Chinese officials will detail their growing ambitions in Antarctica on Monday as Beijing hosts a meeting of nations that oversee management of the polar region amid concerns over its susceptibility to climate change.
Scientific research in Antarctica is governed under a 1959 treaty that designates the ice-capped continent as a natural reserve and prohibits commercial resources extraction.
China signed on in 1983 and has since established four Antarctic research stations. It plans to start construction of an airfield later this year and a fifth research station as early as 2018.
About 400 representatives from 42 countries and 10 international organizations are expected to attend the 40th Antarctic Treaty meeting, which goes through June 1. China’s delegation is led by Yang Jiechi, a senior foreign policy adviser to Chinese president Xi Jinping, and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.
Their attendance speaks to the importance China attaches to its rising scientific and technological prowess, which includes landing a rover on the moon in 2013, an increasingly sophisticated military and the maiden flight of the first large Chinese-made passenger jetliner earlier this month.
At the Antarctica meeting, Chinese officials will issue a report on “China’s Antarctic Cause” and sign polar cooperation agreements with the United States, Russia and Germany, according to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Climate change and the tourist trade also are on the agenda.
Researchers from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom last week released a study describing “fundamental and widespread changes” on the Antarctic Peninsula as glaciers retreat and more areas become covered with green moss. Representatives of the treaty nations will examine how to adapt to such changes.
More than 38,000 tourists visited Antarctica and surrounding waters in the 2015-2016 season, a 29 percent increase from a decade earlier, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. China accounts for a growing proportion of the visitors.
In 2014 the crew of a Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long, rescued 52 scientists and tourists from a Russian research ship that became stuck in Antarctic ice.