BEIJING- Its activity around the North Pole may be grabbing international headlines but it is the South Pole that China is putting more of its money on.
Beijing is spending US$55 million (S$70 million) a year on Antarctica, about three times its budget for the Arctic and double what it spent 10 years ago.
Just last month, China launched its latest expedition to Antarctica, its 30th since 1984, which was a year after it had acceded to the Antarctic Treaty. By contrast, it has despatched only five expeditions to the Arctic.
The construction crew aboard the icebreaker Xuelong has begun work on the country's fourth scientific research base there, known as Taishan. It is also scouting suitable sites for its fifth, which will be one fewer than what the Americans have. China has only one Arctic research base, built in 2004.
Such progress has been eclipsed by news up north of how China gained observer status to the Arctic Council in May, and Xuelong making a landmark trip through the northern sea route in September last year.
But analyst He Maochun, director of Tsinghua University's Research Centre for Economic Diplomacy Studies, said the poles are equally important to China, given its desire to study and protect the environment, including researching the impact of melting ice caps on climate change.
"The two poles are very far yet near for China given the potential impact of climate change. China also wants to live up to its responsibility of a big country," he told The Straits Times.
But some believe China's Antarctic ambitions are fuelled more by its hunger for the region's vastly untapped resources, such as oil, gas and fish.
"As an energy-hungry nation, China is extremely interested in the resources of Antarctica (and the Arctic) and any possibilities for their exploitation," wrote Professor Anne-Marie Brady of New Zealand's Canterbury University in a recent research paper.