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Australia ups Antarctic commitment

While attention is fixed increasingly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, geopolitical developments are intensifying in more distant areas of the world – even at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere. On 22nd February 2022, Australia’s federal government promised to commit[↗] $804.4 million AUD (£430 million) to Australia’s Antarctic programme over the next ten years. The funding will undoubtedly bolster Australia’s efforts to continue supporting research into Antarctic science, yet there are clear geopolitical implications to this announcement.

The Antarctic Treaty[↗], of which the United Kingdom (UK) and Australia are both founding members, and subsequent collective agreements that formed the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), largely operate on mutual cooperation and trust. The main purpose of the ATS is to prevent the exploitation of Antarctic resources and militarisation of the continent, all the while promoting important scientific research and the conservation of Antarctica’s delicate ecosystem. The treaty has also suspended all territorial claims in the Antarctic, and it has certainly become a prerogative of all parties to ensure their claimed territory remains so (Australia claims the largest stake, at 42%, and the UK’s claim is 12%).

Of all the powers, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has recently increased its operations in Antarctica. The PRC is constructing a brand new base on Inexpressible Island on the Ross Sea, and has invested heavily in building continental airstrips[↗] and icebreakers[↗]. The PRC has been a part of the ATS since the 1980s and it is a consultative party, putting it in the decision-making group of future Antarctic affairs. It also has the ability to make Antarctic law. The PRC does not recognise, or have, any territorial claims in the Antarctic and ultimately seeks to maximise its national interests on the continent; it has described[↗] it as part of the ‘new frontier’ that great powers will begin to control. It can be assumed that the Chinese want a claim in the Antarctic, as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Antarctic narrative is that the PRC has been historically denied its rightful place in Antarctic governance (despite being a consultative party to the ATS) and wishes[↗] to become a ‘polar power’.

The PRC’s increasing activity has begun to worry Australia and the UK. Increasing Antarctic activity, and the potential staking of a claim, will give the CCP more clout within the ATS. This is of particular concern because in 2048, the ATS’ Protocol on Environmental Protection[↗], which prohibits the exploitation of Antarctica’s vast mineral resources (except in the case of conducting scientific research), will come up for review. The PRC has a history of blocking environmental protection initiatives, and the fragility of Antarctica’s unique ecosystem demands that it is protected. Antarctic sustainability is also key in the broader battle against climate change.

This is not to say that the CCP is hellbent on exploiting Antarctica’s mineral resources or militarising the continent. Reactions from the UK and Australia to the PRC’s growing Antarctic presence should be cautious; allowing the ATS to become a geopolitical point of tension is not in the interests of Australia or the UK, as they largely benefit from its status quo. The CCP’s rhetoric[↗] around the region is at times, however, centred around competition. To compete in the region is unproductive, but if one was to be gearing up to exploit the natural minerals of the region, competition would seem like a sound pursuit. The PRC has a dearth of mineral resources in its own soil, and will need to find new avenues in the future to meet domestic demand.

Australia’s new funding package will see the creation of a sensor and camera network labelled the ‘Antarctic Eye’ and the deployment of new ‘drones and autonomous vehicles’ on the continent. These will undoubtedly be used to monitor the actions of the Chinese bases, something which is legal under the ATS. The PRC has five bases in the Antarctic, with four in Australia’s claimed territory (including the one under construction). 

The UK’s participation in such surveillance should be welcomed. Under its ‘Five Eyes’ commitments, Britain can work with Australia – and its new capabilities – to ensure Antarctica does not become militarised, or its resources exploited, by any parties. The UK and Australia should also seriously consider the appointment of an ‘Antarctic Ambassador’; this will demonstrate their continued commitment to the region, and increase their knowledge of it, and therefore clout, within the ATS. Maintaining an informed British presence in Antarctica will be key for Britain in realising its credible claim of being a climate leader. The resumption of the British Antarctic Survey in December last year, after a year’s hiatus due to complications stemming from Covid-19, is encouraging, and demonstrates the UK’s continued commitment to the region.

Antarctic conservation should be a key priority for all treaty signatories. In the face of its potential exploitation, the UK and Australia should continue to strengthen their support for Antarctic science, the ATS, and efforts to limit the exploitation and militarisation of the continent.

Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

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