What Is China up to in Antarctica?

How It Works
Feb. 10 2014 3:50 PM

The Scramble for Antarctica

459751165-this-image-taken-by-passenger-andrew-peacock-of-www
The new frontier.

Photo by Andrew Peacock/AFP/Getty Images

For all the attention that the brewing competition for natural resources in the rapidly melting Arctic has gotten in recent years, things have been relatively quiet in Antarctica, despite similar ambiguity over territorial control and potential for major resource grabs: The continent's oil reserves are estimated at up to 203 billion barrels—the third-largest in the world—and perhaps even more importantly in the coming century, its ice holds 90 percent of the world’s fresh water.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

But there’s a sign this week that things may be heating up a bit on the South Pole with China’s unveiling of its fourth Antarctic research base—the UFO-shaped Taishan—with a fifth planned for next year. (Japan, Germany and, Italy already have five stations, and Britain and the U.S. have six.)

Advertisement

Vaughan Winterbottom of Australia’s Lowy Institute writes that:

Some have questioned China's motivations for expanding its presence on the southern continent. 'The country is rapidly building research stations — a method of assertion on a continent where sovereignty is disputed,' wrote Nicola Davison on ChinaDialogue in November. In Stars and Stripes, Seth Robson commented last year that 'China is boosting its presence in Antarctica with an eye on the icy continent's vast untapped resources.'

For now, mining is prohibited under the Antarctic Treaty, but that will be up for review in 2048 and a number of countries may try to jockey for position before then.

The treaty also forbids new territorial claims by countries on the continent but passes no judgment on previous ones, which has occasionally led to some controversy. Britain and Argentina have overlapping claims and—in the midst of the dispute between the two countries over the Falkland Islands—Argentina objected last year to London’s decision to name a large swathe of Antarctic territory after Queen Elizabeth II.

Chile, Argentina, Britain, Norway, France, Australia, and New Zealand have current claims on Antarctic territory, but given the ambiguity involved, you can probably expect a lot more countries to be angling for a piece of the Antarctic pie over the next 30 years.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 8:15 AM Ted Cruz Will Not Join a Protest of "The Death of Klinghoffer" After All
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 7:30 AM Ring Around the Rainbow
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.