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Navigating Icy Waters: Australia’s Crucial Responsibility in its Antarctic Territories

12 Jul 2023
By Adam Kemp
Antarctic Great Wall Station 2011. Source: 黃逸樂/

Antarctica in the imminent decades is projected to become a region of rising tensions and disputes. It is imperative that Australia increasingly invests in Antarctic environmental security, both domestically and internationally.

At a time when the future of Antarctica is proving fragile to threats from several varying issues and actors, the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) finds itself at the forefront of an increasingly relevant arena of global politics. This arena has been overlooked due of more pressing matters in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. To preserve the environmental and non-violent integrity of the southern continent, it is imperative that Australia invests in rejuvenated Antarctic governance that can safeguard the intertwined interests of Australia, the Antarctic Treaty System, and the Protocol on Environmental Protection, which preserve Antarctica as a hub for scientific collaboration.

The AAT is one of the largest country subdivisions in the world by area. It is also the largest of any Antarctic claim, encompassing 42 percent of Antarctica’s landmass. Despite this huge expanse of land, permanent civilian settlements amount to around only 80 researchers in winter and 200 during the summer. The AAT is also one of several Antarctic territories that states have made claim to, including Norway, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Chile (of which the latter three overlap).

The claims made by these states were undertaken prior to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 (a treaty system established independently of the United Nations), and are controversial within the international community. The treaty stipulates that although claims made before the enactment of the treaty are not voided, they cannot be expanded or revised. As a result, only the United Kingdom, France, Norway, and New Zealand recognise Australia’s jurisdiction over the AAT. This disputed sovereignty results in claimants having trouble with enforcing jurisdiction over their territories, allowing external powers that have vested interests in the region to operate locally with minimal international backlash.

China is one example of nation with growing Antarctic interests exemplified by the installations of the BeiDou satellite navigation system in 2021. These installations are located on all four of the research stations it operates, three of which are located within the AAT. BeiDou is the Chinese answer to the Global Positioning System (GPS) and is used for both military and civilian applications, a situation that threatens the non-militarisation provision within the Antarctic Treaty (China is a non-claimant consultive partner to the Treaty). These installations muddy the water further in distinguishing legitimate scientific work from military activities.

Chinese economic interests follow a similar path of pushing the limits of the Antarctic Treaty, primarily in the potential for resource extraction. Chinese economic interests became apparent last year when the Chinese delegation for the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environment Protection placed a unilateral blockage on increased protections for Emperor penguins. For China, any extension on marine protections can threaten access to fishery resources that drive their economic incentives in the region.

Russia is also a power in the region with aspirations to move beyond the scientific boundaries of the Antarctic Treaty. In many ways, Russia has the same interests as China, that is, both see the potential for mining and natural resource extraction. This is despite the 1998 Madrid Protocol that enforces a mining ban among signatories. The seismic surveys conducted by Rosgeo, a Russian geological exploration company with links to the Kremlin, have claimed potential deposits amounting to 513 billion barrels worth of oil and gas in and around Antarctica, a number that dwarves Venezuela’s 300 billion barrels, currently the largest amount of confirmed oil reserves in the world. Like China’s rejection of marine protections, Russia has attempted to block the implementation of catch limits for Chilean seabass near the South Georgia islands in order to “sow discontent and crush… collaboration,” as claimed by the United States delegation.

The implications of Russia’s actions in opposition to the Antarctic Treaty system are troubling, partly since it has inherited the Soviet Union’s position as a primary signature of the treaty – a position with dubious legitimacy given that the Soviet Union no longer exists. Russia’s interests, in addition to its increased pariahdom following its invasion of Ukraine, is likely to further threaten the rules-based governance that has highlighted polar collaboration and Antarctica’s unique status as a region relatively removed from the standard great power rivalry in international relations. This breakdown of cooperation is very likely, since the other primary powers in the region consist mostly of Western states that have heavily condemned the invasion of Ukraine and have economically isolated Russia.

A rather surprising Antarctic dilemma for Australia is the possible resurgence of Japanese whaling. Although the Japanese government limited commercial whaling to its own territorial waters in 2019, the company Kyodo Senpaku announced this year their intentions to build a “mother ship” that has the potential to make the journey to the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. This fact has been acknowledged by the company, which has done little to hide the possibility of future exploitation. According to the company president: “We designed the ship to be able to travel as far as the Antarctic Ocean, in the hope it will be useful in times of food crisis.”

These challenges illustrate the troubles ahead for the Antarctic Treaty, and the “Scramble for Antarctica” that could occur with its breakdown. A renewal process for the Antarctic Treaty will be occur in 2048, wherein states will be able to modify the treaty.

In response to these challenges, the Australian government has begun to reverse the trend of underinvestment in the region. This process began with a AUD$839.9 million package in the 2022-2023 budget, with AUD$109 million allocated for increased inland and aerial capabilities and AUD$44.2 million to increase the capabilities of RSV Nuyina, asserted to be the most advanced polar vessel on Earth. These efforts will need to be buttressed by continued support.

As for the potential resurgence of Japanese whaling, the comments of the aforementioned Kyodo Senpaku company president have been addressed by Australia’s Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, stating that “the Australian government is committed to… preventing a return to Southern Ocean whaling.” These comments reiterate the government’s commitment to upholding the Australian Whale Sanctuary and should be doubled down on should Antarctic whaling once again become a reality.

While Australia has the ability to be a capable Antarctic power, the nation’s leaders will have to be more vocal in their protests against infringements of the Antarctic Treaty system. The importance of preserving the environmental integrity of the AAT and Antarctica is unmistakably clear. Yet, the government continues to downplay the grievances committed by states that act in bad faith and in opposition to the Antarctic Treaty.

Discernibly, Australia will have to keep close ties with powers that are committed to upholding and preserving the Antarctic Treaty system, such as New Zealand, while also holding accountable other allies in the region such as the United Kingdom, who have been accused of covertly exploiting marine-protected areas. The history of Antarctica, ever since signing of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, has been for the most part one built on rules-based governance and scientific exploration. These core tenets of Antarctic interaction can, with Australia and other Antarctic partners at the helm, continue to preserve the region for future generations.

Adam Kemp is undertaking a Bachelor of International Studies (Global Scholar) at Deakin University, Melbourne, majoring in International Relations. 

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