Debate over China's plan for Antarctic expansion

BEIJING - It's 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.

Evidence of Beijing's resource- hunting desires in the South can be seen in how Chinese- language discussions about polar issues are "dominated by debates about Antarctic resources and how China might gain its share", she wrote.

But it remains uncertain how soon Antarctic resources can be exploited. Under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, members are banned from mining the resources until 2048, although geological surveillance is permitted.

However, some think it would be sooner rather than later that countries start harnessing Antarctic resources.

The Economist reported that at a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources last month, delegates from 24 countries and the European Union failed to agree on proposals for two marine- protected areas.

Given its deep pockets, China's Antarctic moves are sending chills through other countries, particularly given that many nations like the US have stopped expanding their polar expenditure.

Its move in giving Chinese names to some 350 places in the Antarctic has also sparked concerns.

In the past five years, China has spent US$60 million to revamp its Antarctic research bases and is set to invest US$300 million to build a new icebreaker, among other equipment, and expand its pool of polar researchers from 200 to some 1,000.

By contrast, the United States has capped its expenditure since 2008, though at US$300 million yearly, it far outstrips that of China.

But some Chinese analysts say the country has to move early in staking claims, given the disputed sovereignty at the Antarctic.

Countries assert their presence by building bases, which give them de facto right to operate in the surrounding vicinity and potential ownership of untapped resources.

There are over 100 bases set up by more than 20 states.

The Guardian newspaper in Britain last month quoted Professor Guo Peiqing of the Ocean University of China as saying: "China's exploration of the continent is like playing chess.

"It's important to have a position in the global game. We don't know when play will happen, but it's necessary to have a foothold."

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