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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 05:47 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 05:47 | SYDNEY

Australia's strategic snow-blindness

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3 March 2010 19:11

James Brown has worked as an officer in the Australian Defence Force and completed his Masters in Strategic Studies in 2009. These are his personal views.

The death this week of Australia's 'Mr Antarctica', Dr Phillip Law, is a reminder of just how much Antarctic strategy is overlooked in Australia's regular international policy discussions. On matters of defence and national security, Australia has virtually no Antarctic strategy at all. In the past this has been an acceptable risk for Australia. Recent developments in both Antarctica and the Arctic suggest such blindness might no longer be acceptable.

There have been two notable recent excursions into the vacuum of Antarctic strategy – one by the ABC presenter Mark Corcoran, captured on this blog last year, and the 2007 ASPI report, 'Frozen Asset: Securing Australia's Antarctic Future'.

Both point to a lack of Australian strategy in Antarctica, call for more funding to the Australian Antarctic Division, and detail future security threats in the region. Both also called for greater Defence involvement in strategic Antarctic planning.

While the Antarctic Treaty System precludes military activity on the continent, it is worth contrasting the Australian Defence Force's (ADF) approach to Antarctica with that of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). The NZDF regularly flies Air Force planes to Antarctica and has between 20 and 60 military personnel there to assist with logistics, support search and rescue efforts and maintain links with the US Antarctic Program. The NZDF has also conducted trials staging its P-3K Orion aircraft from Antarctica to support Southern Ocean surveillance in support of the Convention on Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

The ADF has no recent experience operating in Antarctica, thinking strategically about Antarctic security, or planning for contingencies in Australian Antarctic Territory. The running conflict between Japanese whaling ships and Sea Shepherd vessels in the Southern Ocean has sparked calls for Australian warships to be dispatched south and probably spurred hasty thinking about how to enforce Australian and international law in Australian Antarctic waters. Beyond that, the only military appreciation of Antarctica by the ADF seems to be found in an 1993 ADF Journal article that calls for military cooperation with the Australian Antarctic Division.

The likelihood of strategic abrasion in Antarctica is rising. The Antarctic Treaty System, which has done an excellent job thus far of preserving Antarctica for peaceful purposes, has been tested recently by friction between states regarding maritime territorial claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While the 1991 Madrid Protocol bans mining in Antarctica until 2048, issues surrounding mineral exploration and extraction are likely to emerge again should global prices rise to levels where extraction from Antarctica would be commercially feasible.

Australia's 1987 Defence White Paper said Australia's national interest was to see a demilitarised Antarctica free from political and strategic competition. There has been little mention of Antarctic policy in Defence white papers since. Over twenty years later, major powers like China and India continue to enthusiastically expand their Antarctic operations. The recent increased militarisation of the Arctic by Canada and Russia forewarns similar strategic tension that could emerge in Antarctica should the fragile peace of the Antarctic Treaty System be disrupted.

Australian strategic planners would do well to not be caught napping.

 Photo by Flickr user Martha de Jong-Lantink, used under a Creative Commons license.

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