China is looking to expand its presence in Antarctica by resuming construction on the country’s fifth station in the region.
"While the station can provide tracking and communications for China's growing array of scientific polar observation satellites, its equipment can concurrently be used for intercepting other nations' satellite communications," the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a new report.
The CSIS collected satellite images that captured construction on the site for the first time since 2018. The report had aimed to identify new construction in January, finding support facilities, temporary buildings, a helicopter pad and foundations for a 53,820-square-foot station.
Construction on these new facilities could finish as early as 2024, the CSIS told Reuters.
The report noted that China aims to expand its presence at both the North and South Poles, undertaking "ambitious expeditions" and developing world-class research facilities.
The base on Antarctica could provide China with great strategic value, too, according to CSIS: The think tank speculated that the station’s position could enable China to "collect signals intelligence from U.S.-allied Australia and New Zealand."
Such measurements could include telemetry data (such as radio, ultrasonic or infrared systems) and data on rockets launching from newly established space facilities in both countries.
Beijing rejected claims that such stations would provide espionage benefits and said that they would serve a purely scientific ambition, the Independent reported.
China started construction on its first Antarctic research facility in 1985, known as the Great Wall Station. The country may also look to expand some of its other, current facilities, such as the Zhongshan Station.
"China's growing scientific presence in Antarctica aligns with its broader political objectives," the report said. "In 1981, China was denied accession to the Antarctic Treaty due to insufficient scientific activities on the continent. Since then, China has worked to increase its contribution to Antarctic science."
"These efforts may open the door for China to help shape the continent's future when a provision of the treaty regarding resource extraction is renegotiated in 2048."
Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, activities on the continent are restricted to "peaceful purposes." Military personnel are allowed to conduct scientific research, but they are banned from setting up bases, carrying out maneuvers or testing weapons.
Reuters contributed to this report.