YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — China is boosting its presence in Antarctica with an eye on the icy continent’s vast untapped resources, even though it could take 35 years to start exploiting them.
China has doubled its spending on Antarctic research in the past decade, although, at about $55 million in 2012, its effort is still much smaller than the U.S. Antarctic Program — almost $300 million on top of Department of Defense support.
National Science Foundation representative in Antarctica George Blaisdell said U.S. funding remains flat as the government grapples with economic woes and costs rise for fuel and other supplies. About 1,200 U.S. scientists, support workers and military personnel have been there this summer conducting research at remote locations.
Antarctic Treaty members, which include the U.S. and China, have agreed not to exploit Antarctic resources until 2048, but there is nothing to stop them doing geographical surveys. The U.S. has carried out such work in the past but, these days, U.S. scientists applying for Antarctic study grants are more likely to focus on climate change than mineral prospecting.
The Chinese, who already have looked to other countries for resources to feed their growing industries, appear to have a different attitude.
The Polar Research Institute of China’s website used to feature a series of maps outlining Antarctic resources, including oil reserves off the coast of Antarctica, but they have recently been taken down.
Anne-Marie Brady, a political science professor at New Zealand’s Canterbury University and editor of The Polar Journal, wrote in a recently published research paper that China is clearly interested in Antarctic resources, which range from minerals to meteorites, intellectual property from bio-prospecting, locations for scientific bases, fisheries and tourism access.
“As an energy-hungry nation, China is extremely interested in the resources of Antarctica (and the Arctic) and any possibilities for their exploitation,” Brady wrote.
Chinese-language polar social science discussions are dominated by debates about Antarctic resources and how China might gain its share, she wrote.
“Such discussions are virtually taboo in the scholarly research of more established Antarctic powers,” she wrote.
Numerous newspaper reports in Chinese have alleged that some countries are already prospecting in Antarctica under the cover of scientific research, Brady said.
In Chinese-language debates, scholars, government officials and journalists appear to agree that the exploitation of Antarctica is only a matter of time and that China be ready, she said.
Texas A&M University oceanographer and Antarctic researcher Chuck Kennicutt II said it would be expensive to recover oil and gas from Antarctica but that a spike in oil prices could make it economically viable.
Fishing and tourism also offer great economic potential, he said.
In 2005 the Antarctic had 12,000 to 15,000 tourists. Five years later there were 38,000 and, this season, officials predict the number will reach 40,000, with most stopping on the Antarctic Peninsula where the bulk of the wildlife lives, Kennicutt said.
There’s no international regime for regulating Antarctic tourism, so it’s up to individual nations to set the rules, he added.
China already has as many permanent research stations as the U.S. in Antarctica — including the Great Wall Station on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, Zhongshan (Sun Yat-Sen) Station in the east and Kunlun Station in the interior.
Now the Chinese appear poised to start work on a fourth station close to the main U.S. base — McMurdo Station — in a part of Antarctica known as the Ross Dependency that is administered by New Zealand.
The Chinese recently visited Inexpressible Island, a small, rocky outcrop on the Ross Sea where members of British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition took shelter in a cave to survive the winter of 1912 on four weeks’ rations after they were cut off by heavy pack-ice.
“None of us knew China was interested in moving into this area and building a station,” Blaisdell, the NSF representative said, adding there’s been no official word on the project from the Chinese Antarctic Group.
Kennicutt said the Chinese efforts are part of a broader dynamic that has seen several other nations, such as India, Brazil and South Korea, become major players on the ice in recent years.
“This is tied to the fact that the broad dynamic in the world is changing,” he said. “There are more centers of gravity.”
The Chinese are gearing up for a much larger presence in both the Antarctic and the Arctic, he said, adding they are no longer dependent on established Antarctic nations such as the U.S. or Britain for support.
U.S. policymakers are well aware of the potential strategic importance of Antarctica. U.S. involvement was initially geopolitically motivated, and U.S. research there is still driven by such considerations, Kennicutt said.
“These science activities get more support than if they were located in some other area that didn’t involve geopolitical interests,” he said.
However, the limits of U.S. resources were evident in a review of the Antarctic Program last year that failed to recommend more large-scale infrastructure spending. A similar review 20 years ago led to construction of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for $150 million.
The increased Antarctic research activity by developing nations is partly driven by interest in the Arctic, which could soon be ice-free in summer, Kennicutt said.
Many nations, not just those with northern territories, are interested in the economic and security potential of northeast and northwest passages, he said.
“It is not just economic but also in regard to the whole balance of power and the military implications in terms of national security and homeland security,” he said.
In January, The Associated Press reported that the icebreaker Xuelong (Snow Dragon) had become the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic Ocean. According to the state-controlled China Daily newspaper, China will launch its second icebreaker in 2014.
In summer, Arctic shipping routes between China and Europe are 40 percent faster than those through the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal and Mediterranean Sea.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has relied on foreign icebreakers to supply McMurdo for several years. The Coast Guard is down to one operational icebreaker, the Healy. It owns two more, but the Polar Sea is being decommissioned and the Polar Star is undergoing a $62.8 million refitting.