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Will Great Power Competition in the South Atlantic Spill Into Antarctica?

20 May 2021
By Bruno Arpi and Dr AJ (Tony) Press
US Coast Guard in Antarctica, photographer The US National Archives, sourced from

The “new great game” between the great powers has reached the Southwest Atlantic and will influence the international geopolitics of the region. Antarctic geopolitics will not necessarily follow the same pattern.

International politics is facing a return of great power competition. President Joe Biden has stated that the United States will not allow China to become the leading, wealthiest, and most powerful country in the world.  In this context, this “new great game” seems to have found the Southwest Atlantic, and this has direct implications for Antarctica.

However, it is important to question whether wider global political tensions will necessarily be replicated in Antarctica. While the Southwest Atlantic has been prone to geopolitical tensions and territorial disputes have existed in the region for the last three centuries, the area south of 60º South latitude, governed under the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), enjoys a special political and legal status that has successfully kept this region free of armed conflict and significant political tension for the last six decades.

The Southwest Atlantic as an environment of geopolitical discord  

The Southwest Atlantic has always attracted the great powers’ attention. The last decade has seen an increased Chinese and Russian presence in South America. However, some recent events suggest that the US wants to reset and regain its influence in the region.

Recently, US Coast Guard (USCG) deployed its new ship, USCGC Stone, to the South Atlantic to build regional maritime security partnerships and counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the region. This deployment, Operation Southern Cross, included visits to Guyana, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. However, USCGC Stone did not visit Argentina. The official USCG statement on this says “…a thorough evaluation of the conditions found logistical challenges that prevent the ship from mooring in the port of Mar del Plata.” The same document states that the US “…will continue to work to strengthen the ties of friendship and cooperation between the USCG and the Argentine Naval Prefecture, understanding that the region is safer and more prosperous when our countries come together to strengthen maritime security in the region.”  There is therefore a clear intention of the US to continue growing its presence in the region and to engage with Argentina.

Argentina is a good example of the new geopolitical scenario for many South American states. While Russia and China have considered Argentina a strategic partner in recent years, the US has a longstanding relationship with Argentina and has recently shown an interest in strengthening these ties. There was no surprise when the first COVID-19 vaccines that arrived in Argentina were the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and the Russian Sputnik V. In mid-April 2021, Admiral Craig Faller from the US Southern Command visited Buenos Aires and Ushuaia to make donations worth $3.5 million on behalf of the US Department of Defense to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

While these events are part and parcel of diplomacy, some concerns arose in South America about increasing foreign military presence in the Southwest Atlantic. On 12 February 2021, the Argentine Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concern” about the presence of USS Greeneville, a nuclear submarine, which was thought to be operating with British support in the South Atlantic. Twenty-four states on both sides of the South Atlantic have declared this region as a peace and cooperation zone and nuclear-weapons-free. However, this declaration is not universally accepted. For example, the United States does not recognise the region as a nuclear-free zone, and the United Kingdom has conducted military exercises in the vicinity of the Falklands/Malvinas. As a result, military activities in the region are watched closely by Argentina.

Great Power Competition and the Antarctic Treaty System

Geopolitically, Antarctica is different from the South Atlantic. Negotiated at the height of the Cold War, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty sets aside arguments over sovereignty in the region; prohibits military activities, the construction of military bases, and military conflict; prohibits the testing of nuclear weapons; and sets the region aside for “peace and science” and to be free from international discord. This legal framework and the modes and norms developed by the Antarctic Treaty Parties have made the Antarctic Treaty area a special region in international politics. Argentina, Chile, the UK, US, Russia, and China are all signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and are bound by it and the legal regimes that have developed from it.

Historically, the ATS has been largely immune to wider geopolitical tensions that have occurred outside the Antarctic Treaty area. The key international agreements that followed Antarctic Treaty were also formed during the Cold War period. Despite strong disagreements in broader international affairs, particularly between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Antarctic Treaty parties have been able to develop a comprehensive legal regime to address the region. These include protection of the Antarctic environment, conservation, sustainable fisheries, and a prohibition on mining and mineral resource activities. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty establishes Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

There has not been an international conflict that has caused the Antarctic Treaty parties to fail to cooperate in Antarctic affairs. The ATS has fostered and maintained international peace and security in the region, even including when significant armed conflict broke out between Argentina and the United Kingdom during the Falklands/Malvinas War in 1982. These two states are original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and have overlapping Antarctic territorial claims, which have a historical relationship to the Falklands/Malvinas dispute. Despite the military and diplomatic intensity of that conflict and its continuing legacy, these two countries have cooperated in the governance of the Antarctic region, except for occasional ritualistic diplomatic wrangling over the description of, and language around, the areas of disputed territories in the region.

Cooperation is a well established norm within Antarctica. Any potential tensions between the great powers at the global level should not necessarily prevent the United States, China, and Russia from continuing to cooperate in the area south of the 60º South line. In recent years, the US has been able to work with China and Russia in Antarctic affairs despite tensions in the broader global arena. In 2012 the US and Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Cooperation in Antarctica and conducted joint inspections of Antarctic bases in the same year. China and the US also signed a bilateral MoU on Antarctic cooperation in 2017. The fact that the “new great game” has reached the South Atlantic, therefore, should not necessarily imply a more conflictual and unproductive period in Antarctic governance.


The new period of global great power competition will likely shape the development of international politics. However, Antarctic geopolitics will not necessarily follow the same patterns as in the South Atlantic. Since the adoption of the Antarctic Treaty, the parties have largely been able to quarantine external geopolitical pressures and tensions and govern the region on a cooperative basis. The Antarctic Treaty parties have a special responsibility to ensure that the Antarctic region does not become the scene or object of international discord and continues to be a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.

The recent events in the South Atlantic need to be monitored closely by the Antarctic community. The Antarctic Treaty parties must continue their concerted international effort to ensure that this “great new game” does not have an impact on Antarctica.

Bruno Arpi is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Law and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. He holds a Master of Law (LL.M) degree from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and graduated as a Lawyer (Abogado) at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario (Argentina) where he has been teaching Public International Law since 2017.

Dr AJ (Tony) Press is an adjunct professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. He was the CEO of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre from 2009 to 2014. From 1998-2008 he was the Director of the Australian Antarctic Division. Tony has been involved in Antarctic policy, law and governance for over two decades. 

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