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Antarctica in the Grey Zone

17 Sep 2021
By Dr Elizabeth Buchanan
Early morning, local time about 5 am looking west from Welch Island. Source: Bignoter

The absence of overt conflict in Antarctica does not mean cooperation is thriving. Missing the elements of coercion and mistaking cooperation for a static concept in the Antarctic means stakeholders are at risk of strategic complacency.

The Australian 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) at its core is about grey zone activity – those “military and non-military forms of assertiveness and coercion aimed at achieving strategic goals without provoking conflict.” While noting these activities are “occurring now,” the DSU failed to underscore what this means for Australia’s Antarctic interests. Antarctica has housed grey zone activity for decades – the hallmark of Cold War-era cooperation, the Antarctic Treaty, is itself a product of grey zone strategy. Further, the collective system of laws and norms which regulate the continent, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), continues to facilitate grey zone activity.

Popular assessments often designate the continent as an outlier to strategic competition. But the absence of armed conflict to date over Antarctica, nor the fact the Treaty remains in place, are not reason enough to deem the problem of Antarctica “resolved.” The complex holding pattern afforded by the 1961 Treaty sets aside the issue of sovereignty, without diminishing the existing seven claims. It also protected the Cold War superpowers’ rights to stake a claim to any or all of Antarctica. The Treaty opened the continent to regulated scientific activity and the pursuit of international collaboration towards environmental protection.

Growing from 12 original signatories to 54 today, the Antarctic Treaty is by all accounts “robust.” But perhaps we overstate Antarctic cooperation – assuming absence of conflict means getting along. Rather a status-quo environment, like Antarctica, is ripe for grey zone activity.

Grey zone actions are largely political activities designed to achieve strategic goals. Of course, grey zone activity is not resigned to resurgent or revisionist players like Russia and China. Liberal-democratic states are well versed in the grey zone. Indeed, Australia’s closest mate on the ice is France, based solely on the fact that Paris recognises Australia’s claim. Washington does not. Canberra also relies on Paris to conduct search and rescue and patrols in the Southern Ocean.

US as the original architect of Antarctic grey zone activity

US Antarctic strategy places a great deal of political capital in bolstering Washington’s influence and presence in Antarctica. The US Amundsen-Scott base is the anchor of Washington’s Antarctic strategy – sitting astride all existing sectorial claims to Antarctica. This notion that the South Pole base is entirely political is supported by a 1996 NSC report which noted the Amundsen-Scott base “demonstrates US commitment to assert its rights in Antarctica” and underscored any abandonment of the South Pole would “create a vacuum and likely result in a scramble to occupy the site to the detriment of our position”. Since Eisenhower, US Antarctic policy has centered on four key objectives: recognise no territorial claims, reserve the rights to participate in future uses of Antarctica, ensure peaceful activities, and facilitate free and open access for scientific investigation. Point is, the ATS ticks all of Washington’s (self-interested) boxes.

Under Nixon, a new element of US Antarctic grey zone strategy was unveiled – the use of science to foreground and substantiate permanent presence on the continent.  Science can be used to mask exploitative resource activity, and as a grey zone tool to frustrate consensus developments pertaining to marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. At the 43rd ATCM earlier this year, China argued the need for “more scientific research” to be undertaken prior to any new designated protected areas in Antarctica. This is a delaying move to frustrate policies of earmarking further areas of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean for environmental protection – thus designating the regions “off limits” for resource exploitation in the future. As a grey zone activity, Chinese objections are permissible under the guise of science, when the political objective is to limit constraints on Beijing’s future use of resources.

Australia in the grey zone

Australia underscored concerns of grey zone activity in Antarctica back in 1958 when then Foreign Minister Casey “expressed the fear that under the guise of oceanographic research the Russians might arrange military facilities in Antarctica and thus constitute a possible threat to Australia’s security.” Since then, it is unclear Canberra has done much to either bolster its resilience to grey zone threats in Antarctica or itself step into the realm of grey zone activities.

Group think around policy avenues and confirmation bias around the effectiveness of the ATS, stemming from a misguided assumption that existence equates to efficiency, are rampant in Australian Antarctic policy circles. But Antarctica is neither exceptional so far as it apparently withstands strategic competition, nor is the continent a beacon of international cooperation. The Treaty review conference mechanism has not been activated by Antarctic parties since it opened in 1991 because it serves the national strategic interests of Antarctic Treaty parties to keep the system ticking over. We should be prying into why.

The ATS is a rather cost-effective solution to managing a continent. International discord and militarisation are issues states don’t need to contend with, and in forgoing “claims,” many states can bolster their individual interests through protected “rights” to all of Antarctica. This is of course at odds with Australia’s central strategic interest in upholding its claim to 42 percent of Antarctica. Make no mistake, the ATS costs Australia.

But it is a cost Australia has largely swallowed, while the argument is often made that the Treaty is “better than anything we could have otherwise negotiated,” this should not invite complacency. Australia can “shape,” rather inexpensively, and perhaps with sufficient further investment – “deter” – strategic competition in the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). More consistent inspections of international Antarctic bases to ensure Treaty compliance and a fleet of UAV surveillance drones to monitor environmental change and compliance would be a start. The Davis Aerodrome Project could entice states active in the AAT to abide by the ATS in exchange for unparalleled logistical support and direct aviation access. These are a few examples of grey zone capabilities Australia could employ to bolster its political currency in Antarctica.

Canberra could not respond to strategic competition in Antarctica by force with its current capability, nor turn to Washington for support. This reality is equal parts a choice and the result of the systematic hollowing out of Australia’s Antarctic institutions, and with it Australia’s historical political currency. Instead of diversifying Southern Ocean and Antarctic capability across multiple vessels and year-round runway access, Canberra has essentially thrown all eggs into the science basket. While this ensures Australian leadership in Antarctic science, what this strategy does for its political capability is less clear.

While a rules-based system manages the continent, it is nuanced. Alliances elsewhere don’t necessarily translate into the Antarctic context, either. The international agreement to disagree over sovereignty in Antarctica has yet to be tested in any real manner.

By design of the ATS, countering grey zone activity is a rather difficult feat, but shining light on breaches or unfavourable activities is the best bet. Ironically, the maintenance of the ATS is in the strategic interest of the very states that deploy grey zone activities. The ATS is a low-cost, high reward solution that enables and legitimises access to and presence in one of the world’s most strategic continents.

As it stands, an uptick in grey zone activity has allowed states to further their own strategic ambitions under the guise of cooperation and adherence to international rules.  While strategists question whether the ATS will fail, the need to recognise the coercive elements of Antarctic cooperation and the entrenched nature of grey zone activities is critical. Of course, taking issue with the ATS, or delving into its fragility, is not the same as ruing its failure.

The ATS’s maintenance probably says more about the agility it has always afforded great powers to play in the grey zone. The ATS is unlikely to fail because it facilitates strategic competition in Antarctica in a manner which remains palatable for all stakeholders. The system ensures states exercise their rights to disregard claims. But Australia’s strategic interest is anchored by its Antarctic claim – an unresolvable tension. Australia must invest in bolstering its Antarctic influence in both scientific and political currencies and start seriously thinking about the capabilities required to move across the strategic continuum of shaping the Antarctic environment, deterring grey zone activities in the AAT, and responding to protect its sovereignty.

Dr Elizabeth Buchanan is Lecturer of Strategic Studies at Deakin University for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course at the Australian War College. She is Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. All views are her own. @BuchananLiz

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.