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Preserving Australia's claim to Antarctica

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8 August 2011 09:38

Ellie Fogarty is the Lowy Institute's 2011 National Security Fellow. All views are her own, and do not reflect the position of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or the Australian Government.

This year marks the centenary of the first Australian-led Antarctic Expedition, headed by Sir Douglas Mawson. It is also 50 years since the Antarctic Treaty entered into force, suspending Australia's claim to sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT), around 42% of the continent.

Now is a pertinent time for Australia to make a realistic evaluation of whether its Antarctic policy is sufficient to preserve Australia's claim, and that is the focus of my new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, Antarctica: Assessing and Protecting Australia's National Interests, released today.

Over the past decade, a number of states have substantially increased their Antarctic budgets, activities and presence. Both China and Russia have openly stated their interest in exploiting Antarctic resources after the present prohibition on most mineral activities becomes reviewable in 2048. This represents a potential threat to the longevity of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and to Australia's dormant claim.

Australia's Antarctica policy has traditionally had two limbs: first, remaining actively involved in the ATS, and second, preserving its dormant claim over the AAT. In recent years, however, Australia's agencies responsible for Antarctic policy have ceased to reiterate Australia's commitment to preserving its claim in their policy objectives, and the AAT was overlooked as part of Australia's sovereign territory in the 2009 Defence White Paper.

Furthermore, by focusing on scientific endeavour and environmental management, Australia's Antarctic policy also lacks the national security dimension and whole-of-government consideration it truly needs.

Australia's dormant claim is placed under strain by Australia's minimal occupation of the AAT and limited transport capabilities, which impede full access and use of the AAT.

At present, Australia has few options for travel to and from the continent, and has no transport capability suitable to provide access to all areas of the AAT. This has inhibited Australia's ability to independently conduct search and rescue operations on the AAT, and has made Australia reliant on other countries to deliver Australian scientific equipment to other states' stations on the inland Antarctic Plateau.

To remain influential in future international discussions of Antarctica's administration, and to preserve its dormant claim beyond the life of the Treaty, Australia needs to elevate the priority of Antarctic policy and better integrate it into broader national security and strategic policy thinking.

Responsibility for Australia's Antarctica program should be moved into an agency within the national security community in Canberra to promote greater cross-portfolio engagement. Australia should also invest in Antarctic sciences, logistics and infrastructure to promote greater presence in and use of the AAT.

Finally, Australia also needs to remain actively engaged with the ATS, make better use of its compliance mechanisms and open discussions with like-minded states in anticipation of the issues of sovereignty and resource exploitation being revisited in 2048.

Antarctica's future use and management has great potential to affect Australia's national security. It is vital that Australia remains vocal and influential in international discussions on Antarctic administration, and complement its commitment to its dormant claim with the activity and investment required to support that claim.

Photo by Flickr user mag3737.

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