said that China’s “strategy for Antarctica includes the use of dual-use technologies, facilities and scientific research, which are likely intended, at least in part, to improve PLA [People’s Liberation Army] capabilities.”

The report also indicated that China’s facilities on the continent can be reference stations for its dual-use BeiDou satellite navigation network, which is Beijing’s alternative to the U.S.-controlled global positioning system.

Hart said that while Chinese scientists are doing legitimate work in Antarctica that should not be curtailed, “it’s important to emphasize what kind of capabilities” their research stations will have and how those capabilities could be beneficial to the Chinese government and Chinese military.

“It’s important that Antarctica remains a nonmilitarized space,” he told VOA.

Some analysts say a way to ensure Antarctica remains nonmilitarized and that the interests of Antarctic Treaty members are guaranteed is to rely on existing inspection regimes.

There should be "a concerted effort to use the inspection regimes that are available in Antarctica to ensure that facilities are not used for military activities or contrary to the Antarctic Treaty,” Tony Press, an expert on Antarctic affairs at the University of Tasmania, told VOA in a video interview.