Chinese state media was full of patriotic fervour over the weekend as the country unveiled its fourth Antarctic research base. A fifth is planned for next year. 

Located in the Australian Antarctic Territory between the country's Zhongshan and Kunlun research stations, the new base, named Taishan, looks like a cross between a UFO and a deformed Oreo cookie. Domestic media, perhaps rather optimistically, have christened it 'the Lantern.' 

Some have questioned China's motivations for expanding its presence on the southern continent. 'The country is rapidly building research stations — a method of assertion on a continent where sovereignty is disputed,' wrote Nicola Davison on ChinaDialogue in November. In Stars and Stripes, Seth Robson commented last year that 'China is boosting its presence in Antarctica with an eye on the icy continent's vast untapped resources.'

Indeed, Antarctica's resources are the stuff geopolitical conflicts are made of. In a 2011 Lowy Institute Policy Brief, Ellie Fogarty noted that the continent's oil reserves are estimated at up to 203 billion barrels, the third largest in the world. Antarctic ice also holds 90% of the world's fresh water. A 2012 report from the US office of the Director of National Intelligence concludes that the risk of a 'water war' is set to grow this century, with global water demand exceeding current sustainable supplies by 40% by 2030. 

China lacks petroleum, and its water resources, while significant, are unevenly distributed, inefficiently used and polluted. Chinese interest in Antarctica's natural bounty would seem logical.

China has been keen to stress the scientific orientation of its Antarctic operations. On the opening of the new base, Xinhua stressed that the country's Antarctic explorations were 'peacefully intended' and 'cooperative', and that its stations are platforms for scientific exchanges with other countries.

In the same article, however, State Oceanic Administration deputy director Chen Lianzeng was a little more ambiguous on the resource question. 'Peaceful use of Antarctica in the future will be a blessing for all humankind', he was quoted as saying. What this use will be was left unsaid. 

The 'future' Chen mentioned could be 2048, when the current prohibition on mining under the environmental protocol of the Antarctic Treaty is up for review. A convention on the regulation of mining looked likely in the 1980s, until negotiations were scuttled by Australia and France. These two insisted on a total ban. Come mid-century, however, increasing resource scarcity may trigger a rethink on the policy. Fogarty comes to a similar conclusion in her policy brief, adding that 'these developments pose a potential threat...to Australia's dormant claim to 42 percent of the continent.'

In this context, China is probably increasing its presence on the continent now to ensure itself a bargaining position come 2048. 

Of more pressing concern regarding the exploitation of Antarctica's resources are stalled talks over the creation of two marine protection areas in the Southern Ocean. The proposals are the work of the 25-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Together, they would effectively ban industrial fishing fleets from taking catches across 2.85 million square kilometres of water surrounding the continent. The area is home to around 10,000 unique species of wildlife, including most of the world's penguins. At CCAMLR's last meeting in Hobart in October, Russia, Ukraine and China refused to back the plans.