By political reporter Jackson Gothe-Snape
A new research base is reportedly stoking Chinese fears of a territorial “battle” in Antarctica.
- A Hong Kong newspaper reported on the emerging “battle” in Antarctica
- The story quoted an unnamed Chinese government researcher concerned about a new US base near a Chinese facility deep within the Australian Antarctic Territory
- No such base exists, according to Antarctic experts
There’s just one problem: experts believe the facility simply doesn’t exist.
The situation has angered scientists who maintain a spirit of co-operation on the southern continent.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, acquired by Chinese businessman Jack Ma in 2016, reported this week that a base set up by the US was an “attempt to block” plans by China to formally manage the region and it “appears to be backed by the US military”.
“It is a battle of political will, military power, global influence … and it has been heating up noticeably in recent months,” the article stated, quoting an unnamed Chinese government researcher.
The article described a US base “about 100 kilometres” from Chinese station Kunlun in an area known as “Dome A”. It’s deep inside the Australian Antarctic Territory.
However neither Australian officials or one of Australia’s leading astrophysicists are aware of any such station. Enquiries by the ABC to Chinese and US Antarctic programs and embassies yielded no further information.
The nearest US-linked operation was a remote telescope deployed at “Ridge A”, 150km from the Chinese base, in 2012.
But according to UNSW’s Michael Ashley — who led that project alongside researchers from the University of Arizona — it was removed earlier this year.
“The field station was scheduled for removal in January 2018, as per the usual protocol of cleaning up after you have finished with a field station,” he said.
“However, strongly corrugated snow caused the Twin Otter aircraft landing to be aborted after a couple of attempts.
“The pull-out mission was rescheduled for January 2019, and this time the Twin Otter was able to land, and a team of four people spent over 10 days there — living in tents, at a pressure altitude of 4,500m, and temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius — disassembling the equipment and packing it into multiple return flights.
“Ridge A is now just marked by footprints and the ski marks of the Twin Otters.”
China has been seeking to set up a “specially managed area” (ASMA) around its remote base at Dome A, the highest point in the Antarctic ice sheet.
ASMAs help cooperation in busy areas and are managed by a single country or group of countries. For example, the ASMA at the South Pole requires incoming aircraft to notify the US.
The area at Dome A has been identified as the best location for space observation on the planet.
The site is within Australia’s Antarctic claim but China can still pursue an ASMA because of a unique arrangement for administration of the southern continent.
The Antarctic Treaty has put all claims on hold and instead encourages nations involved in Antarctica to co-operate. It also bans mining and military activity.
However, China’s efforts to establish an ASMA at Dome A so far have been rebuffed by other nations involved in Antarctica.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “Australia has strong bilateral cooperation and regular engagement with both the United States and China on Antarctic matters”.
“For many decades, the Antarctic Treaty system has contributed towards strategic stability on the continent through its prohibition on military measures and nuclear testing, its freedom of scientific investigation and requirement to cooperate, and protection of positions on sovereign claims.”
Australia has made a claim to 42 per cent of Antarctica, linked to its long tradition of exploration and research in the area, most notably by Douglas Mawson.
The South China Morning Post article claimed China was the first nation to reach the remote plain of ice, at 4,093 metres above sea level, in a land expedition in 2005.
The University of Canterbury’s Anne-Marie Brady believes an ASMA in the region is seen by the Chinese government as “soft presence”, or a “subtle way for a state to control territory”.
“But China’s ASMA plan does not meet criteria, so its proposal has continually been blocked by other Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties,” she wrote on Twitter.
“The next Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting is in Prague [in July]. You can be sure that the [Chinese Government] will put the Dome A ASMA on the agenda.”
Having failed to win consensus for its ASMA proposal in 2016, China commenced negotiations on a code of conduct for the area.
Professor Ashley played down any notion of a “battle” in Antarctica.
“Australian and Chinese astronomers have had close collaborations — and friendships — for more than a decade at Kunlun.”
“We work on joint projects where scientific equipment is designed and built by both sides, and has to come together perfectly, and in time for the annual traverse to Kunlun, to be successful.”
The ANU’s Tony Travouillon, another Antarctic astronomy expert, said claims of tensions were “dangerous to the current state of the relationship between the countries — which is extremely positive”.
“We have countries like China and the US that are normally not working so well — but on Antarctica, you have all countries working in unison.
“No bad blood, no political restrictions.”