In late April 2020, two Chinese icebreakers made a port call in Shanghai to a large state media celebration. Their arrival marked the completion of the Xuelong 2’s maiden voyage. Along with her older sister, the Xuelong, China’s newest Polar Class 3 icebreaker had steamed more than 70,000 nautical miles over the course of her expedition to Antarctica.1 The new Xuelong 2 (Snow Dragon 2) delivered senior members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to various stations on the Antarctic continent, and her journey marked the first time any two icebreakers deployed together in the Southern Ocean.2 The success of China’s 35th Antarctic expedition not only demonstrated an impressive Chinese capability to conduct sustained operations in the region, but also indicated larger geopolitical ambitions.
Over the past 20 years, China’s annual Antarctic spending has risen to $55 million, three times its budget for the North Pole, to support purportedly scientific endeavors.3 Normally, the international scientific community would benefit from increased investment. However, Anne-Marie Brady, a researcher who specializes in Chinese politics and its policies in the polar regions and author of China as a Polar Great Power, has noted that “China has dedicated relatively little money to polar science itself.”4 Instead, Chinese activity in the South Pole has been aimed at either one of two objectives explicitly prohibited by the Antarctic Treaty: resource exploitation and military activity.
For example, China’s secretive Kunlun Station is situated on Dome Argus, or Dome A, the tallest ice dome in Antarctica. Part of a network of bases connected by “China Boulevard”—a dedicated transverse route that runs more than 750 miles across the interior and bristles with high-powered telescopes and electronic sensors—it is a site any astronomer would be eager to visit as it is “unrivaled globally in terms of space signals and observation.”5 However, as a report in The Guardian notes, “There is no clear scientific justification for the site.”6 Instead, Kunlun likely serves a more nefarious purpose: allowing China to used infrared telescopes to search for satellite and missile launches, as well as to aid in tracking and targeting other nations’ satellites, creating a significant space warfare advantage.
In addition, as a warming environment permits easier access to Antarctica’s interior, CCP leaders are posturing to exploit the untapped mineral and energy resources found under its disappearing glaciers and in seas around the continent. Chinese Antarctic activity threatens to undermine the international structure that governs the South Pole, and it merits a U.S. and international response.
Journey to Polar Dominance
This is not the first time geopolitics have intruded on the South Pole. In the early days of the Cold War, a gaggle of nations jostled to claim their own slice of territory, often overlapping with those of other countries. The solution to this dangerous scramble was the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which successfully deflected potential conflicts by establishing the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). By simultaneously freezing territorial claims and demilitarizing the area south of 60 degrees south latitude, the system preserved the continent for the benefit of the international community and the pursuit of science.7 Since its ratification, the ATS has prevented geopolitical competition on the continent; however, it is set to expire in 2049. Some nations are taking early actions to gain dominance, and China is seen as the most powerful contender.8
China’s journey to becoming the Antarctic heavyweight has not been easy. From the earliest days of the ATS, it was virtually excluded from the continent. When attending the 1983 ATS conference as a nonconsultative party, Chinese delegates were asked to leave the room before important topics were discussed by the full-status members. CCP leaders then rapidly mobilized China’s first independent Antarctic expedition in 1984 and established its first base, Great Wall Station, in 1985.9 Since establishing that foothold and becoming a full signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, China has shown no signs of tamping its ambitions.
At sea, China’s dominance is even more pronounced. In 2008, the Xuelong received accolades in Buenos Aires for assuming logistical resupply duties for Argentine bases in Antarctica after that country’s largest icebreaker, the Almirante Irízar, suffered a fire on board.10 During the 2014–15 austral summer, the Xuelong not only circumnavigated the continent (no small feat, considering that 95 percent of the waters remain uncharted), but she also rescued the icebound Russian ice-strengthened ship Akademik Shokalskiy, saving 52 Russian passengers.11 China also rules the telecommunications airwaves. If you turn on roaming on the Antarctic peninsula, you will receive a friendly “Welcome to China” text message.
Military Activity, Resource Exploitation
Despite being a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, which bans military use and resource extraction in Antarctica until 2049, China appears to be preparing to use the continent for both purposes. Like its aggressive activity in the South China Sea, China’s quest for energy and food security is backed up by a significant military presence in the Antarctic.
Space Warfare Advantage
The tactical implications of Kunlun Station are dangerous, as Brady notes: “China’s use of [the station’s] technology during a conflict would greatly enhance its defensive capabilities in an air-sea battle in their near seas.”12 Furthermore, doubling as a ground station, Kunlun can retask satellites in any conflict scenario, since most low-earth orbiting satellites cross the continent once every 90 to 100 minutes. The site also can meet an intelligence collection request by conducting signal interception.13 Wary of unwanted visits by international parties under the ATS “Freedom of Inspection” clause, China has taken steps to limit access to Dome A. Last year, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing was looking to turn the entire area into an “Antarctic Specially Managed Area.” Experts noted this move ventures into “gray zone operations” and would effectively deny any unwanted non-Chinese activity on the dome.14
The idea of firing intercontinental ballistic missiles on a trajectory over Antarctica is actually an old one of the Sino military establishment. As early as the 1960s, CCP planners under Mao Zedong sought to circumvent U.S. northern hemisphere early-warning detection by directing missiles over the South Pole for a conceivable strike on either the Panama Canal or the U.S. homeland.15 A more recent development is the activation of the BeiDou Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). With the 35th satellite going online in May 2020, GNSS, which depends on ground-receiving stations throughout the Antarctic, offers “unprecedented functionality for China’s civil and military networks,” independently of the U.S. global positioning system network.16
China’s tactics in the Antarctic may reflect today’s high-tech modern battlespace, but its overarching strategy for the region draws from timeless strategic concepts. Fulfilling the dream of Admiral Liu Huaqing, father of the Chinese Navy, China’s Antarctic presence could establish alternative sea routes to the Chinese mainland. As Brady outlines, the Southern Ocean “offers three potential alternative shipping routes linking China with the Indian and Atlantic Ocean: (1) via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, (2) via Chile’s Cape Horn, and (3) via Australia’s Southeast Cape in Tasmania.”17 Furthermore, by dominating the continent, China gains a base from which to access or target the entire the Southern Hemisphere.
Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported Fishing
China appears ready to seize not only the treasures of the continent’s crust, but also the bounty of her seas. As its local fish stocks become exhausted, Chinese fishing fleets are increasing their presence in the far-away waters of the Southern Ocean. Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing has become a major issue in the Antarctic region. Part of the problem is that the region is difficult to monitor and lacks any overriding authority. Any international efforts to control harvesting and establish a marine protected area have been repeatedly blocked by China. These actions reflect a long-term mind-set of CCP leadership; a 2013 Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration report said as much when it argued that Antarctica’s resources must be obtained “to ensure the survival and development of its one billion population.”18
Along with its designs for the Arctic, China announced its ambitions to become a “Great Polar Power” and include a “Polar Silk Road” in its Belt and Road Initiative. Its capability to operate in these hemispheric extremes is steadily advancing and is enabling China to become a leader in the regions. China has built four stations across the continent and is completing its fifth, so it can maintain a self-sufficient, year-round presence.19 The buildup of Chinese bases has effectively consolidated its de facto claim in Antarctica, with observers noting a conspicuous pie-shaped section of activity inside Australia’s own territorial claims. China has developed enough logistical capability to project and maintain influence in this zone, while Australia cannot.20
China’s director of the Antarctic and Arctic Administration did away with any illusion of following the tenets of the environmental protocol. Speaking to reporters on board the Xuelong in 2010, he said, “We are here about the potential of the resources and how to use these resources.”21 Under the cover of scientific research, China is hunting for energy and rare earth mineral deposits. State media has already publicized ongoing mineral exploration projects in the vicinity of its Zhongshan Station and natural gas surveys in the Weddell Sea. As the continent warms, more access is available to previously covered resources, and the Polar Research Institute of China remarked that the full exploitation of resources will only be “a matter of time.”22
Countering China in the Antarctic
How can the United States and other nations counter these moves? After remarking that the time frame for great power competition in Antarctica will be in “maybe only a number of years,” then–Pacific Air Forces Commander General Charles Q. Brown called for augmenting U.S. polar capacity with additional LC-130s and icebreakers.23 To this end, the ongoing polar security cutter program will shore up the United States’ limited icebreaking capability, but the first of the planned three ships will not be delivered to the Coast Guard until 2024.24 Seagoing forces today should begin to train in conjunction with operating icebreakers to develop expertise at both poles. U.S. naval officers could benefit from increased attendance at International Maritime Organization Polar Code courses, developing valuable experience in special simulated environments. The Navy also can expand its coordination with partner nations, especially those with the most Antarctic experience.
Most important, the United States must realize that despite the peaceful scientific ideals of the ATS, the continent is rapidly becoming the next theater for strategic competition. China has overcome its early exclusion from Antarctica and now seeks to make the continent its own. From the depths of the Southern Ocean to the highest peaks of the continent’s icy interior, China has set itself up to acquire resources and use the region for its own tactical advantage. China long ago realized the geopolitical significance of the region; U.S. planners, policy makers, and military leaders must come to terms with this new reality, before they are left out in the cold.
1. “The Voyage of Two Icebreakers Have Been Creating Headlines In China,” The Economist, 28 November 2019.
2. “China’s Polar Icebreakers Back Home after 36th Antarctica Expedition,” Xinhua, 23 April 2020.
3. “China in the Antarctic: Polar Power Play,” The Economist, 13 November 2013; Anne-Marie Brady, China as a Great Polar Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 11.
4. Brady, China as a Great Polar Power, 164.
5. Anne-Marie Brady, “China’s Expanding Antarctic Interests,” Australia Strategic Policy Institute (August 2017); Elizabeth Buchanan, “Antarctica: A Cold, Hard Reality Check,” The Strategist, 19 September 2019.
6. Stéphane Foucart, “Pawns in Play on the Antarctic Ice-Cap," The Guardian, 10 November 2011.
7. Antarctic Treaty, U.S. Department of State, 1 December 1959.
8. Christopher C. Joyner, “United States Foreign Policy Interests in the Antarctic,” The Polar Journal 1, no. 1 (June 2011): 17–35; Buchanan, “Antarctica: A Cold, Hard Reality Check.”
9. Jonathan Harrington, “China in Antarctica: A History,” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 37, no. 1 (January 2015): 1–19.
10. Ivan Witker, “El Program Antártico de la República China Proyecciones Duras y Blandas,” Red China & America Latina Enfoque Multidisciplinarios 7 (November 2018): 13.
11. Brady, China as a Great Polar Power, 153; Harrington, “China in Antarctica,” 1.
12. Brady, 113.
13. Sam Bateman and Anthony Bergin, “The Race for Antarctica,” RealClear World, 1 January 2012.
14. Stephen Chen, “Are China and the U.S. Jostling for Position at the Highest Point in Antarctica?” South China Morning Post, 29 April 2019; Giulia Sciorati “China’s Polar Strategy through the Looking Glass,” ISPI Dossier, 19 July 2019; Leslie Hook and Benedict Mander, “The Fight to Win Antarctica,” The Financial Times.
15. John Wilson Lewis and Hua Di, “China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals,” International Security 17, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 19.
16. Heath Sloane, “Precision Politics: China’s Answer to GPS Comes Online,” The Diplomat, 7 April 2020.
17. Brady, China as a Great Polar Power, 63.
18. Brady, 104; Michael Atkin, “China’s Interest in Mining Antarctica Revealed as Evidence Points to Country’s Desire to Become ‘Polar Great Power,’” ABC, 21 January 2015.
19. Sciorati, “China’s Polar Strategy through the Looking Glass.”
20. Brady, China as a Great Polar Power, 158.
21. “Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty,” 4 October 1991; Jo Chandler, “China Flags Polar Resource Goals,” Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 2010.
22. Atkin, “China’s Interest In Mining Antarctica Revealed”; “Chinese Researchers Do ‘CT’ for the Antarctic Continent,” Xinhaunet, 27 December 2013.
23. “Mitchell Hour: Gen Charles Brown, USAF Commander, Pacific Forces,” The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 30 July 2019.
24. “Report to Congress on Coast Guard Polar Security Cutter,” USNI News, 31 December 2020.