China is showing increased interest in Antarctica, developing several outposts and research stations on the frozen continent. But while from a research perspective that may seem interesting and exciting, China’s interests seem more strategic than research-focused. Here’s why.

Antarctica is quite rich in natural resources. Image via BBC.

When you’re China, few things and few places are off limits to you – so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, traveled to the edge of the Southern Ocean in the fall of 2014, making a speech from an icebreaker, telling reporters that his country will expand its operations on and around  Antarctica.

He also signed a five year contract with the Australian government that allows Chinese vessels and, in the future, aircraft, to resupply for fuel and food before heading south, which makes a lot of sense. This sparked a lot interest and a bit of controversy, as many believe that China is motivated by Antarctica’s resources, and not its research potential. This was partly admitted by officials.

“So far, our research is natural-science based, but we know there is more and more concern about resource security,” said Yang Huigen, director-general of the Polar Research Institute of China, who accompanied Xi last November on his visit to Hobart and stood with him on the icebreaker, Xue Long, or Snow Dragon.

Interestingly, China reached the South Pole in 1985, some 70 years after it was first reach by Roald Amundsen, in 1985 – but they’re making huge strides to make up for it. Another aspect worth mentioning is the fact that the Antarctic Treaty, which prevents any nation from performing military operations in the Antarctic, is set to expire in 2048 – and so is its sister pact, which prevents any nation from mining the landmass. Antarctica is known to have significant oil and mineral resources.

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But still, China said its interest are at most agricultural.

A Chinese research center in Antarctica.

“We will increase our investment in the Antarctic area in terms of krill fishing. Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share,” saidLiu Shenli, chairman of the China National Agricultural Development Group. Antarctica is home to around 10,000 species, including several species of krill and fish.

Australian officials also insisted that there is no hidden agenda.

“We should have no illusions about the deeper agenda — one that has not even been agreed to by Chinese scientists but is driven by Xi, and most likely his successors … This is part of a broader pattern of a mercantilist approach all around the world. A big driver of Chinese policy is to secure long-term energy supply and food supply,” Peter Jennings, a past official from the Australian Department of Defense and executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.


Whether or not China has a hidden agenda is not of interest here – even if they want to develop krill fishing, it still means that the research outposts are not purely research outposts.