China Is Once Again Busy in the Antarctic

Beijing is building a fifth facility, which is raising surveillance fears
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 19, 2023 4:22 PM CDT
China's Antarctic Build Brings Surveillance Fears
This 2006 photo shows a view overlooking Antarctica's Inexpressible Island, the site of China's fifth facility on the polar continent.   (Wikimedia Commons/M. Murphy)

China is back to building in Antarctica. Satellite images from January show new support facilities, temporary buildings, a helicopter pad, and foundations for a main building at the site of the country's fifth Antarctic research station on Inexpressible Island near the Ross Sea. China began building there in 2018, but a years-long lull followed. The new construction—which the Center for Strategic and International Studies calls "the most significant expansion" of China's footprint in Antarctica "in a decade"—has reignited concerns about Beijing's surveillance capabilities, per Reuters. Once completed, the facility will include a satellite ground station that could "support intelligence collection," reads a CSIS report released Tuesday.

Activities on the continent must have "peaceful purposes" under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. China has claimed the 5,000-square-meter station—expected to include an observation area, energy and logistics facilities, and a wharf for icebreakers by its completion around 2024—is for scientific research with a focus on "physical and biological oceanography, glaciology, marine ecology, zoology, atmospheric and space physics and geology," per CNN. But CSIS notes the station's position is triangulated with China's other stations to "fill in a major gap in China's coverage" of the continent and "may enable it to collect signals intelligence from US-allied Australia and New Zealand." Indeed, it "could collect telemetry data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities in both countries."

US inspectors visited the site in 2020 and found no sign of trouble in the form of military equipment or personnel, according to a State Department report. Still, a 2022 Pentagon report determined China's strategy in Antarctica "includes the use of dual-use technologies, facilities, and scientific research, which are likely intended, at least in part, to improve [People's Liberation Army] capabilities." It also said Chinese infrastructure was likely to strengthen future claims to natural resources and maritime access, per Reuters. Other countries, including Britain and South Korea, also have research facilities in Antarctica. The US still has the largest—the McMurdo station, about 200 miles from the one China is currently building—as well as the most at six. (More Antarctica stories.)

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