It stands there like a large crucifix, the building made of glass and metal, in the middle of the cold rock of Antarctica. The brand new building is called Qinling and, as of Wednesday, is China's newest and fifth research station at the South Pole near the Ross Sea.
Construction began in 2018, but the opening was postponed due to Corona. Qinling is named after the southern constellation that is said to have helped the legendary Chinese navigator Zheng He with navigation.
The modular station has living and working spaces, laboratories and catering options. Chinese state television reported that up to 80 people will be able to live and work here in the summer and up to 30 in the winter. Pictures from Chinese foreign television CGTN showed how the crew in red outdoor jackets lined up to accompany the raising of the national flag of the same color.
Even President Xi Jinping, who wants to make China a “polar great power,” congratulated the researchers at the new polar station. The completion of Qinling is a "strong guarantee for scientists in China and around the world to continue to explore the mysteries of nature and boldly climb to the pinnacle of science," state news agency Xinhua quoted the Communist Party general secretary and president as saying.
Xi called for better understanding, protecting and using the polar regions "to make new and greater contributions to the welfare of humanity and to building a community with a shared future for humanity," according to Xinhua.
But not everyone trusts Beijing's words and intentions. Qinling is well positioned to intercept intelligence signals from Australia and New Zealand and collect intelligence from both countries, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported in April last year. A satellite ground station should also be built in Qinling. At the same time, China's presence in Antarctica is growing faster, the think tank told the Reuters news agency.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman denied allegations that China was using its research stations as espionage facilities. "As a consultative party to the Antarctic Treaty, China always ensures that our activities are consistent with the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty system," Wang Wenbin said in response to a Reuters query. Qinling will be built and operated in full accordance with international rules and procedures.
The Antarctic Treaty regulates various issues within the community of states surrounding the icy continent. Although Antarctica is considered a state-free territory, seven states laid claim to parts of the area in the 20th century: Great Britain, New Zealand, France, Australia, Norway, Chile and Argentina. However, these claims are suspended thanks to the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, to which 56 countries have now joined. South of the 60th parallel, Antarctica is reserved for scientific research. Military activities, disposal of nuclear waste and nuclear testing are prohibited. China ratified the treaty in 1983.
Since then, China has continually expanded its presence at the South Pole. In 1985 the first research facility, the Great Wall Station, was put into operation. It is located on the Drake Passage, an important connection between the Atlantic and Pacific. According to CSIS, the station is equipped with antennas and other monitoring equipment and can closely monitor ships passing through the strategically important passage. This was followed by the stations Zhongshan (1989), Kunlun (2009), Taishan (2014) - and now Qinling.
According to CSIS, China plans to equip the Zhongshan station with more antennas. These are to be built by an important player in Chinese space travel, which the USA classifies as a military facility. Here, too, there are fears that China could collect information about foreign forces in the Indian Ocean. This also includes the Diego Garcia naval base of the USA and Great Britain.
The US Department of Defense also views China's activities in Antarctica with suspicion. In a 2023 report to Congress, the Pentagon wrote that Beijing's presence on the Antarctic continent was "certainly related to its civilian space program and future PLA missions." The PLA is the abbreviation of the People's Liberation Army. The report also mentions the possibility of espionage against Australia and New Zealand.
China also wants to work more closely with Russia and possibly seek a revision of the Antarctic Treaty to gain access to natural resources and support military operations in Antarctica. Experts therefore fear that Antarctica will become a “theater of competition between great powers.”
But not all experts share this fear. Australian political scientist Yun Jiang believes fears about China's intentions, including militarization, are overblown. They were based on the false idea that what happened in the South China Sea would be repeated in Antarctica. Antarctica is of only marginal interest to Beijing.
"Rather, in my opinion, the PRC is pursuing different approaches to various geopolitical issues. In Antarctica, it is unlikely to use military force or coercion, but will confidently and vigorously represent its interests in the existing international forums under the Antarctic Treaty," she wrote in 2022 in an article from the Australian Institute of International Affairs. "As far as Antarctica is concerned, it (China) is more of a middle power than a great power."
But that could change in the future, say other experts. China's growing contributions to Antarctic science could pave the way for China to have a greater say in the future management of the region, CSIS said. The Antarctic Treaty's environmental protection protocol could be renegotiated in 2048, which would give China the opportunity to help shape future rules for mineral resource extraction.
And many of these are suspected in the region, such as gold, platinum and other metals. Antarctica is estimated to contain 45 billion barrels of oil and 115 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. However, these raw materials may not be mined.
China is also interested in Antarctic fish stocks and the cultivation of Antarctic krill. China is already one of the largest krill fishermen in Antarctica. Changing the treaties could allow China to extract raw materials and increase fishing.
If China were to work on the new version of the environmental protection protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, Beijing could put its stamp on a new treaty, says political scientist Nong Hong from the Institute for China-America Studies in an article from 2021. This would allow China to also protect its interests in Antarctica enforce more strongly.
There is still a lack of clear evidence as to whether China will also focus more militarily on the polar region. However, Beijing pursues the doctrine of “civil-military fusion.” It aims at mutual penetration of civil and military industries. And that includes science.
Sources: Reuters and perception, and public diplomacy", Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Federal Academy for Security Policy, Office for the Protection of the Constitution, "Neue Zürcher Zeitung", The New Kosmos World Almanac