China starts talks with Chile to use Punta Arenas as jumping off point for Antarctic exploration

Stuart Lau

China is in talks with Chile over the use of a port in the South American country to transport personnel and materials destined for explorations programmes in Antarctica, the Chilean foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The discussion took place during the first meeting of the Chile-China Antarctic Joint Cooperation Committee in Santiago, where Chilean authorities are considering whether to give Chinese exploration vessels access to the port of Punta Arenas.

Chile's Punta Arenas may become a jumping off point for China's Antarctic exploration. Photo: WikiMedia Commons alt=Chile's Punta Arenas may become a jumping off point for China's Antarctic exploration. Photo: WikiMedia Commons

The talks highlight China's increasing interest in the Earth's polar regions and come amid what analysts are calling a competition-of-sorts for the highest point in Antarctica.

China does not have any territorial claims to Antarctica, but has been boosting its presence there, and in 2013 President Xi Jinping said polar exploration was an important field to develop to address climate change.

Last year, China announced it would soon begin building its first permanent airfield in Antarctica " a 1,500 metre airstrip to be located on an ice cap in the continent's east, 28km from the country's Zhongshan Station in the Larsemann Hills by Prydz Bay.

According to a Chilean foreign ministry statement, Xia Limin, deputy director of the Chinese Administration for the Arctic and Antarctic, and Camilo Sanhueza, Antarctic director of the ministry, chaired the meeting.

During the meeting, China said its plan for Punta Arenas access was "for the realisation of projects at their bases located in the Antarctic continent", according to the statement, adding that China hopes to use Punta Arenas "as a base port for the displacement of materials and personnel, both by sea and by air".

Punta Arenas's coastline, near where cruise ships dock. Photo: Daniel Gold alt=Punta Arenas's coastline, near where cruise ships dock. Photo: Daniel Gold

The Punta Arenas port, capital of Chile's Magallanes region, is a key gateway for voyages to and from Antarctica.

In 1908, Britain became the first country to claim Antarctic territory. New Zealand, France, Norway, Australia, Chile and Argentina have also lodged official claims, although claims to Antarctic territory is disputed by other countries.

In April, China's foreign ministry said Beijing was taking the lead in "open negotiations" with other countries to turn the Antarctic region of Dome Argus, also known as Dome A, into a protected region " or Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA).

China has the biggest presence on Dome Argus and was the first nation to reach the remote plain of ice, at 4,093 metres above sea level, in a land expedition in 2005, according to Chinese researchers.

China has previously built two temporary airfields in Antarctica, in addition to its two permanent stations Great Wall and Zhongshan and two seasonal stations, Kunlun and Taishan. A fifth Chinese station is also under construction.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.