A Cold War On Australia's Doorstep

28/08/2015 5:39 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Günay Mutlu via Getty Images
Antarctica from space

Eighty years ago, Australia claimed 6 million square kilometres of Antarctica. This is a massive area. It's roughly the same size as the Australian mainland, minus Queensland, and represents 42 percent of the entire frozen continent.

Canberra maintains that the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) is our sovereign territory. Australia is, however, far from alone on the ice.

The countries with a presence in Antarctica can broadly be divided into two groups: the "old" and the "new". The old Antarctic countries include Australia, the UK, the United States, New Zealand, Russia, France, Chile and Norway. In 1951, they signed the Antarctic Treaty System, which committed them not to exploit the frozen continent's rich natural resources, nor to militarise it and, to a degree, to recognise each other's claims.

The Antarctic Treaty is little more than a gentlemen's agreement among the signatories. It is a diplomatic expression of the "on the ice" presence each country had back in 1951.

The Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048. What happens then?

The "new" Antarctic countries are not signatories to the 1951 Antarctic Treaty and include China, Japan, India and South Korea. These countries haven't made any territorial claims, but they don't officially recognise the "old" Antarctic claims either.

Their strategy is to work furiously to change the "on the ice" status quo by the time a new treaty is negotiated post­-2048.

China, above all others, has its eyes set on the AAT, which has massive deposits of iron ore, gas, oil and other resources. Its seas are teeming with fish and other seaborne protein and, if worst comes to worst, fresh water trapped as ice. It also has strategic significance with the possibility to use it as a satellite communication centre.

Over the past decade, China's Antarctic budget has doubled and continues to grow.

Beijing has rapidly expanded its network of stations across Antarctica but has concentrated its building efforts in the AAT.

In 2014, Beijing opened its fourth station and is currently building a fifth. Three of China's four operational bases are in the AAT.

China is currently expanding its Zhongshan base, near Australia's Davis station, by building an airstrip. Flush with cash, the Chinese Antarctic mission is also about to acquire a second icebreaker and new long range aircraft.

Chinese scientists and engineers are prospecting for natural resources and charting previously unexplored territory. As new geographical features are discovered, they are assigned Chinese names.

In contrast, Australian scientists bound for Antarctica are now more likely to be studying the impact of climate change than prospecting for natural minerals or charting new territory.

Furthermore, Canberra's investment in Antarctic operations has been stagnating for years. Australia only maintains three stations in Antarctica, the last one being established back in 1964.

It has no plans for additional stations. Australia's sole icebreaker, the Aurora Australi, is coming to the end of its servable life and there are no signs that funds will be made available to replace it.

Clearly, the facts on the ground -- or "on the ice" -- in Australia's territory are that Chinese flags are flying over more and more of it, that geographical features within its borders are increasingly being given Chinese names, and the Chinese are getting a better picture of where the territory's natural resources are located.

Their strategy is obvious. When the current Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048, Beijing will likely make a strong claim that they exercise de facto sovereignty over a considerable slice of the AAT, and assert a large territorial claim at Australia's expense. They will then argue that the continent should be opened up to mining, fishing and further opened up to tourism and other economic activity.

It is a similar strategy China is pursuing in the South China Sea. They are changing the facts on the ground, by building artificial islands and then planting Chinese flags on them.

So, whilst initially China may have had a weak diplomatic claim to the area, it will soon appear that the diplomatic status of the area is out of step with reality. It's become difficult to argue that the Chinese are not in day­-to-­day control of the disputed territory.

So, what is Australia's counter­strategy? How is Australia attempting to reassert its own claim and deny insurgent countries access?

The short answer is that Australia has no counter strategy. Australia is thinking short term whereas China is thinking long term. Australian Antarctic scientists, who have seen their research budgets retreat faster than the ice sheets they are studying, see opportunity in cooperating with the Chinese.

The current Australian government has also been driven by short-termism. Earlier this year, during the G20, the Australian government signed a Five Accord, which will see Chinese vessels and soon aircraft use Hobart as a base for their Antarctic missions.

The government chose a cash injection into the Hobart economy over the nation's long term sovereignty over potentially millions of square kilometres of Antarctica.

For many Australians, 2048 is too far away to worry about. For the Chinese, 30 years is just enough time to annex a large slice of Australia's Antarctic claim.


Dr. Adam Lockyer is a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Macquarie University. He is also the 2015 Fulbright Scholar in US-Australian Alliance Studies.

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