China is building Antarctic bases inside Australia’s claim. We don't know why

By Jackson Gothe-Snape

Updated March 30, 2019 12:11:54

What is China doing down there? Truth is, we don't know for sure.

Flying high in the skies above Antarctica's ice in late 2016, the former head of the Australian Antarctic Division was on a spectacular mission.

The Antarctic Treaty System bars military activity or mineral exploration and it is up to scientists like Nicholas Gales to ensure their neighbours are doing as they should.

His goal that day was to complete the first inspection of the remote American base at the South Pole by a nation unaided by the Americans themselves.

"We flew in under our own resources with one of our chartered ski-equipped aircraft, a Basler," he told a parliamentary committee less than a year later.

"We spent two days at the station undertaking that full inspection and then came out through (coastal US station) McMurdo on the way out."

This was the only inspection of another station Australia has undertaken in the past eight years.

While getting to the South Pole was an achievement, of perhaps greater significance was the base Dr Gales didn't visit.

"We were going to undertake an inspection of another country on the way through, one of the Chinese bases, but it was not operating from there during that summer."

All up, China's most audaciously located station — at the high point of Antarctica's vast ice sheet at the heart of Australian Antarctic Territory — has seen 10 summers.

This is a decade marked by incredible expansion of Chinese activity. Yet this station, as well as one another Chinese base within Australia's claim, have never been inspected.

Many are saying it's time for a check-up.

The Southern Ocean is the only thing between Australia and Antarctica.

Beyond it, on the southern continent, 42 per cent of land has been claimed by Australia as its sovereign territory.

Australia has three research stations on the Antarctic coast.

But it's getting crowded.

There are close to 80 separate facilities open in Antarctica, with more under construction.

China is currently building its fifth station even though it has yet to secure environmental approval for it.

In the past decade it has established Kunlun and Taishan stations.

These mysterious outposts are deep in the continent's interior within Australia's claim.

ZhongshanTaishanKunlunGreat WallRoss Sea ZhongshanTaishanKunlunGreat WallRoss Sea MawsonDavisCaseyMawsonDavisCasey RunwayVehiclesStation Living, cookingand operationsPotentially permanent facilities including sensors and antennae Station expansion

Imagery: Google Earth

Expanding international activity in Antarctica and the need to protect claims to sovereignty mean Australia must do more down south, according to prominent polar researchers.

The continent is governed by international law banning military activity or mineral exploration and freezing territorial claims, for now.

Anne-Marie Brady from the University of Canterbury believes that hasn't stopped countries jostling for position and preparing for a time when this arrangement changes.

"Countries participate in Antarctic Treaty governance but you can see in many instances backup plans and contingency plans that countries are engaging in."

ANU's Don Rothwell, an international law expert, warns Australia's claim is at risk by inaction.

"If we don't effectively seek to manage that claim and exercise our sovereignty over that claim, well, then others will perceive some level of weakness in terms of Australia's position," he said.

"They might seek to exploit that weakness into the future."

Though they note other nations such as Russia and the United States have at times tested treaty arrangements, both Professor Brady and Professor Rothwell harbour specific concerns over China's activity in Antarctica.

"China is active all across this sector within East Antarctica, quite a sizeable chunk of what Australia calls the Australian Antarctic Territory," Professor Brady said.

Professor Rothwell is wary of China's commitment to the treaty given its record in the South China Sea.

"I think there's always that concern that given China's position on some areas of international law, is China perhaps preparing itself to make some radically alternative arguments into the future which would not certainly be in Australia's interests," he said.

Investigating China's bases

Kunlun was established in 2009 and is one of continent's most isolated stations. Taishan was set up five years later.

"China is expanding its military and modernising its military and the Arctic and Antarctic have an important part to play in that," Professor Brady said.

"I'm talking in particular about the rollout of China's GNS (global navigation satellite) system, which is called BeiDou, and BeiDou is a rival to the US-led system GPS."

New Zealand's Strategic Defence Policy Statement issued last year noted the "difficulty in distinguishing between allowed and prohibited activities" under the treaty could be used by states seeking to carry out a range of military activities.

"Why this is all important is because of the GPS systems of China, Russia and the US: in a time of war they become really crucial, they're used for missile timing and positioning," Professor Brady said.

An inspection of one of these bases costs half a million dollars, according Antarctic Division estimates.

Australia's annual Antarctic budget is close to 400 times that, and a new runway, icebreaker ship and more infrastructure are in the works.

But despite growing international activity by China and other nations, inspections have not been prioritised.

Dr Gales' 2016 visit to the American South Pole base is the only time an Australian team has inspected a base since 2011.

In recent decades Australia abandoned its capability to traverse into the interior of the continent in order to focus on shipping and coastal activity.

That was a point highlighted by last year's parliamentary committee report, which called on a resumption of inspections in the coming Antarctic summer.

In the short time since the report was delivered, China continued construction in Antarctica.

Its fifth base just outside the Australian claim in the Ross Sea is being established. (An artist's depiction of the base, provided by China as part of its assessment of environmental risks, is at the top of the article).

And significant work has been undertaken at the Taishan station, midway between the coast and Kunlun station.

This satellite image, taken in January, shows massive expansion of the Taishan base.

A researcher with experience in Antarctic satellite imagery helped identify some of the infrastructure.

They wish to remain anonymous given the political sensitivities within Australia's Antarctic program.

There was no sign of satellite communications infrastructure.

Instead, they described an "unconventional" setup with several antennae around the base.

Although Taishan expansion had been planned, this researcher questioned the activity given the base acts partly as a relay point between its coastal station and its Kunlun base further inland.

Satellite image of Taishan station

ZhongshanTaishanKunlunGreat WallRoss Sea ZhongshanTaishanKunlunGreat WallRoss Sea MawsonDavisCaseyMawsonDavisCasey RunwayVehiclesStation Living, cookingand operationsPotentially permanent facilities including sensors and antennae Station expansion

Imagery: Digital Globe

Given how far south it is, Kunlun is rarely captured by satellite imagery.

But what imagery is available shows significant expansion between 2010 and 2017.

Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who sat on the recent parliamentary inquiry into Antarctica, wants inspections to resume this summer.

"Australians want Antarctica to be a place where there's no military activity, no mining and we maintain its environmental significance," he said.

"The best way to ensure everyone is abiding by the treaty is to conduct more inspections than what we are currently doing."

It is also clear that Washington is increasingly anxious about China's ambitions in the territory and would like to see Australia do more to monitor Beijing's activities.

During the parliamentary hearings, Dr Gales admitted that Australia was doing as many as it could within its "operational capacity" at the moment.

He maintained that cooperation with China has been good for Australian science, but he also revealed he would want the "capability to undertake treaty inspections a little more regularly".

For Professor Rothwell, the Antarctic Treaty is creaking as it reaches its 60th birthday.

"We've now got a proliferation of states involved in Antarctica with a proliferation of scientific bases and stations," he said.

"And that's raised a real issue in terms of capacity in terms of the ability of states to keep tabs on each other, the costs involved in terms of scientific inspection."

Dr Gales has since retired. ABC sought an interview with his replacement at the Antarctic Division, Kim Ellis, former head of the Sydney Botanic Gardens, but he declined.

In a video produced by the Antarctic Division marking his arrival in February, Mr Ellis said that "there is going to have to a significant element of change in the division going forward".

An Antarctic Division spokesperson maintains that Australia conducts inspections "regularly".

The sun will set at Australia's Davis Station for six weeks at the end of May.

Australia's 2019-20 Antarctic season is set to formally commence in November.

Out of sight, but not of mind

More Australians visit Antarctica each year than people from more than any other country except China and the US.

But given the cost, the numbers are still quite small: around 5,000 visitors.

Ten times that many are expected to visit an exhibition currently being held at the National Museum, offering a virtual reality tour of the southern continent.

Tina Brandt from the museum said visitors have been moved by the film, which emphasises the value of Antarctica to science.

"We have have had some people who have been moved to tears by what they have seen," she said.

"Australia has a long history of exploration and now research there, and I think people are just generally interested in it."

Canberra resident Don Gill believes Antarctica should not be viewed as a place to exploit or develop.

"I don't know much about other nations' motives, but it's important to preserve that idea of Antarctica as a precious place, almost like a big park," he said.

Another visitor, Chinese national Junming Ying, said it was important for Australia and China to be active down there together.

"We all live in this Earth, we are a whole family in this Earth, so we all have a responsibility to protect it."

Credits

  • Design and illustration: Emma Machan
  • Satellite images provided by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Topics: government-and-politics, international-law, defence-and-national-security, mining-environmental-issues, mining-industry, australia, antarctica

First posted March 30, 2019 06:07:10