Beijing is determined to enlarge and consolidate its footprint at the sixth continent in its aim to becoming a polar power. The preparations for building a large air hub are well under way, ironically based on a robust freighter made in the USA.
In the Renmin Ribao (People’s Daily), the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party the topic was worth a big story: “China is preparing to deploy a large air base hub in Antarctic, the first in the history of the continent.” This will support the day-to-day work of scientists based at the existing three Chinese stations in the South Pole and “above all, promote tourism in the region,” the paper jubilantly trumpeted.
At first glance it sounds like a convincing concept. But the Russians, also active in the Antarctic since decades, do not believe in the Renmin Ribao interpretation of things. Their argument, as expressed by Alexander Mozgovoy, one of the country’s leading military analysts, in a recent report published by Moscow-based daily Moskovskij Komsomolets: “They are interested in any point on the planet, and, of course, they are primarily interested in resources and strong military presence.”
Time will tell which of the two versions is right, but experience teaches that a lot speaks for Mr Mozgovoy’s point of view. Not least as China aggressively establishes naval bases, fortresses
and air strips for military purposes on artificial islands and reefs in the South China Sea. A harbinger of its interaction elsewhere on the globe.
Currently, China runs a number of smaller bases in the Antarctic made up of different scientists conducting on-site research. However, these sites are geographically isolated from each other and only reachable by ice breakers during the short Antarctic summer to ensure supplies are on-hand. A serious disadvantage because there is no direct contact, and firsthand information exchange between the station members is not possible.
Connecting isolated sites by air
This deficit was recognized early by Beijing. To overcome it and go ahead with their big Antarctic plans they bought an Oshkosh, Wisconsin-manufactured Basler BT-76, one of the world’s most experienced all-purpose aircraft. The turboprop, purchased by the Chinese government in 2015 for an estimated US$14.8 mn, has meanwhile become the backbone of their Antarctic expansion. The aircraft is powered by two PT6A-67R turboprop engines, has an uplift capacity of 5 tons per flight, and can easily gap the distance between the different stations near the South Pole run by the Chinese.
Largest runway in Antarctic
Since their Kunlun and Zhunshan stations are only equipped with small and short air strips, the new “All-Antarctic Center for Air Navigation” will get a runway of 4,000 meters. This way, aircraft like the Ilyushin 76 or even the big Antonov AN-124 can operate there.
Earlier to the Renmin Ribao announcement, Yang Huigen, director of the Polar Research Institute of China, said operating aircraft and building airports will propel the country's Antarctic development trajectory to a higher level, enabling “remote sensing surveys and air sample collection.” In addition, it will spur tourism and the Zhongshan and Kunlun stations can also be connected, he said.
Is the unspoiled continent facing exploitation?
It didn’t take long for Russia to react: The development of tourism at the South Pole, as expressed by Renmin Ribao, “looks awkward,” argued Moskovskij Komsomolets in their report. “It is more logical to use the airport for basing Chinese military aircraft.” The same thought was expressed by military expert Mozgovoy: Once the hub is fully functional, “the Chinese can easily fly just about anything to and from their new Antarctic station, be it armed terrestrial vehicles, entire rocket batteries, and radar stations.” And he highlights another aspect: raw materials. “Everything can be exploited there, from oil and coal to deposits of zinc, molybdenum and other non-ferrous metals.” Without for instance, any possibility of external control by environmentalists!
Antarctic’s ice sheet: the next zone for military conflicts?
So it seems that the global battle for supremacy, hunt for raw materials and competition for zones of interest between China, Russia and the U.S. has arrived on the sixth continent, where the Russians run their ‘Vostok’ basis and the U.S. have set up their ‘Amundsen-Scott’ station. Now the Chinese have started their southbound journey, this way becoming a new and systematically proceeding challenger to the Russians and Americans, eager to secure a large chunk of the ice cake for themselves.