China Reaffirms Strategic Interest In Antarctica

China Reaffirms Strategic Interest In Antarctica

By Julieta Pelcastre / Diálogo
November 27, 2019

Chile and Argentina will patrol the Antarctic continent while China seeks to strengthen its presence in the area.

The Argentine Navy’s Southern Naval Area Command and the Chilean Navy’s Third Naval Zone will conduct the 22nd Combined Naval Antarctic Patrol, November 15-March 31, 2020. The patrol aims to guarantee naval security, counter marine pollution, and ensure the preservation of the ecosystem of the Antarctic Peninsula’s waters, an area of geostrategic importance.

“Chile’s interest in Antarctica is huge; we are its port of entry. With climate change, the potential scientific development in [the area] is enormous, to face environmental situations that decades ago were considered unimaginable,” said Chilean Navy Vice Admiral Rodrigo Álvarez Aguirre, minister of Defense, at the farewell ceremony for the 2019-2020 Antarctic delegation, which the Argentine Navy will lead in the first stage.

Each year, the Chilean and Argentine armed forces conduct this activity, divided into four stages, for 120 days, navigating more than 15,000 nautical miles and visiting 34 bases that different countries operate in the Antarctic Ocean. Both forces’ vessels alternate rescues, personnel transports, anti-pollution efforts, maritime signaling  repairs, and hydrographic operations to correct nautical charts for international use.

The patrol, which falls under the 1984 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Chile and Argentina, is gaining importance due to the increase in maritime traffic through the Beagle Channel, on the extreme southern tip of South America, toward the polar zone, the Chilean Navy told the press.

“The area protected from commercial exploitation also gains relevance for China’s scientific strategic interests and Antarctic position,” Sergio Cesarin, coordinator of the Asia Pacific and Indian Studies Center at the National University of Tres de Febrero, Argentina, told Diálogo. “This poses dilemmas for regional defense and security.”

A vessel navigates the Beagle Channel on April 21, 2017. The vessel takes tourists along the glacier observatory route in Chile, from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams, the southernmost town in the world. (Photo: Martin Bernetti / AFP)

Since 2013, the Chinese government has sought to set up a protected area or Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) at its Kunlun station, located at Dome Argus, the frozen continent’s highest point, allegedly seeking to safeguard the environmental richness of the area, said Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy in its report The Heights of China’s Ambition in Antarctica.

If an ASMA is set up, China will control the area, considered to be the best spot in the world for space research. The plan is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s campaign promises to obtain international governance, said the report. In October 2019, China sent icebreakers Xuelong and Xuelong 2 to carry out the 32nd mission in the white continent, in an effort to advance its plan to open its fifth Antarctic station by 2022.

“China patiently awaits the redefinition of international rules after the Antarctic Treaty (AT)’s revision in 2048,” said Cesarin. “The fragmentation of positions in the mid-century might play in its favor, by granting it more power to impose its will on other actors, especially South Americans.”

“By offering funding, the Chinese government makes countries more receptive to accepting proposals, projects, or changes,” Juan Belikow, professor of International Relations at the University of Buenos Aires, told Diálogo. “In other words, I invest in your country, but you support me when the AT revision or resolution takes place.”

In September, the Asian country initiated conversations with Chile to start using the port of Punta Arenas for aerial and maritime transport of personnel and material to its labs in Antarctica. China also showed Argentina its interest in constructing the Antarctic Logistics Pole in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, said the Chinese newspaper South China Morning Post.

Cesarin and Belikow agree that climate change makes the frozen continent an attractive spot for China; it could facilitate the exploitation of resources in the seabed, navigation logistics corridors, and oil reserves. Another benefit for the Asian country would be less complicated mineral extraction, as a consequence of the projected defrosting of the Antarctic layer, they said.

“Antarctica is the port of entry to an ocean of economic opportunities for China, beyond the geostrategic aspects,” said Belikow. “The China factor is — and will increasingly be — important for stability in the Antarctic area. China’s ambitious plans for expansion at both poles [the Arctic and the Antarctic], sovereignty claims in the Asia Pacific region, and increasing military and scientific power may accelerate its objectives and goals,” Cesarin concluded.