The top and bottom of the world no longer are barren expanses of ice visited every so often by explorers on snowshoes. They’re untapped El Dorados, troves of hidden energy and mineral resources coveted by both East and West.

Who’s doing the coveting? For some time the primary players have been the U.S. and Russia. But another global power has sidled its way into the game in both the Arctic and Antarctic: China.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s intentions were made clear in 2007 when he dispatched a submersible to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean to plant a titanium Russian flag and claim the Arctic as his own. He has also reopened Arctic military bases long shuttered by the demise of the Cold War, and beefed up the Kremlin’s fleet of icebreakers. Putin knows that at least a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas is buried underneath the Arctic Ocean.

China, however, has been creeping into the Arctic conversation, even though it doesn’t have the same say as the eight countries that border the Arctic — the U.S., Russia, Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. International law gives those nations bona fide claims to the Arctic because of their proximity.

That hasn’t dampened China’s Arctic ambitions. Beijing’s overall investment in the Arctic rounds out to about $90 billion. China has been building icebreaker ships, has established polar research outposts in Europe, and invested heavily in mines in Greenland and Canada and in a liquefied natural gas plant in Russia’s northern Siberian region.

China’s polar fascination isn’t limited to the Arctic. On the ice sheets of Antarctica, China has set up four research stations and is building a fifth. It has established a permanent airfield on the seventh continent, readied its second icebreaker there, and dramatically ramped up its Antarctic tourism industry. Anne-Marie Brady, a leading Antarctica scholar, views Beijing’s approach to the continent and its resources as “first come, first served.”

Those resources, which include coal, copper, uranium, diamonds and oil, are safely locked away for now. Ice 2 miles thick makes mining impractical. But China has always played the long game. Beijing is eyeing Antarctic mineral and energy wealth for the same reason it wants to wedge its way into the Arctic: The polar caps are melting.

In 2015, scientists logged a record high in Antarctica, 63.5 degrees. That’s a comfy fall day in Chicago. The rate of ice melt on the continent has tripled in the last 25 years. Between 1992 and 2017, Antarctica lost 3 trillion tons of ice. The effect of climate change is even more drastic in the Arctic, where the amount of sea ice drops by 10% every 10 years.

China’s a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, which governs what countries can do on the continent. That includes mining. The mining ban is up for review in 2048. As a party to the treaty, China has the right to call for that review, and push other nations to shelve the ban. In a few decades, will the aerial view of Antarctica be an expanse pockmarked with Chinese quarries?

In the Arctic, China’s ambitions are potentially more worrisome. This summer, the Pentagon released its Arctic Strategy. China’s civilian research efforts in the Arctic, the report warned, “could support a strengthened, future Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, potentially including deployment of submarines to the region.”

America’s most pressing priority should be to confront and manage global warming. But the reality is the polar landscapes are changing. Sizing up and minimizing the threats posed by China’s — and Russia’s — polar ambitions is a job the U.S. and its allies shouldn’t neglect. By virtue of Alaska, the U.S. is an Arctic nation. That makes the Arctic strategic terrain. Both China and Russia, the Pentagon says, are “pursuing activities and capabilities in the Arctic that may present risks to the homeland.”

It may seem far-fetched to worry about what America’s adversaries want to do in parts of the world covered in ice. But sadly, that ice is melting, and as it does, the strategic value of those regions will doubtless grow.

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

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