In a significant move for polar research, China inaugurated its fifth Antarctic station near the Ross Sea on Wednesday. This state-of-the-art facility, named Qinling, is poised to host 30 individuals during the winter months and expand its capacity to accommodate 80 people in the summer. Notably, the key components of the station were prefabricated in China and then meticulously assembled on-site in Antarctica.
Qinling marks China's third year-round operational station in Antarctica, joining the ranks of the Great Wall Station on King George Island and the Zhongshan Station in East Antarctic Princess Elisabeth Land. The remaining two Antarctic stations from China are utilized seasonally.
Construction of the Qinling station commenced in 2018, with a temporary hiatus, potentially influenced by the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). President Xi Jinping, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, extended his congratulations on the station's completion, emphasizing its significance in the 40th year of Chinese polar endeavors. Xi, who also chairs the Central Military Commission, asserted that the station guarantees the exploration of nature's mysteries by Chinese and international scientists.
The Qinling station, strategically positioned near the American McMurdo station, has raised concerns. In April 2023, CSIS warned that Beijing might exploit the station for espionage activities, including intercepting news signals from Australia. China's approach to a "civil-military merger" and its examination of research for potential military applications have fueled apprehensions. It is crucial to note that, as per the Antarctic Treaty, the continent is exclusively reserved for civil purposes.
Officials from the Chinese government, in line with President Xi's vision, emphasized the nation's commitment to enhancing research, protection, and utilization of polar regions. A decade ago, China declared its ambition to become a "polar superpower," underscoring its commitment to understanding and contributing to the unique environmental dynamics of the polar zones.
The station's nomenclature, Qinling, pays homage to a mountain range in central China, serving as the watershed between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. Described by the Chinese news agency Xinhua as the "lifeline of the Chinese people," the name reflects the symbolic importance attached to this vital geographic feature.
A spokesperson from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized the constructive role of the Qinling station in advancing scientific knowledge about Antarctica. The station is envisioned as a hub for fostering peace, sustainable development, and international collaboration in Antarctica.
As China expands its presence in the Antarctic, the inauguration of the Qinling station signifies not only a new chapter in scientific exploration but also prompts a nuanced discussion on the balance between civil research and potential military implications, underscoring the delicate geopolitical dynamics in the region.
Image by Gaston Laborde from Pixabay