China is expanding its footprint on Antarctica at a time when Australia’s presence on the frozen continent faces a critical juncture.
Two Chinese icebreaker research vessels and a cargo ship set sail for Antarctica earlier this month with hundreds of personnel on board to help finish construction of China’s fifth station there.
Meanwhile, the Australian Antarctic Division is facing cuts to scientific research projects as it scrambles to find $25 million in savings.
Antarctic expert Claire Young, a former federal government analyst who writes for the Lowy Institute think tank, told 9news.com.au it was important for Australia to maintain a credible presence.
“It’s important that Australia continues to have good scientific capability and good logistical capability,” she said.
“The thought that they may be cutting it is a worry.”
Both Australia and China are signatories of the 12-nation Antarctic Treaty, which seeks to ensure the international presence on the world’s southernmost continent is for peaceful purposes.
Young said maintaining strong scientific capability helped treaty members wield influence.
“The trouble is China and Russia are using the treaty to push back and question the science to underpin their interests,” she said.
Since 1985, China has built four research stations in the Antarctic.
Its planned fifth one at Inexpressible Island, near the Ross Sea, should be constructed by next year, a US think tank report said earlier this year.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) study also found the station could also be used to enhance China’s intelligence gathering by monitoring signal traffic across Australia and New Zealand.
The Chinese government has insisted it needs the base for research into biological oceanography, glaciology, marine ecology and other sciences.
Young pointed to less clandestine reasons, such as fishing and tourism, behind China’s push to expand its Antarctic presence.
“Having it there means Chinese tourists visiting Antarctica can use New Zealand as a jumping-off point … it’s much quicker for them instead of going through South America.”
– With CNN, Reuters