China expands its presence in Antarctica

China has revealed plans to build a permanent airfield in Antarctica. The airstrip reflects China’s growing interest in the world’s southernmost and coldest continent. A growing presence in Antarctica has strategic implications, but it is a natural development for a country with expanding global interests. It is essential, however, that China be a good citizen of Antarctica, and honor the legal and diplomatic conventions that govern behavior there.

Antarctica is the only continent without a native human presence. That inspired 12 countries (Japan among them) to draw up the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. That agreement, which went into effect in 1961, declares that Antarctica is a zone of peace and establishes it as a scientific preserve. It prohibits military activities, mineral mining, nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal. It supports scientific research and protects its environment. Since it was ratified, 38 other countries have become signatories.

China ratified the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and assumed consultative status — which allows it to take part in deliberations over management of the continent; only the 29 countries that carry out substantial scientific activity in Antarctica qualify — two years later. Since then, it has built three permanent Antarctic bases, two field camps and three airfields. It joins 14 other countries that have built more than 50 permanent airfields.

China’s expanding presence — construction on its fifth research station began in January — requires growth in infrastructure. Until now, China has used other countries’ airstrips, Russia in particular, to supply the bases. That has required a multistop trip with a small aircraft, the Xue Ying (Snow Hawk) 601, which can carry only 18 passengers and has a range of 3,440 km. So, China has revealed that it will build a 1,500-meter airstrip about 28 km from Zhongshan Station, located in the Larsemann Hills by Prydz Bay in the east of the continent.

Building a permanent airstrip allows China to use larger planes and several of them to stock its facilities. It would allow China to be less reliant on other countries’ facilities and less subject to their priorities. As the official journal of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology explained, “China must ensure the logistical support capability of its own Antarctic activities. For this reason, the construction of the new airport is of great significance.” It will also insert China into the management of an air traffic network on Antarctica.

Building an airfield will take years. Not only is construction time-consuming and difficult in Antarctica’s extreme conditions but the airstrip will be built atop the ice cap, which requires surveys, collection of weather information, and environmental tests. When all that information is collected, construction can begin with the laborious work of clearing the snow and packing it to ensure the runway is not destroyed as the ice drifts.

China also recognizes the strategic importance of an Antarctic presence. Radar and other communications facilities in the area can be used for missile guidance and surveillance operations. Anne Marie Brady, a New Zealand professor who is an authority on polar regions, notes that use of “Antarctic ground stations to control offensive weapons systems and relay signals intelligence — all while conducting legitimate scientific activity — has the potential to shift the strategic balance that has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific for nearly 70 years.”

China is also keenly aware of how climate change can transform trade routes, an understanding that has driven China’s push for membership in the Arctic Council. Decision-makers in Beijing recognize the vital importance of access to polar regions and the deep seabed and are acting accordingly. It is critical, then, that China acts in ways that are consistent with Antarctica’s management. It may wish to build a new airstrip, but there are processes and regulations that govern such activity. China has thus far been a good citizen in Antarctica; the rest of the world must insist on and ensure that it continues to do so.

Japan can help China along. It is one of the 12 original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, began scientific activities in Antarctica in 1956 and established Showa Station a year later, where it has conducted ground-breaking scientific research. In 1982, Japanese expedition members discovered proof of the existence of a hole in the ozone layer. This evidence helped drive international efforts to stop the damage being done, most notably the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Ongoing research in Antarctica is critical to understanding climate change throughout the globe. Japan should welcome Chinese efforts to contribute to this endeavor. But Beijing will be judged as much by its behavior in Antarctica and its respect for the international regime that governs life and work there as by the scientific results it produces.