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Asia

Sieren's China: Wrangling over the South Pole

The Chinese are continually building their presence in Antarctica. It's not good for the environment, but geopolitically it's quite understandable, writes DW columnist Frank Sieren.

The Chinese bridal couple in the snow shares a tight embrace and smiles for the camera. They're freezing, but the pictures will definitely be worth the brief cold moment.

A penguin waddles by in the background. It will have to get used to such scenes in the future, seeing as short trips to Antarctica are becoming all the rage in China. According to figures in the "International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators", over 3,300 Chinese visited the South Pole last year – about ten times more than ten years ago. The number is not close to the some 13,000 American tourists in 2013, but still, the polar region is growing in popularity among the Chinese.

The rising numbers of tourists from China correspond to China's increasing political interests in this region.

At the beginning of last year, the country's fourth research base on the continent was opened. It is called Taishan, named after a holy mountain in China, and will operate for 15 years. Last month, a thirteen-member team returned to Beijing with a positive assessment from a successful expedition to Inexpressible Island: The uninhabited island in the Antarctic region is suitable for a fifth research base. Only recently have the Chinese closed ranks with around 30 countries that have been active in the land of eternal ice. The first Chinese base, called The Great Wall, did not turn on the heating until 1985, almost thirty years after most of the other nations. Argentina boasts the strongest presence with its 18 bases.

China has a need to catch up

President Xi Jinping wants to pick up the slack at all costs. Consequently, he signed a five-year agreement with Australia, which allows Chinese ships and aircraft to stock up on reserves in Australia before they continue their journey to the Antarctic region. Furthermore, Xi purchased a special type of aircraft from the USA. And in a few years, a new 300-million-dollar ice breaker will set sail for the south.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW columnist Frank Sieren

In the West, many have doubts about Chinese intentions and find Beijing's activities disturbing.

There's more to it than scientific research: apparently, the hunger for raw materials is driving the Chinese to the South Pole. Skeptics probably have a point there. The world's largest economy [based on GDP-PPP valuation, the ed.] must figure out how it will feed 1.5 billion people. The South Pole is just the right place. Chinese cargo ships want to fish for up two million tons of krill in the Antarctic seas, but more important are the assumed oil and natural gas reserves under Antarctica.

A chess battle for influence

It is, however, hypocritical to point a finger at China. All the other countries are casting covetous glances at the resources there. It is no coincidence that the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, originally drafted by twelve countries, provides for an exclusively peaceful use of the region. Over 52 nations have since signed the treaty. It runs until 2048 and with it, the global game of chess, in which each interest group is positioning itself. China has entered the stage as an unnerving, mighty competitor. No other country can financially keep up with China. While funding for other research bases is tight, Beijing is continually topping up. The competition is intensifying.

One must hope for the Antarctic ecosystem that the treaty is not broken. The flora and fauna of the South Pole are already endangered and growing tourism is leaving its mark as well.

The best thing would be that everyone takes their hands off the Antarctic region before complicated territorial conflicts arise, but that is just a dream. Antarctica is too important from a geostrategic perspective.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.