Chinese access to Chilean port may give Antarctic exploration activities a boost

Laura Zhou

Chinese access to a strategic port in Chile close to Antarctica, which is under discussion, could boost the country's exploration activities in the resource-rich southern polar region, according to analysts.

They also said that while Beijing was steadily expanding its presence in Antarctica, most of its activities were commercial and China had not made public any plans for military deployment in the area.

Beijing is in talks with Chile over access to the Punta Arenas port in the South American country's southernmost region "for the realisation of projects at their bases located in the Antarctic continent", according to a Chilean foreign ministry statement.

The ministry also said that China hoped to use Punta Arenas "as a base port for the displacement of materials and personnel, both by sea and by air".

Hu Zhiyong, an expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Punta Arenas " which is located on the Strait of Magellan " would be an ideal jumping-off point for Chinese exploration vessels headed to Antarctica.

"Oceanic voyages, particularly those with a scientific purpose, need a lot of supplies and it would be much easier if countries near the Antarctic could make it more convenient for Chinese vessels," Hu said. "Most countries would like to offer this kind of support as long as the voyages are not for military purposes," he added.

Elizabeth Buchanan, from the Australian National University, said access to the Chilean port could give Beijing more options on where to base its Antarctic operations, since Punta Arenas was much closer to Antarctica than Hobart, capital of the Australian island state of Tasmania.

Hobart has become an important gateway for Chinese ships heading to Antarctica since President Xi Jinping visited the city in 2014.

"Being able to diversify port options to base Antarctic operations from means that should Hobart, or other avenues, be restricted for whatever reasons, Beijing would still have the capacity to access the continent [and that would make] it difficult to cut Chinese access in a sense," she said.

Buchanan said that through robust relationships with key players in Antarctica, such as Chile and Australia, Beijing may also gain political leverage in the region, which could help China to establish its "global polar power identity".

A campsite is seen beside China's Kunlun Station, the highest base in Antarctica. Photo: Xinhua alt=A campsite is seen beside China's Kunlun Station, the highest base in Antarctica. Photo: Xinhua

China has increased its stake in the region, rich in oil and minerals, since it joined the Antarctic Treaty in 1983. It now has consultative status to vote in the Antarctic Treaty System.

There are four scientific stations in Antarctica and a fifth is under construction. China's Kunlun Station, only 7.3km southwest of Dome A, the loftiest point on the Antarctic Plateau, is the highest base in Antarctica.

It has also become a popular destination for wealthy Chinese tourists seeking a taste of the world's last great untouched wilderness. Last year, some 8,273 Chinese tourists visited the region, accounting for 16 per cent of the total and second only to US travellers, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

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.