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Australia’s Antarctic Policy Under Threat?

09 Jun 2016
By Dr Daniel Bray
Photo Credit: Tak (Flickr) Creative Commons

Australia’s standing as a claimant state and a historical leader gives it a special responsibility to act in ways that safeguard the integrity of the Antarctic Treaty System and ensure that it continues to provide global public goods. However, recent assertions of sovereignty over the Antarctic territory threaten its interests in keeping Antarctica a place of international cooperation and peace.

Antarctica will not feature in campaign promises or policy debates this federal election but governance of the continent is a vital element of Australia’s foreign policy. Australia has played a leading role within the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) both as a party claiming 42 per cent of the territory and a champion of scientific and environmental values. Yet, the legitimacy of the ATS is currently under pressure from increased commercial activity and assertions of sovereignty. These developments threaten Australia’s enduring interest in keeping Antarctica a place of international cooperation and peace.

For over 50 years, Antarctica has been governed as a post-sovereign polity constituted by seven claimant states, 22 non-claimant states, scientific actors, NGOs and private organisations. The resolution of sovereignty claims was legally set aside in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty which allows the “bifocal” accommodation of a range of interests of claimant and non-claimant states and a governance system committed to scientific cooperation and environmental protection for the common benefit of humankind. As such, the ATS is a legal order that has abandoned the idea of exclusive territorial control and made state power subject to its higher legal authority.

In the past decade, however, this Antarctic bifocalism has come under increased pressure. This is due to greater interest in the marine, genetic and mineral resources of Antarctica and the presence of states such as China and Russia who want their “fair share” of these resources. There is a growing divide between states committed to ecosystem protection (including Australia) and “rational use” conservation (China, Russia and Japan).  This has made the ATS struggle to produce new agreements to create marine parks and regulate tourism, bioprospecting and fishing. It has also faced jurisdictional pressures from other regimes, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), compelling states to assert rights to sovereign territory in Antarctica. These are effectively new claims that are formally prohibited under the Antarctic Treaty.

These challenges pose new threats to Australia’s delicate balancing act in Antarctic policy. As a claimant state, Australia appears to be caught between maintaining the legitimacy of the ATS by leading the development of new regulation and increasing its demonstrations of sovereign power to safeguard its claim as other states increase their own Antarctic activity. This has hurt Australia’s leadership credentials within the ATS where it is treated with suspicion by some states (such as Russia) when it displays overt assertions of sovereignty to protect its claim.

In this context, what can Australia do to ensure that its interests are protected? According to successive governments over the last thirty years, Australia’s national interests in Antarctica are to:

  • Preserve sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory, including Australia’s sovereign rights over the adjacent offshore areas
  • Take advantage of the special opportunities Antarctica offers for scientific research
  • Protect the Antarctic environment with regard to its special qualities and effects on the region
  • Maintain Australia’s freedom from strategic and/or political confrontation
  • Be informed about and be able to influence developments in a region geographically proximate to Australia
  • Derive any reasonable economic benefits from living and non-living resources of the Antarctic, excluding mining and oil drilling.

My argument that the best way to secure these interests is to ensure that all states are prevented from acquiring territorial sovereignty in Antarctica. This is obviously crucial for maintaining the legitimacy of the ATS because it is founded on the non-resolution of sovereignty claims. But even if the ATS collapses, the transformation of Antarctica into sovereign territory is likely to be a deeply disputed issue that poses serious risks of confrontation and militarisation of the region.

The main danger to Australia’s interests lies in contests for control over Antarctic territory that result in a geopolitical settlement outside of the ATS. Specifically, the search for resource security is the most likely driver of the collapse of the ATS and another unregulated scramble for Antarctic territory. Should an Antarctic Treaty member state or third party unilaterally decide to mine for minerals, build a hotel or intelligence gathering station or extract biological resources from Antarctic territory for commercial purposes, the issue of sovereignty would arise requiring a legal or political settlement.

Australia’s standing as a claimant state and a historical leader gives it a special responsibility to act in ways that safeguard the integrity of the ATS and ensure that it continues to provide global public goods. History suggests that Antarctic governance can be successfully quarantined from global strategic rivalries by denying sovereignty and other geopolitical advantages to all states. This ought to be the central aim of Australian Antarctic policy because Australia’s interests are served by the current regime and therefore not directly linked to the acquisition of sovereignty rights.

Yet this raises an important question about what Australia should do with its sovereignty claim. First, we must recognise that Australia is extremely unlikely in coming decades to gain traditional sovereignty rights involving exclusive territorial control and internationally recognised ownership of Antarctic areas. But this does not mean Australia should simply abandon its claim. In the current geopolitical context, there does not appear to be any concrete benefit to Australia or the ATS if Australia were to renounce it. Most importantly, Australia’s claim helps to deny sovereignty to other states by ensuring that its referent territory will always be a contested space should any other state seek sovereignty rights or exclusive access to Antarctic resources in the future.

Consequently, my key argument is that rather than pursuing sovereignty as an end in itself, Australia should adopt a policy framework of strategic denial that uses its sovereignty claim to ensure Antarctica remains a post-sovereign polity of cooperative science and environmental protection. The cornerstone of this policy would be to refrain from further overt assertions of sovereignty and to exert diplomatic pressure on other claimants to do likewise. And it would mean rejecting recent proposals to securitise Antarctic policy or to pursue World Heritage listing because they involve assertions of sovereignty that risk fracturing the ATS and thus compromising Australia’s interests.

Dr Daniel Bray is a senior lecturer in international relations in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at  La Trobe University, Melbourne. This piece is adapted from his article ”The geopolitics of Antarctic governance: sovereignty and strategic denial in Australia’s Antarctic policy‘ recently published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs.