OPINION: Should Australia review its Antarctica policy?

Since 1961, the Antarctic Treaty System has overseen the continent’s affairs. However, it is now battling strategic power competition as well as new challenges to Antarctica’s distinctive ecosystems. States are abusing the treaty to seek national interests by exploiting holes in governance systems. This essay looks at how strategic power competition is hurting Antarctica and how Australia, which claims 42 percent of East Antarctica, might better safeguard it.

Natural resources, fishing stocks, bioprospecting prospects, climate science analyses, and hydrocarbons abound in Antarctica, with estimated reserves ranging from 300 to 500 billion tonnes of natural gas on the continent and 135 billion tonnes of oil in the Southern Ocean. Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty states that Antarctica is only to be used for scientific research and observation for peaceful purposes. Article 1 is, on the other hand, under attack.

Despite the fact that the treaty suspended the claims of the seven original claimants (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom), the United States and the then-Soviet Union (as additional, non-claimant, original signatories) exercised their right to stake a claim at a later date. The pact effectively put an end to the debate over territorial sovereignty.

The Antarctic Treaty will celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2049, following a review milestone set for its mining prohibition under the Madrid Protocol, which supports the Treaty, in 2048. Although it is still a few years away, the major powers are increasingly focussing their efforts on accomplishing long-term strategic objectives through alternative means. What could happen between now and the review in 2048? The consultative parties to the treaty, as stakeholders with voting rights on continental governance, may vote to preserve the treaty’s environmental protocol and continue to prohibit mining and militarism – or they may not.

The unveiling of the AUKUS accord in September emphasised Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper’s focus on Indo-Pacific rivalry. There was no mention of problems in Antarctica in the white paper. However, given China’s disobedience of a 2016 arbitral tribunal verdict on its South China Sea claims, as well as its fierce struggle for resource access and assertive measures in international governance forums, a wait-and-see strategy in Antarctica seems risky. Existing legal frameworks do not discourage big governments from acting to protect their strategic interests, and Australia cannot afford to be oblivious to its geopolitical surroundings.

China has increased its presence in the continent since the Great Wall, its first Antarctic research facility, was established in 1985. Three of Australia’s four research stations are located within the country’s claimed Antarctic Territory, with a fifth being built on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea. China’s ascension as a polar power has included significant investments in icebreakers and continental airstrips to allow year-round access.

The Chinese government’s strategy for Antarctica is based on national security concerns. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are included in the state’s extended idea of spheres for influence and control outside the Indo-Pacific, according to official material. Beijing acknowledges no existing claims to the continent and pursues a policy that optimises its own national interests. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has declared the polar regions a “new strategic frontier” and included them in its most recent Five-Year Plan. On the one hand, the CCP wants to reaffirm China’s international legitimacy on the continent, while on the other, it wants to increase internal support for Chinese Antarctic initiatives.

As a result, China has “two voices” that speak to different audiences. China presents itself to the outside world as adhering to the treaty system’s institutions and having a strong interest in science. Beijing has claimed the Antarctic forums are a “rich man’s club” dominated by the US, and that others are treated as “second-class citizens.” This misses the reality that China is a consultative party with equal voting rights, while Russia is a long-term “club” member. China’s proper place in the international system – especially in Antarctic governance – has been rejected, according to the CCP narrative.

On the domestic front, President Xi Jinping announced in November 2014, while speaking onboard the Xue Long icebreaker moored in Hobart, that China wished to “become a polar great power.” In 2015, China affirmed its “title” to polar leadership through its national security law, highlighting the country’s interests in “new frontiers,” such as Antarctica and the Arctic. China established a domestic legal framework to preserve its prospective future interests in these fields by classifying them in a security context. The “global commons” status of Antarctica has also been exploited by senior Chinese military officers to underline China’s claim to Antarctic interests.

Science is being used as a narrative device to justify China’s growing influence on the continent. This argument emphasises the importance of climate change research and the need for all powers to work together on this issue. This attempt is dependent on the polar areas. At the same time, Chinese scientific and academic institutions involved in Antarctic research are mostly under the supervision of the CCP and are part of China’s civil-military complex.

China’s scientists must have the “right political disposition” and be “imbued with patriotic thoughts,” according to Xi. Chinese dominance in Antarctic forums bolsters China’s larger narrative of its inherent right to lead in international governance. Furthermore, the People’s Liberation Army has long emphasised the possibility of “new geopolitical confrontation” in the polar areas.

New Zealand is a country in the Pacific Ocean. China specialist Anne-Marie Brady’s research has brought attention to China’s Antarctic bottom mapping for future shipping and/or submarine mobility. China has linked the polar areas to the Belt and Road Initiative in order to guarantee its national interests and “transform China into a maritime superpower” through the construction of a “blue commercial passage.” Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are a natural extension of Beijing’s marine economic goals, which include gaining access to resources and securing associated trade routes, as well as laying the groundwork for “dual-use” capabilities to successfully govern the region.

The treaty’s initial objective is weakened by China’s refusal to comply with Antarctic inspection requirements, as poor compliance encourages militarization below the detection threshold. If competition with the US and/or Australia heated up and China increased its military presence in Antarctica, the consequences for Australia would be dire.

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