Vested Interests Far South: Potential Challenges for Antarctica

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The Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961, demilitarises all that part of the planet below 60 S, and establishes an international order based on peace, cooperation and science. Each nation with a research station in Antarctica treats their bases as though they were registered vessels and applies national laws there, including the right to exclude others. This situation amounts to regional custom, independent of the Antarctic Treaty. Article I(2) of the Antarctic Treaty restricts military activities in Antarctica and the surrounding seas to “peaceful purposes” only, a wide definition whose meaning may be open to interpretation. Article I(1) says that states may not engage in any measure of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military manoeuvres, or the testing of any type of weapon.

There lies a high possibility that the Antarctic Treaty System will be challenged by changing geopolitics. The three most likely challenges will be:

1. Emerging (or re-emerging) powers exerting influence over norms and modes of working (for example China and Russia);

 2. New entrants bringing other geopolitical influences into the System; and,

 3. Existing influential Parties “falling behind” due to lack of resources, strategy or political whim (it could be any of the original 12 signatories, including the claimant states)[1].  

Challenges under the Antarctica Treaty System:

The very purpose of the treaty can be traced back to the Cold War for which reason it requires an absolute consensus of all stakeholders for any decision making. However, a major loophole in the Antarctic Governance is the lack of enforceability of any rules and decision or a non-compliance thereof. This brings in a number of challenges against safeguarding the nature of Antarctica as a research base.

As stated earlier, each nation with a base and a claim has the right to exclude others and as a corollary, the more the bases, the more influence can be exerted on the continent’s landmass. This brings to the fact that China is building a fifth base in Ross Sea Ice Shelf which is to be completed in 2022. A pretext of this can be traced to the Article IV(2) of the Antarctic treaty which prohibits any new claim on the continent, which however, was denied by Chinese experts emphasizing the PRC’s right to reserve claims[2].

One of the primary aims of the Antarctic Treaty as a cold war mitigating instrument was to curb the usage of military in the region and build it as a comprehensive scientific base for “peaceful purposes”. However, the provision is not absolute in an ironically peaceful sense where the usage of military is allowed for logistics purposes and such usage and information about personnel has to be reported to observers of the contracting parties[3]. The People’s Republic of China has repeatedly failed to report the ongoing military activities in the region and is suspected to have spearheaded the same in recent years and deliberately kept the nature of its activities in its Antarctic base ambiguous.

Why does Antarctica interest the PRC?

The People’ s Republic of China has never been shy of its ambitious conquest of economic domination as much as the country loves to drop openly subtle hints of its military ambitions, be it the South China Sea or the Pangong lake. All the spheres where the PRC bullies or attempts to, the relevant nation, organization, or even minority, it has an implicit strategic interest.

There are 3 reasons that could be attributed to the PRC’s heightened interest in the continent of Antarctica:

  1. due to its key strategic transport routes.
  2. as a strategically vital territory with unresolved sovereignty and rich resources.
  3. as an ideal site for military-related research and strategic satellite installations.

The strategic transport route to Antarctica is a largely unseen yet a strategically strong as if any nation has a foothold in the Antarctic transpolar airspace could have an air access to Continents of Oceania, Africa and South America. Furthermore, the Southern Ocean offers three potential alternative shipping routes linking China with the Indian and Atlantic oceans: via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, via Chile’s Cape Horn, and via Australia’s South East Cape in Tasmania[4].

The guise of Scientific purposes is already aiding the People’s Liberation Army to spearhead military advancements in the region, especially on command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) system. As the terms suggest, C4ISR is a system which enhances situational awareness in the tactical environment, improves interoperability and provides surveillance and intelligence capacity. The continent provides an entirely extreme environment as well as unsovereign land which can be used as an ideal ground to conduct surveillance related activities.

China’s growing presence in the Antarctic is likely to continue to raise concerns about its intentions and its effects on the existing legal framework and territorial claims. However, the true if not clearer intentions of the PRC are hard to understand given the Antarctic Treaty System(ATS) fixes a relatively long term issue of previous as well as emerging heavyweights. Much has been done in the region such as The US establishing the Global Positioning System in the region whose ground stations are hosted by the allies of the US. The US and its strategic partners benefited from the undetermined sovereignty of Antarctica to locate the GPS satellite receiving stations, and now China and Russia are following suit. It can be inferred that undetermined sovereignty comes with large unenforceability which has a potential to manifest into a global issue.  If in accordance with the ATS, the treaty will be open for modification in the year 2049, a year which is way too far to imagine a continent with massive glacial covers surrounding it to exist in the same way it does today. Yet it is important for the Antarctic stakeholders to actively observe any suspicious moves in the region as the continent as literally as well as figuratively a mine for various resource based and strategic reasons.

[1] Dynamic, Beyongo Mukete. “ANTARCTIC AMBITIONS: COLD POWER.” China Dreams, ANU Press, 2020.

[2] Yan Qide and Zhu Jiangang, Nanjizhou lingtu zhuquan yu ziyuan quanshu wenti yanjiu [Research on the issue of Antarctic sovereignty and resources] (Shanghai kexue jishu chubanshe), 2009

[3] Article VII((3), The Antarctic Treaty.

[4] Brady, Anne-Marie. China’s Expanding Antarctic Interests: Implications for Australia, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2017.

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