Last October, the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong cleared Shanghai and headed south for the austral summer, China's 31st Antarctic expedition. The Xuelong is Beijing's polar workhorse and made headlines in 2013 when its helicopter airlifted passengers from the ice-bound Akademik Shokalskiy.

The icebreaker's intervention to assist the stranded Russian ship was a pivotal soft power moment, showing the world that China - a latecomer to the ice - was emerging, as it has elsewhere around the globe, as a major Antarctic player.

Beijing has deep pockets and is engaged in an ambitious catch-up schedule that involves new bases, aircraft, ships and scientific programmes to assert itself in the world's emptiest continent. Besides building a station for China's Beidou satellite navigation system, the latest expedition will select a runway for aircraft - initially retooled DC3s - near Zhongshan research base, one of four Chinese facilities [a fifth is planned] in Antarctica. The United States has six.

En route the Xuelong called in at Hobart, where it was meet met by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, there to ink a refuelling deal with Australia for ships and [eventually] planes headed to and from the ice, an agreement comparable to the longstanding one the United States has with New Zealand using Christchurch.


Like the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB] to rival the US-dominated World Bank, probes to the Moon as preparation for putting an astronaut on its surface, huge infrastructure projects worldwide, and a growing blue water navy, China's arrival in the Antarctic is part of a global power push.

Despite territorial claims, Antarctica belongs to no one. China's bases are on Australia's claim - two-thirds of the continent is nominally held by the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia - alarming the Labor Opposition, which frets about the erosion of diplomatic clout and the militarisation of the Beidou base.

Beijing has, in turn, challenged "the rich man's club", the original signatories of the 1959 Antarctica Treaty, as it seeks to remake international governance, including demands for a greater role in the Arctic. One Antarctica worry is how effective the treaty is at monitoring and policing any violation of its strictly science ethos. With officials and state media talking up "inevitable" Antarctic exploitation to Chinese citizens, is the treaty relevant?

"I would have a hard time seeing a scenario where a treaty, signed in 1959, that was more a gentleman's agreement than anything else, would give too much peace of mind to American leaders trying to guess how much notice the Chinese would take of it [the treaty] if they had competing interests," says Jennifer Harris, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Back in 1959 you're talking about a very different China."

The treaty limits signatories to scientific research. Mining and military activity are banned. China signed in 1983. Today, as Western governments seek to recover from the Global Economic Crisis, Beijing bestrides a new global rich man's club and its Antarctica budget has risen from US$20 million ($26.6 million) to US$50 million over two decades. Addressing Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Centre in 2014, Christchurch University Antarctica expert Anne-Marie Brady said China ranks third, after the US and Russia, in the "number, location and type of bases", and first in the size of its budget, although it lags in the quality, if not the quantity, of science produced.

Brady urged Beijing to be more transparent about its goals, a key factor in co-operation and Antarctic governance, and noted potential conflicts of interest with the US and Russia. In her opinion, Chinese mineral exploitation of the continent was just a "matter of time".

Beijing's stance on sovereignty is res nullius - Antarctica has no owner.

Will Beijing cash in and exploit the continent's resources? The New York Times believes China is "positioning itself to take advantage of the continent's resource potential when the treaty expires in 2048 - or in the advent it is ripped up before".

The rationale is that China must secure raw materials and is playing a maybe-not-so-long game.

Speaking to the Politburo in July 2013, China's leader Xi Jinping stressed the need to "take advantage of ocean and polar resources".

As climate change melts ice at both poles China sees an opportunity to extract bounty, from fish to minerals. Guo Peiiang, who teaches at China's Ocean University, told the Guardian in 2013 it was necessary for China to "have a foothold" in a global geo-strategic chess game that includes Antarctica. This mindset could presage a clash between those who want to preserve the Antarctic as a wilderness for pure science and those who want to exploit its resources.

In October, delegates from the European Union and 24 nations, including New Zealand, failed to create proposed Antarctic marine reserves after they were defied by China and Russia. Instead, reports China Daily, Beijing wants to increase its catch of krill - tiny shrimps that form the basis of the region's food chain - seven-fold. Tallies of Antarctica's mineral and fossil fuel resources are speculative, although the continent holds an estimated 90 per cent of the world's (steadily melting) fresh water and, maybe, 200 billion gallons of oil.

Still, any bid to exploit oil, coal or minerals would violate the treaty, and a 1991 environmental protection protocol. "There's no expiration of the agreement," says Tony Press, former director of the Australian Antarctic Division. "The steps that are needed to overturn the ban are significant and very difficult." All signatories to the 1991 protocol must agree to any change.

China might challenge the 1959 treaty as representing a vanished, unrepresentative era. International law is a "living, breathing thing", notes Harris.

Beidou is another sign the era of consensual gentleman's agreements may be on the wan, overtaken by China's seemingly inexorable rise to global power.