Last week Simon Romero from the New York Times wrote a fascinating piece on the geopolitics of Antarctica, and in particular on the burgeoning Chinese and Russian presence on the continent:
More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.
But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.
The Australia Antarctic Division (AAD), which oversees Australia's strategic, scientific, environmental and economic interests in the region, has suffered a series of budget cuts in recent years. However, in October last year the Turnbull government released details of a new icebreaker (scheduled to be operational in 2019), and in November the AAD and the RAAF completed their first joint mission by flying cargo to Antarctica in a C-17A Globemaster (pictured below; photo courtesy of Defence), opening the door for the possibility of future Defence-AAD engagement and coordination.
But federal Labor member David Feeney wrote an op-ed for The Australian yesterday criticising Australia's approach to Antarctica:
Government policy in Antarctica is negligent on many levels. Australia is failing to invest in the scientific potential of the continent. Science is the currency in Antarctica, and our failure to invest has several consequences. It weakens our claim to 42 per cent of the continent when we are overshadowed by so many others, including China and Russia.
How absurd is it that we lack the capability to inspect or even visit the Russian and Chinese research stations built in a part of the world where Australia claims sovereignty. Next to the three Australian stations, our Russian neighbours have seven stations and China has two.
Back in 2011, former Lowy Institute National Security Fellow Ellie Fogarty wrote a policy brief arguing that the Antarctic Treaty System and Australia's claim could be at risk, and that Australia needs to consider Antarctic policy as a more integral aspect of Australia's future national security and strategic thinking:
Australia’s longer-term national security is intrinsically tied to Antarctica’s future use and administration. In the face of growing interest from other members of the international community, Australia must act now to ensure its Antarctic policy and activities are suitable to protect its interests. By combining enhanced use of the Antarctic Treaty System’s compliance mechanisms with increased investment in Australia’s logistics, capabilities and scientific activities, Australia can ensure it remains influential in international discussions of Antarctica’s administration.