Mao-scapades on Ice

China’s military expansion in the South China Sea has been enabled in no small part because Western powers for too long took their eye off the ball. Western leaders bought into the polite fiction that a benignly-reformed Chinese communist leadership was solely committed to trade. Worse, the weak, vacillating Obama sneered at Mitt Romney for worrying that the US was allowing its blue-water presence in the Pacific to degrade.

Seven years later, Romney’s concerns have been entirely validated as China aggressively defends its spurious territorial claims to a handful of artificial islands in a bid to turn the Pacific into a Chinese lake. China is also trying to buy up a hegemony in Africa and the Pacific by pouring rivers of gold down the eager gullets of developing nations and tinpot dictatorships.

Now, China is getting ready to plant the red star on the frozen continent.

A windswept corner of Antarctica where six of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed explorers spent a miserable winter in 1912 is about to be colonised by the Chinese.

Near the ice cave on Inexpressible Island where Scott’s men sheltered for months China is erecting its fifth base on the continent, a move that some observers liken to its creeping occupation of the South China Sea.

Some even fear that China’s activity, nearly 9000 miles (14,484km) from Beijing, harbours an undeclared military objective banned by the Antarctic Treaty. They claim that it has placed missile guidance systems on the ice, powerful radar and telescopes capable of tracking the West’s satellites, missiles and drones. Others speculate that China is merely there to get its hands on the riches beneath the ice.

Chinese bases in the Antarctic.

As they have in the South China Sea, the Chinese are playing the long game and will likely simply squat on Antarctic territory, declare it Chinese at the earliest opportunity and muscle out anyone who objects. There are several attractions for China in Antarctica: military and economic. Its bases could be used to spy on and target areas of the Southern Hemisphere it might otherwise be blind to. There are estimated massive reserves of oil and gas, as well the world’s largest stock of fresh water.

The RNZAF’s Wing Commander Leigh Foster has co-authored a study for the United States Air Force Air University which argues that China’s interests in Antarctica are both military and economic, “propelled by resource nationalism”. Currently, mineral exploration is forbidden, but China is obviously determined to be in a position of strength when the treaty is renegotiated in another few decades.

Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese and polar politics…warned Australian MPs at a hearing last year that China had “undeclared military activities” in Antarctica and was building its case for a territorial claim should the treaty collapse.

China is capitalising on weak leadership and policy blindness in Australia. All its bases are on Australian territory – and they’re operating secretly and with impugnity.

No one really knows what goes on at China’s Antarctic bases. While, under the Antarctic Treaty, Australia has the right to inspect China’s bases on territory it claims, it has done so only twice in the past 30 years. The last time was nearly 15 years ago


Australia is still allowing China a free hand in its Antarctic territory. A 2016 scheduled inspection was cancelled due to downgraded Antarctic capability. Meanwhile, the Chinese are being very busy…doing what, nobody knows.

Less than a year later, China’s new fixed-wing polar aircraft made its first landing at the same base — located at a high point of the Antarctic ice sheet, approximately 4,000 metres high — according to reports in China’s state news service CCTV.

There is simply no excuse for Australia to allow China to continue this secretive encroachment in its territory. Australia is fully within its rights to inspect these bases at any time, without notice.

Inspections are allowed under the Antarctic Treaty…Alessandro Antonello, an Antarctic historian from the University of Melbourne, said…”If you have the capacity — you can just turn up at another country’s base and say ‘we are here to inspect you’,” he said.

As Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion argues, Australian leadership has been lulled into a false belief in communist China’s essential benevolence. Australia’s Antarctic capability has been allowed to downgrade for too long. Plans are in the works to remedy the situation, with a new icebreaker ship, upgrades to bases, and the continent’s first paved runway and a “logistics aviation link” with a mobile inland research station.

Let’s hope Australia, in concert with its allies in Antarctica, steps up its game in the frozen continent before it’s too late.