Beijing has announced the construction of a fifth base, matching the US base at issue .

While there is widespread international monitoring of the major powers' position-taking in the Arctic, given that global warming opens up trade routes and possibilities for resource exploitation, geopolitical movements around Antarctica go more unnoticed. With any national claims to the South Pole continent frozen by existing agreements, the steps taken by the superpowers are minor but significant. As in the Arctic, China is a new player, and is stepping up its stakes.

Shared camp for research scientists in Antarctica [Pixabay].

▲ Shared camp for research science in Antarctica [Pixabay].

article / Jesús Rizo

Antarctica is the southernmost continent and at the same time the most extreme due to its geographical and thermal conditions, which seriously limit its habitability. Human presence is almost impossible in the so-called East Antarctic, which is two thousand metres above sea level and makes up more than two thirds of the continent, making it the highest altitude continent average. Moreover, since Antarctica is not an ocean, as is the Arctic, it is not affected, except in its continental perimeter, by the increase in sea temperatures due to climate change.

To these difficulties for human presence are added the limitations imposed by international provisions, which have applied a moratorium on any claim to sovereignty or commercial exploitation, something that does not happen in the Arctic. Action in Antarctica is strongly determined by the Antarctic Treaty (Washington, 1959) which, in its articles I and IX, reservation the continent for research scientific and peaceful purposes. In addition, it prohibits nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste (article V), and any non-peaceful military action (article I).

protocol This treaty is complemented and developed by three other documents: the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, Canberra, 1980), the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCFA, London, 1988) and the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection (Madrid, 1991), which prohibits "any activity related to mineral resources, except for scientific research " until 2048. At final, the so-called Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) "shields" the Antarctic region from exploitation of its resources and increased international tensions, as it also freezes territorial claims for as long as it is in force. However, this does not prevent global powers from also seeking a foothold in Antarctica.

The most recent action corresponds to the People's Republic of China, which aspires to play a major role in the area, as is the case in the Arctic. Already with four scientific instructions sites on the southern continent (the Antarctic instructions Great Wall, Zhongshan, Kunlun and Taishan, the first two permanent and the last two functional in summer), last November it announced the construction of its fifth base (thus equalling the United States at issue ). The new facility, in the Ross Sea, would be operational by 2022.

In relation to these scientific stations, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China has been seeking to create a Specially Managed Antarctic Zone for the protection of the environment around the Kunlun base, something resisted by its regional neighbours, as it would give Beijing dominion over the activities carried out there. This is China's most important base, essential for its programs of study at subject astronomy and, therefore, for the development of the BeiDou, China's satellite navigation system, which is essential for the expansion and modernisation of its armed forces and rivals the GPS (US), Galileo (EU) and GLONASS (Russia) systems. In this respect, and in view of the military implications of Antarctica, the Treaty established the possibility for any country to carry out inspections of any of the instructions sites there, as a way of ensuring compliance with the provisions of agreement (article VII). However, the danger and cost of these inspections have meant that they have been considerably reduced, not to mention that the Kunlun base is located in one of the most climatically hostile regions of the continent.

On the other hand, China currently has two icebreakers, the Xue Long I and the Xue Long II, the latter built entirely on Chinese territory with the Finnish Aker Arctic attendance . Experts believe that, following the construction of this vessel, the People's Republic could be close to building nuclear-powered icebreakers, something that is currently only undertaken by Russia and which would have global consequences.

But the importance of Antarctica for China is not only reflected in the technical and technological advances it is making, but also in its bilateral relations with countries close to the southern continent such as Chile and Brazil, the former with original consultative status and with a territorial claim in the ATS, and the latter with consultative status only. Last September, the Andean country held the first meeting of the Joint Antarctic Cooperationcommittee with the People's Republic, in which, among other matters, the use of the port of Punta Arenas by China as a base for the supply of staff and materials to its Antarctic installations was discussed, conversations that will require further deepening. business As for Brazil, China's CEIEC (China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation) financed a new Brazilian Antarctic base worth $100 million in January.


Approximate location of the main Antarctic instructions . In blue, the US instructions , in red, the Russian , and in yellow, the Chinese .

Approximate location of the main Antarctic instructions . In blue, the US instructions , in red, the Russian , and in yellow, the Chinese .


Finally, it is worth analysing the weight of the US and Russia in Antarctica, although China is likely to be the most important player in the region, at least until the opening of the Madrid protocol for review in 2048. The United States has three permanent instructions (the instructions McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and Palmer) and two summer only (the instructions Copacabana and Cape Shirreff), so the construction of the new Chinese base will equal the issue total of the instructions US bases.

For its part, Russia, the dominant power in the Arctic, is also the dominant power in its southern counterpart, at least in terms of issue of instructions, since it has six, four of which operate annually (Mirni, Novolazarevskaya, Progrés and Vostok) and the other two only during the summer (Bellingshausen and Molodiózhnaya). However, it should be noted that Russia has not opened any Antarctic bases since the collapse of the USSR, the most recent being Progrés (1988), although it has tried, for example, to reopen the Soviet base Russkaya, without success. The United States also established most of its Antarctic instructions at the height of the Cold War, in the 1950s and 1960s, except for the two summer ones (Copacabana in 1985 and Cape Shirreff in 1991).

China, by contrast, opened the Great Wall base in 1985, the Zhongshan base in 1989, the Kunlun base in 2009 and the Taishan base in 2014 and, as mentioned above, has a new one pending for 2022.

In addition to the countries mentioned above, another twenty countries have instructions of research in Antarctica, including Spain, which has consultative status in the Antarctic Treaty. Spain has two summer instructions sites in the South Shetland Islands, the Juan Carlos I base (1988) and the Gabriel de Castilla base (1998). It also has a temporary scientific camp located on the Byers Peninsula of Livingston Island.

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