China to expand its presence in Antarctica

China is building its second research and ice-breaking vessel to follow the first, Xuelong, or "Snow Dragon" (above). Construction of its first airfield in Antarctica is also slated to start later this year.
China is building its second research and ice-breaking vessel to follow the first, Xuelong, or "Snow Dragon" (above). Construction of its first airfield in Antarctica is also slated to start later this year.PHOTO: XINHUA

It says focus is on research and exploration, with no immediate plans for mining resources

BEIJING • China has pledged in its first White Paper on its activities in Antarctica that it will expand scientific research and exploration of the mineral-rich continent.

But China has no immediate plans to mine or extract natural resources that could be exposed as the ice cap shrinks, according to officials from the State Oceanic Administration (SOA).

The White Paper was issued by the administration a day ahead of the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which began yesterday in Beijing and ends on June 1.

About 400 representatives from 42 countries that oversee the management of Antarctica under a 1959 treaty, as well as 10 international organisations, are attending the meeting. The Antarctic Treaty designates the continent as a natural reserve and prohibits commercial resource extraction.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

It is the first time China is hosting an Antarctic Treaty meeting since it became a signatory in 1983.

China's delegation is led by Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and State Councillor Yang Jiechi, a senior foreign policy adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At the Antarctica meeting, Chinese officials hope to sign polar cooperation agreements with the United States, Russia and Germany, according to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

  • CHINA'S ANNUAL ANTARCTIC SPENDING

    US$20m

    in 2003

    US$55m

    in 2012

  • More Chinese tourists setting foot on icy continent

  • HONG KONG • Despite a hefty price tag ranging from 70,000 yuan (S$14,100) to 160,000 yuan per trip, more and more Chinese tourists are travelling to Antarctica.

    Latest figures by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) showed that the Chinese have overtaken the Australians as the second-largest group of tourists to the continent.

    More than 5,300 Chinese tourists, a year-on-year increase of 25.7 per cent, set foot on the frozen continent during the 2016-2017 travel season.

    The number was 99 during the 2005-2006 season, according to state media.

    Chinese now make up 12 per cent of all visitors, while Americans represent the largest share at 33 per cent, and Australians make up 10 per cent.

    The total number of visitors travelling to Antarctica with IAATO members was 44,367, a rise of 15 per cent compared with last season.

    An increase of 5 per cent is expected for the 2017-2018 season, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute.

    Most of these trips take place from November to March during the five-month summer season in the Southern Hemisphere.

    The activities include a close-up look at animals such as penguins, seals and whales, as well as camping and hiking.

    Some experts have warned that the growth in tourism numbers could pose new threats to a continent designated as a natural reserve "devoted to peace and science".

Climate change and the tourist trade will also be on the international delegates' agenda, reported Australia's ABC News.

Mr Lin Shanqing, SOA's deputy director, said on Monday that Chinese scientists have identified the site for its fifth research station in Antarctica, and construction will start as early as next year. It now maintains four Antarctic stations, and has sent 33 expeditions.

It is also building its second ice-breaking vessel, and the construction of its first airfield in Antarctica is slated to start later this year, reported China Daily.

"The focus of China's Antarctic expeditions is protecting the environment and increasing our knowledge and understanding," Mr Lin was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

"As far as I know, China has no plan for mining in the Antarctic," he told reporters.

Mr Lin added that China wants "to make our contribution to the peaceful use of the Antarctic as a responsible and big country".

The White Paper also expressed China's willingness to enhance international polar cooperation. Norway, a leader in polar research, was named as a potential partner, according to SCMP.

China is one of the few countries that does not have domestic legislation governing its activities in Antarctica, and some of its fishing practices in the region have caused environmental concerns. Mr Lin said China's national legislature has been studying the problem.

China currently harvests about 30,000 tonnes of Antarctic krill annually, and the largest harvester in the world takes around 140,000 tonnes annually, Mr Lin said on Monday, without naming which country he was referring to.

He stressed that any Chinese company trying to do business in Antarctica must abide by the relevant international rules, reported the Global Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'China to expand its presence in Antarctica'. Print Edition | Subscribe