China eyes Antarctica's resource bounty
Experts raise concerns over China's ambitions in mineral-rich continent as Snow Dragon icebreaker embarks.
China's colossal red icebreaker, the Xuelong or Snow Dragon, embarked on a 155-day expedition to Antarctica earlier this month. The voyage marks China's 30th trip to the continent, and many of the 256 crew are scientists hunting meteorites. Also onboard are construction materials to establish the country's fourth Antarctic research station, Taishan, which is to be located in Australian-claimed territory, a vast area of East Antarctica that houses an unknown wealth of coal, iron ores, manganese and hydrocarbon.
In 1960, one year before the Antarctic Treaty came into force, a geologist declared before the US science academy that he "would not give a nickel for all the resources of Antarctica". Today, in a world of dwindling fossil fuels and soaring energy needs, countries are spending lavishly to explore the potential of the world's last unexploited continent.
China, which is resource-scarce, is unambiguous about its polar aims. At a Politburo committee conference in July, president Xi Jinping emphasised the necessity of polar exploration to "take advantage of ocean and polar resources", according to a government website.
In the north, China has been granted observer status by the Arctic Council, allowing it more influence. In the south, the country is rapidly building research stations – a method of assertion on a continent where sovereignty is disputed. In 2003, China's yearly Antarctic spending was Ł12m; by 2013 it was Ł35m, accounting for 80% of the total polar budget.
Article seven of Antarctica's Protocol on Environmental Protection stipulates that activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, is prohibited. But this ruling, up for review in 2048, allows geological surveillance. "It is necessary for us to fully understand the resources on the continent," says Guo Peiqiang, a professor of law and politics at the Ocean University of China. "China's exploration of the continent is like playing chess. It's important to have a position in the global game. We don't know when play will happen, but it's necessary to have a foothold."
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