WASHINGTON — China is increasing its Antarctic footprint according to new satellite imagery collected by a Washington-based think tank that shows construction has resumed for the first time since 2018 on the country’s fifth station in the southern polar region.
Beijing has sought to develop new shipping routes in the Arctic and expand its research in Antarctica, but Western governments worry its increasing presence in the polar regions could provide the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with better surveillance capabilities.
The new station, on Inexpressible Island near the Ross Sea, is expected to include an observatory with a satellite ground station, and should help China “fill in a major gap” in its ability to access the continent, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a report.
CSIS used satellite images taken in January to identify new support facilities, temporary buildings, a helicopter pad, and foundations for a larger main building at the 5,000 square meter (53,820 square feet) station. It is estimated that construction could be done by 2024.
“While the station can provide tracking and communications for China’s growing array of scientific polar observation satellites, its equipment can concurrently be used for intercepting other nations’ satellite communications,” CSIS said.
The station is well positioned to collect signals intelligence over Australia and New Zealand and telemetry data on rockets launched from Australia’s new Arnhem Space Centre, it said. Once finished, the station is expected to include a wharf for China’s Xuelong icebreaker ships.
CSIS told Reuters that while the US still maintains a larger research presence in Antarctica — including the biggest facility in its McMurdo station — China’s footprint is growing faster. China’s fifth station will be 200 miles (320 km) from the McMurdo station, it said.
Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, to which China is party, activities on the continent are restricted to “peaceful purposes.” Military personnel are allowed to conduct scientific research, but are banned from setting up bases, carrying out maneuvers, or testing weapons.
A 2022 Pentagon report said China’s new Antarctic infrastructure was likely intended in part to strengthen its future claims to natural resources and maritime access and improve PLA capabilities.
China rejects claims that such stations would be used for espionage. — Reuters