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Australia and China’s fight for Antarctic resources

Despite China’s increasing assertiveness in Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty System is not failing and Australia should refrain from geostrategic panic.

  • Australia’s interests in Antarctica are better served by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) than anything we could negotiate today. We should redouble our commitment to its ideals of science-driven, rules-based management — and counter the narrative of ATS ‘failure’.
  • China is pushing the boundaries of ATS practice by exploiting fisheries and tourism, and probably seeking access to Western technologies in Antarctica. And in the future, Beijing could lead a coalition of states seeking mineral riches that only China is likely to be capable of retrieving.
  • Australia should watch China’s activities closely, but react cautiously. We should be wary of false analogies with the Arctic and not overreact to marginal military developments. We should shield the ATS from Australia–China tension and US–China competition.

What is the problem?

The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) provides Australia with a peaceful, non-militarised south; a freeze on challenges to our territorial claim; a ban on mining and an ecosystem-based management of fisheries. But China wants to benefit economically, and potentially militarily, from Antarctica. It is increasingly assertive in the ATS, primarily over fisheries access, and active on the ice.

What should be done?

Australia should front load its support for the ATS, increasing both the substance and profile of our Antarctic activities. We should emphasise ATS ideals rather than our claim to Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). We should work hard internationally to dispel the myth that Antarctica’s resource wealth will be unlocked in 2048 on review of the Madrid Protocol. Inside the ATS, we should play to our strengths in multilateral diplomacy. Canberra should monitor Chinese activities in Antarctica and the ATS and step up its maritime awareness of the Southern Ocean, but refrain from geostrategic panic.

What the Antarctic Treaty System gives Australia

The Antarctic Treaty requires that Antarctica be used only for peaceful, scientific purposes (Box 1). The Treaty also ‘freezes’ challenges to our claim of the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) — the largest of the seven claims, at around 42 per cent of the continent. Without the Treaty and its supporting agreements, Australia could not afford to defend the AAT, ensure a non-militarised southern border, or prohibit mining in the area. We cannot assume that our historical and current activities would be sufficient to legally assert ownership of the Antarctic region directly to our south if the Treaty failed.

The seven territorial claims over Antarctica are made by Australia (which claims around 42 per cent of the continent),
Argentina, United Kingdom, Chile, France, New Zealand, and Norway. Image: Courtesy Australian Antarctic Division.

The Treaty is a Cold War relic, which means that it is better for us than anything we could negotiate today. Despite its idealistic foundation story — building on the scientific cooperation of the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year — the real impetus was the determination of the United States, the USSR, and the United Kingdom to deny their rivals control of the continent without opening a costly new front in the Cold War.[1] Peace, science, and a pristine environment open to all, were convenient and popular alternative rationales.

The Treaty does not give us everything we might like. Our ‘sovereignty’ over the AAT is not fully protected. We cannot stop a research station being built in the AAT, and our laws apply only to Australians.

The Treaty does, however, give us a voice in the consensus forums of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), including a host of scientific and practical committees and the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) where we have a vote along with the other 29 signatories that conduct substantial scientific research on the continent. Diplomatic and scientific entrepreneurialism and detailed negotiations do most to protect our interests. Consensus decisions in ATS forums are mostly respected once reached, and there is a strong tradition of scientific cooperation, international rescue efforts, and environmental protection.

Box 1: The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) at a glance

The Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961, signed by 12 states. It now has 54 parties. Currently, 29 states are Consultative members with voting rights in Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs). States are granted Consultative status after demonstrating a significant commitment to scientific research in Antarctica.[2]

Signatories agree to Antarctica being used for peaceful, scientific purposes only. Military equipment and personnel can be used only in support of science and logistics. Station facilities and vessels can be inspected by other states. Scientific results and plans must be shared.

Challenges to the seven territorial claims on mainland Antarctica are ‘frozen’ in that nothing supports or denies them while the Treaty is in force, and no new claims can be made. Outside the Treaty, only some states with their own claims recognise others’. The United States and Russia have reserved the right to make a claim.

The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) refers to the Treaty and related agreements. An important agreement is the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CAMLR), which entered into force in 1982.[3] It has 26 voting members, and 10 more states have signed but are not engaged in fishing or research and therefore cannot vote. All decisions, including on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), are made by consensus.

Another major agreement is the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, known as the Madrid Protocol, which among other protections prohibits mining.[4] It entered into force in 1998. It allows for review in 2048, but sets a very high bar for change: agreement by three quarters of states who were Consultative members to the Antarctic Treaty in 1991, and then ratification by three quarters of Antarctic Consultative Parties, including all states that agreed to the Protocol in 1991. No mining can commence until agreement on the conditions for mining are negotiated and ratified. That agreement also requires that the interests of claimant states (such as Australia) must be safeguarded.

The Madrid Protocol to the Treaty prohibits mining, which Australia supports for environmental reasons and to avoid the continent becoming an area of contention. Even if Australian attitudes on this change, mining on the continent is unlikely to be profitable within the foreseeable future, although seabed mining below 60° south (the Antarctic Treaty area) is conceivable. Fear of missing out on imagined future riches still drives Antarctic funding in many states, but the Protocol sets a high threshold for reversing the ban.

Consensus decision-making, however, means it is easy to stymie initiatives, particularly with the growing number of member states in the ATS. Currently, 29 states have voting rights at the annual Treaty meeting; in 1989, when Australia and France proposed prohibiting mining, it was 22.

There is limited scope to ensure compliance with ATS rules and provisions. The Treaty allows inspections of stations to ensure they follow ATS rules and respect the prohibition on military use. However, Antarctic logistical constraints usually mean that stations have prior notice of visits, few observers are involved, and inspections are brief. The body dealing with fisheries — the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — requires that observers and reporting systems are placed on fishing vessels, and vessels or states can be deemed non-compliant, but listing a state as non-compliant requires consensus agreement. China and Russia have recently refused to let their vessels be sanctioned.

What China wants from Antarctica

To shore up its domestic rule, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) needs to keep China’s economy strong, secure technological leadership, and demonstrate China’s power in global affairs. In Antarctica, that translates into growing exploitation of fisheries, Chinese ownership of tourism opportunities, access to Western technology through joint projects, and international acquiescence to China’s preferences in the ATS. Before 2016, China’s Antarctic stations and science seemed designed to position it for a territorial claim in the AAT if the Antarctic Treaty were overturned at some point in the future.[5]

The ceremonial marker at the South Pole is surrounded by flags of the 12 original signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty,
signed on 1 December 1959 in Washington, DC. Image: Josh Landis/National Science Foundation.

But China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016–2020) set out an ambition to “build China into a strong maritime country”, with a clear emphasis on fisheries and other economic opportunities.[6] China has increased subsidies for fuel, and grown its ship-building program for China’s distant-water fishing fleet.[7] Access to marine resources and tourism opportunities across the continent are now the more pressing drivers of China’s Antarctic activities.

It is likely that Beijing also wants to keep open the possibilities of seabed mining, a territorial claim, and the use of civil equipment on the continent for military advantage. So, although China will support Antarctic agreements over at least the next few decades, it will keep pushing to change the practices and purposes of the ATS from within to meet its current and future interests.

Moving forward

Antarctica is not, and cannot be, fully quarantined from China’s more assertive foreign policy, which in Antarctica is now focused on fisheries access. In the future, Beijing could also lead a coalition of states seeking mineral riches that only China is likely to be capable of retrieving. But the effort China is putting into pushing the boundaries of the ATS from within demonstrates a strong preference to stay in the Treaty. Australia’s most efficient means of slowing or stopping these efforts remains well-funded collective diplomacy and science. We can still veto initiatives, even if our own are stymied.

Although ATS commitments are not always complied with fully, powerful states seeking an outsized share of resources beyond their national jurisdiction can be swayed by smart diplomacy and international public opinion. Antarctica is still remarkable enough, in its wilderness, scientific cooperation, and governance, that with concerted effort it has a chance of remaining separate from the worst of international geopolitics and exploitation.

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