China is increasing its Antarctic footprint according to new satellite images collected by a Washington-based thinktank showing construction has resumed for the first time since 2018 on the country’s fifth station in the south polar region.
Beijing has been seeking to develop new shipping routes in the Arctic and expand its research in Antarctica, but western governments fear its increased presence in the polar region could give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) better surveillance capabilities.
The new station, on Untold Island near the Ross Sea, is expected to include an observatory with a satellite ground station, and will help China “fill a major gap” in its ability to access the continent, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a report.
CSIS used satellite imagery taken in January to identify new support facilities, temporary buildings, a helipad, and foundations for the larger main building at the 5,000 square meter (53,820 square foot) station. It is estimated that construction can be carried out in 2024.
“While the station can provide tracking and communications for China’s growing suite of scientific polar observation satellites, its equipment can simultaneously be used to intercept other countries’ satellite communications,” CSIS said.
The station is well positioned to collect intelligence signals over Australia and New Zealand and telemetry data on rockets launched from Australia’s new Arnhem Space Centre, he said. Upon completion, the station is expected to have a wharf for the Chinese Xuelong icebreaker.
CSIS told Reuters that while the US still maintains a larger research presence in Antarctica – including the largest facility at the McMurdo station – China’s footprint is growing faster. China’s fifth station will be 200 miles (320 km) from McMurdo station, he said.
Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, to which China is a party, activity on the continent is limited to “peaceful purposes”. Military personnel are allowed to carry out scientific research, but are prohibited from establishing bases, conducting maneuvers or testing weapons.
A 2022 Pentagon report said China’s new Antarctic infrastructure may be intended in part to strengthen its future claims to natural resources and maritime access and enhance the PLA’s capabilities.
China rejects claims that such stations would be used for espionage.