China eyes Antarctica access with first permanent airfield

The icy continent of Antarctica could prove to be the location of the next geopolitical battleground, as China announced Monday it's preparing to build its first permanent airport at the South Pole.

The site, located about 17 miles away from the Zhongshan Antarctic Station, was surveyed by the 33rd Antarctic expedition in 2017 and will "greatly facilitate the nation's research and expedition" on the continent, state media reported.

The airfield will initially have one runway that will be roughly 4,900 feet in length.

"More flat runways will be built later to accommodate large fixed-wing planes," state media reported.

China's first fixed-wing aircraft for polar flight Snow Eagle 601 taxies after its landing on Jan. 9, 2017 at the airport of Kunlun Station in Antarctica.

China's first fixed-wing aircraft for polar flight Snow Eagle 601 taxies after its landing on Jan. 9, 2017 at the airport of Kunlun Station in Antarctica. (Xinhua via Getty Images)

China only has one fixed-wing plane that can fly to polar regions, and it can carry up to 18 passengers, according to the South China Morning Post. The aircraft also has to rely on Russian airports to take off and land.

But the construction of a new permanent airport in Antarctica with multiple runways appears to also be part of a broader strategy for the South Pole. In the Ministry of Science and Technology Daily's newspaper, an unnamed person quoted as a government insider said the airfield would be for more than just scientific research.

“It would also mean China could have a say in the international management of Antarctic airspace,” the person was quoted as saying.

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The Chinese government has continued to ramp up its presence in Antarctica, which much of its activities taking place inside the Australian Antarctic Territory, according to news.com.au. Australia claims up to 42 percent of territory in the South Pole.

Last month, Professor Anne Marie Brady, an expert on China and the Antarctic at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand wrote in The Australian newspaper that China's installation of GPS satellite systems on the Australian Antarctic Territory in recent years may be used for military purposes.

China's icebreaker Xuelong is seen in Antarctic ice zone, Nov. 29, 2016. Xinhua/Rong Qihan via Getty Images

China's icebreaker Xuelong is seen in Antarctic ice zone, Nov. 29, 2016. Xinhua/Rong Qihan via Getty Images (Xinhua/Rong Qihan via Getty Images)

"Antarctic-based ground stations are essential to the accuracy of GPS, which is why the U.S. ground stations have been in place since 1995," Brady wrote. "The U.S. invented GPS for military operations and the world now depends on it."

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The expansion of China's Beidou ground satellite system, however, may help Beijing develop better weapons systems in future years.

"The use by the U.S., Russia, and China of their Antarctic ground stations to control offensive weapons systems and relay signals intelligence — all while conducting legitimate scientific activity — has the potential to shift the strategic balance that has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific for nearly 70 years," she wrote in the Australian.

China in recent years has aggressively stepped up claiming territory, most notably in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety despite competing claims from five other governments and Washington's insistence that it constitutes international waters open to all.