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Antarctica: A Blank Canvas For Protecting Australia’s Interests And Reframing The Rise Of China

Published 22 Mar 2016
Julien Rosendahl

Prelude To Antarctica

‘Men go out into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the “lure of little voices,” the mysterious fascination of the unknown.’ – Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic: Chapter I The Expedition. 

‘Unknowns’ can be as exhilarating as they can be unnerving. Shackleton’s words read as if he himself could not identify his primary motivation for exploring the Antarctic: the final, untouched frontier of Earth. More than one hundred years later, this barren, ice-covered landmass is still a host of unknowns. How does one govern a region that has never had an indigenous population, yet remains ‘claimed’ by a dozen countries? How does one protect its environment from human exploits? And how does one assess what a rising power, such as China, thinks of this barren, wind-swept landscape?

Until the late eighteenth century, the Antarctic remained the last undiscovered continent.[1] That is not to say that there has never been any subsequent interest in the region; on the contrary, the nineteenth century saw the surrounding Southern Ocean become a mise en scène “of large-scale marine exploitation.”[2] The turn of the twentieth century was a golden age for pioneers of the Antarctic: Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen, to name a few. With each explorer came an opportunistic chance for flags to be placed on barren ice sheets, and territorial claims to be made.

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1950s – and the fear of an arms race to the South Pole – brought all Antarctic claimants, including Australia, together to ratify the Antarctic Treaty, governed by an Antarctic Treaty Secretariat; the most successful example of international cooperation during the Cold War era.[3] The Treaty has succeeded in freezing sovereignty claims to where they stood on 19th December 1959. Whilst various land claims overlap, the adherence by claimant states to the Antarctic Treaty’s requirements that no further claims be made, or allowing for the development on existing claims, has brokered peace in the region.[4]

Non-claimant states, such as Malaysia, Russia and China, have gradually joined as observer states to the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat over the past few decades.

Non-claimant states have sought to wield influence on the governance and policies generated by the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat. The Organisation for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo of 1973-74 saw renewed interest by the private sector and emerging countries such as Malaysia in prospecting the Antarctic for minerals and offshore oil reserves.[5] This worldview clashed with preconceptions, often romanticised in the journals of Shackleton and Amundsen, of the Antarctic as being an untouched landscape. In 1988, the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat gave way to the demands by developing countries to open the region to mineral exploration. This policy shift coincided with the Bahia Paraiso oil spill, which saw over 600,000 litres of oil spilled onto the Antarctic Peninsula.[6] After a high-profile campaign by the renowned diver Jacques Cousteau, Australia and France buckled under public pressure to keep the Antarctic free from such catastrophic environmental damage. They successfully lobbied Antarctic Treaty Secretariat nations to ratify the Madrid Protocol in 1991, placing a short-term moratorium on mineral resource exploration and exploitation. Expeditions would still be permitted purely under the auspices of scientific exploration in geology and biology. Currently, the moratorium on resource exploration remains in effect until 2048. [7]

China acceded to the Antarctic Treaty in 1983, and its first scientific base Zhongshan, named after revered leader Dr. Sun-Yat Sen, opened in 1989. [8] Until the last decade, China’s involvement in the region was largely seen as symbolic, with little physical presence in the form of scientific expeditions. The turn of the twenty-first century, however, has seen an unprecedented investment in Chinese scientific exploration bases and logistic support. In 2014, the country’s fourth scientific station opened, with the site of a fifth base already chosen by May 2015. On the logistics side, there is investment in a second icebreaker as well as “ice-capable planes and helicopters.”[9] China’s five bases on the Antarctic will be within reach of six U.S. and three Australian bases.[10]

More importantly for Australia, President Xi’s historic visit in 2014 included Hobart, one of the few icebreaker-capable ports and a strategic stop for both vessels and aircraft destined for the Antarctic. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by both nations, pledging for the creation of a Joint Committee to oversee cooperation on “environmental, policy, scientific and operational cooperation” as well as “official and academic exchanges” relating to the region.[11] The memorandum also highlighted a “commitment to the Antarctic Treaty system, which enables the designation of Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”[12]

What China Really Wants 

As far back as 1984, China’s rapporteurs to the United Nations were known to signal their interest in the Antarctic region’s “rich mineral and living resources.”[13] While these ambitions have only been revived in the last decade, China’s vague articulation of its Antarctic ambitions is seen as furthering long-term goals – “keeping other states guessing about its true intentions…are part of its poker hand.”[14] Outwardly, it would appear that China’s scientific goals are squarely focused on “climate and environmental change…[encompassing] oceanography [and] geography.”[15] Western academics, however, sense that an effort has been made to choose “Chinese international scholars who could be relied on to present an orthodox view…to international audiences.”[16] Within Chinese domestic politics, the account for Chinese investment in the Antarctic could not be any more different:

“Scholars, (some) government officials and journalistic commentators all appear to agree that the exploitation of Antarctica is only a matter of time and China should (so) prepare itself.”[17]

Official Chinese government statements refer to the Antarctic as a “treasure house for all human beings”[18] but there is seldom an explicit reference as to what exactly would be so valuable in the region. There is great interest in the Antarctica because it is a rich untapped fishing ground, and is considered important for China’s future marine policy.[19] Indeed, the political and strategic underpinnings for China’s growing interest in the Antarctic may be a domestic display of might and patriotism, sending scientific expeditions into the most remote, desolate corner of the Earth.[20]

There is also, however, the view that China’s Antarctic rise is an extension of a ‘mercantilist approach’ of the Xi administration that focuses on a continuing energy and resource supply.[21] Such an assessment would also provide context for the opening of a division in the Polar Research Institute of China dedicated to Antarctic resources and governance.[22] Additionally, there are historical records from the Polar Research Institute dating back to 2005 stating the potential for oil, mineral and gas deposits as a primary reason for scientific exploration.[23] The technology for viable resource extraction does not yet exist.[24] However, it is not considered an impossible goal should climate change encourage thawing of the Antarctic ice shelf.[25]

Where To From Here?

At the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding during President Xi’s visit to Hobart in 2014, Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt reaffirmed the commitment between China and Australia towards the “peaceful use and environmental protection of Antarctica.”[26] If Australia is to ensure that such goals and aspirations can continue beyond 2048, leading polar security researcher Dr. Anne-Marie Brady says it needs to strive to advocate Antarctica as an entity requiring protection for the international community.[27]

In the Antarctic paradigm, the bilateral relation should encompass cooperation on scientific, academic and logistic operations. The growth in licensed Antarctic tours is another sign of potential cooperation between both nations, and would provide the opportunity for highlighting the fragile ecosystem and importance of conservation to a growing pool of Chinese tourists.[28] President Xi’s visit to Australia, and the South Pacific, is a sign of strategy for Xi’s government in securing ties relating to China’s role in Antartica’s future.[29] Australia needs to fortify its own strategy, bringing China into an Antarctica it both views, and actively promotes, en masse as an ecological wilderness. Hobart is strategically located to be a possible hub for ‘Antarctic tourism’, providing an opportunity to draw in the growing number of Chinese tourists to an Australian narrative that values Antarctica’s ecology.

Pragmatists would decry the shortcomings of relying on soft power within the context of a defence or security dispute. In their view, rarely can it rise above acute weaknesses that would otherwise be resolved through economic or militaristic power. Interestingly, China itself relies on soft power. As its prowess in economic and militaristic growth “risks scaring its neighbours into forming counter-balancing coalitions, a smart strategy must include efforts to appear less frightening.”[30]

Australia’s first Ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, views Australia’s foremost challenge in the Asian Century as the protection of “ideals and values” enmeshed in society, and remaining “uncompromising in their defence… from any encroachment from abroad.”[31] Australia’s responsibility to defend the current environmental protocols in place is best fulfilled by sharing its views and values with other cultures. Soft diplomacy can foster a consensus of Antarctica’s destiny in the coming decades. There is no harm in Australia bringing Chinese tourism and science into its own Antarctic security strategy, by actively promoting the successes of both Chinese and Australian scientists under a governance system that emphasises multilateralism, transparency and protection of the environment. This may go far in altering the domestic perception of China’s place in the Antarctic, reaffirming the view among its society of the ecological value of this last frontier on Earth.

The ultimate challenge for Australia’s Antarctic interests, and the broader security interests of the West, is to see a rising China that ‘practices what it preaches’ in terms of its international norms of behaviour. One only has to look to China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea as an example of its arrogance towards a multilateral solution. Of importance for Australia is to influence the narrative in which the future of the Antarctic is discussed before potential conflict arises. Francis Fukuyama suggests that the United States’ refusal to join the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank was a missed opportunity to shape the governance, transparency and accountability mechanisms of an institution that China hopes to use for its economic diplomacy.[32] By the same token, shaping the narrative of China’s diplomatic commitments to a pristine Antarctica should be one piece of a broader security strategy undertaken by the West that seeks to maintain international cooperation and norms of behaviour in the face of a rising China.

Implementing this cultural shift should prove, if anything, a forté in Australia’s diplomatic arsenal. It can already boast to being the “lifestyle superpower of the world” [33] with millions of Chinese tourists enjoying Australia’s natural wonders. Promoting the Antarctic as a global national park whose beauty is to be seen – not tampered with – is an extension to that thesis.

Julien Rosendahl is a final year Arts/Law (Honours) student at Griffith University. A previous Prime Minister’s Asia Australia Endeavour Scholarship recipient, Julien spent two months interning with the Australia Studies Centre Peking University, focusing on Australia-China relations in the Antarctic. His passion for polar security will now shape his Honours thesis, focusing on issues of sovereignty and governance in the Antarctic. Julien’s passion for diplomacy has also seen him travel to the 2013 OECD Forum with Global Voices, and attend the 2014 APEC CEO Summit in Beijing, on invitation from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


[1] Zarankin,A and M, Senatore (2005) ‘Archaeology in Antarctica: Nineteenth-Century Capitalism Expansion Strategies’ in International Journal of Historical Archaeology, vol. 9, no.1, p. 44.

[2] McColloch, R (1992) ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty – The Antarctic Treaty – Antarctic Minerals Convention – Wellington Convention – Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities’ in Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law, vol. 192, p.214.

[3] Haward, M and T, Griffiths (2011) ‘Introduction’ in Hayward, M and Griffiths, T, Australia and the Antarctic Treaty System: 50 years of influence. University of New South Wales Press: Sydney, p.2.

[4] Haward, M and T, Griffiths, above 3, p.2

[5] McColloch, R, above 2, p. 212.

[6] McColloch, R, above 2, p. 212.

[7] Bergin, A (2013) ‘Cold Calculations- Australia’s Antarctic challenges’ in Strategic Insights, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Available:

Accessed (10/04/15), p.3.

[8] Brady, cited in Brady, A.M (2013) ‘China’s Antarctic Interests’ in Brady, A.M (ed), The Emerging Politics of Antarctica. Routledge: New York, p. 33.

[9] Perlez, J (2015), ‘China, Pursuing Strategic Interests, Builds Presence in Antarctica’ in New York Times, 4 April, Available:, Accessed (04-09-15).

[10] Perlez, J, above 9.

[11] Australian Antarctic Division (ed.) (2014) ‘In Brief’ in Australian Antarctic Magazine, no. 27,, p.30.

[12] Australian Antarctic Division, above 11.

[13] Keyuan, Z (1993) ‘China’s Antarctic policy and the Antarctic Treaty System’ in Ocean Development & International Law, Vol. 24, No. 3, p.248.

[14] Perlez, J, above 9.

[15] DeGeorges, D and S, Ali (2015) ‘Connecting China through “Creative Diplomacy” – Greenalnd, Australia and Climate Cooperation in Polar Regions’ in Pincus, R., Ali, S. (eds.) Diplomacy on Ice: Energy and the Environment in the Arctic and Antarctic. Yale University Press: United States, p.156.

[16] Brady, A.M (2012) ‘The Emerging Economies of Asia and Antarctica: Challenges and Opportunities’ in Jabour J, Haward M & Press AJ (eds), Australia’s Antarctica: Proceedings of a Symposium to mark 75 years of the Australian Antarctic Territory. University of Tasmania: Hobart, p.105.

[17] Brady, A.M, above 16, p. 105.

[18] Perlez, J, above 9.

[19] Keyuan, Z, above 13.

[20] Atkin, M (2015) ‘China’s interest in mining Antarctica revealed as evidence points to country’s desire to become “Polar Great Power”’ ABC News, Available: Accessed (05-02-15)

[21] Perlez, J, above 9

[22] Perlez, J, above 9

[23] Atkin, M above 20; Brady, A.M above 8, p.42.

[24] Chaturvedi, cited in Brady, A.M above 8, p.51.

[25] Chaturvedi, cited in Brady, A.M above 8, p.51.

[26] Atkin, M, above 20.

[27] Atkin, M, above 20.

[28] Perlez, J, above 9.

[29] Fitzgerald, S (2015) Comrade Ambassador: Whitlam’s Beijing Envoy. Melbourne University Press: Australia , p.249.

[30] Nye, J (2015) ‘The Limits of Chinese Soft Power” Belfer Center, Available: Accessed (04-09-15)

[31] Fitzgerald, S, above 30, p.257.

[32] Fukuyama, F (2016) ‘Whose development model will prevail – the West’s or China’s?’ World Economic Forum, Available:

[33] Bryant, N (2014) The Rise and Fall of Australia: How A Great Nation Lost its Way. Bantam Press: Sydney, p.4.