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Australia’s Antarctic Frontier: Our Unchecked Indo-Pacific Strategic Faultline – Part 1

29 September 2020
Map of Antarctica Edward VII Land and surrounds

Demanding greater strategic attention from Canberra is the future of the Antarctic,[i] a frontier where Indo-Pacific contestation is rising. Currently, the trajectory of the last unclaimed continent on earth, is all but overlooked in the Indo-Pacific narrative. This is a two-part blog piece examining the security challenges relating to the Antarctic.

Antarctica is at an inflection point where global warming will increase accessibility and great powers may seek to exploit emerging opportunities and further challenge the established rules-based order. Competition is driven by Antarctica’s geostrategic location and interest directed to considerable resource reserves.[ii] The contest for Antarctica has begun and stakeholders appear blind to the significance of the Indo-Pacific theatre’s southernmost component.

Antarctic rules and norms are being eroded due to a fragile Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and increasing assertiveness of a range of Indo-Pacific states.  This situation is leading to an unchecked strategic challenge on Australia’s doorstep that demands greater attention in the popular Indo-Pacific context. This analysis will conceptualise Antarctica’s place in the Indo-Pacific challenge. In doing so it illustrates the lack of attention Antarctica receives across the Australian political and defence realms. It argues an increasingly fragile ATS demands greater attention as the continent hosts a competition challenging the rules-based order. For Canberra, this challenge necessitates a robust public policy debate and strategic policy of substance for Antarctica.

Antarctica has been overlooked

The political lens through which the Indo-Pacific is framed shapes the attention afforded and policies crafted. Inadvertently, popular Indo-Pacific conception often neglects the Antarctic. Australia defines the Indo-Pacific as a region that stretches the Indian to Pacific Oceans. However, the absence of a clear southern Indo-Pacific boundary removes Antarctica and the Southern Ocean from Australia’s consciousness. Conversely, other nations see Antarctica and the Southern Ocean as an extension of the Indo-Pacific. Further, Medcalf[iii] notes the Indo-Pacific is a geopolitical construct describing the grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the US, to balance China throughout the region. The absence of Antarctica from Australian Indo-Pacific policy is stark, despite it occupying the southern Indo-Pacific boundary.

History further shapes perception and over time strategic attention has diminished significantly. The Cold War first drew Antarctica to strategic attention as states considered submarine basing and nuclear testing. This period was the peak of strategic discourse and resulted in the establishment of the ATS in 1959,[iv] and subsequent ‘1991 Madrid Protocol’ (banning mining but reviewable from 2048) and 1982 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (Antarctic Treaty 2017). Given the ATS has been hailed a Cold War-era policy success, staving off direct military conflict on the continent, the region has fallen from the strategic priority list.

The ATS is widely acknowledged as an unprecedented international law success and example of multilateral cooperation. It is held up as an exemplar to the global rules-based order.[v] Yet, its application is increasingly fragile. Buchanan contends the ATS is a temporary solution, a Cold War legacy that suspended, rather than solved, sovereignty claims. While the ATS is imperfect it is significant in two respects. First, it represents Antarctica’s rules and norms, establishing a framework for management. Second, the ATS is an exemplar of international law and the rules-based order. The ATS equilibrium is at risk because the once-present strategic attention has evaporated and reoriented to other Indo-Pacific challenges including the Korean Peninsula, South China Sea and escalating US-Chinese tensions. Historic ATS success has bred complacency and as such, the significance of Antarctica is overlooked.

Limited Australian government, academic and public attention has been the result; conversely, competing Indo-Pacific states are expanding strategic dialogue on Antarctica. Western academic literature on polar-regions is cursory and focuses on the Arctic as the new ‘great game’, despite significant increases in Antarctic activity. Fogarty asserts Australian policy is muted, the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) lacks strategic influence, and Antarctica is largely absent from national security documents.[vi] Whilst New Zealand policy has a strategic Antarctic focus and the US Indo-Pacific Command is tasked with Antarctic responsibility, the broader Indo-Pacific dialogue on Antarctica’s future remains narrow. Meanwhile, Russia and China have enhanced Antarctic attention by implementing strategic policies and developing polar capabilities. Antarctic strategic discourse and public policy is limited and particularly insufficient in Australia noting its proximity, this requires greater attention.

Antarctica and the ATS demands greater attention

The rules-based order is being tested in Antarctica due to a fragile ATS that is open for exploitation and contestation. Friedberg outlines that rising powers are drawn to challenge territorial boundaries and international institutions that were established when these states were weak. Antarctica represents an Indo-Pacific strategic environment where Friedberg’s factors exist and the established rules-based order can be further tested. Countries with formerly limited ATS influence, namely China and India, as recent key ATS signatories can now exert significant weight to reform, redefine or corrode ATS consensus. While Harris asserts treaty continuation remains central for claimant states to assert influence and ownership. States, such as China and Russia, are testing the ATS for weaknesses, blocking maritime proposals and weakening the resolve of the treaty collective.[vii] The treaty is under threat. Friction is resulting as shifting Indo-Pacific geopolitics creates tension and the established order is challenged.

Indo-Pacific states are establishing compelling narratives for future sovereignty claims to challenge the ATS and this contestation demands attention. Weak ATS policing mechanisms unable to coerce or deter states has enabled state footprints to expand in Antarctica. China has five strategically[viii] located Antarctic stations and description of its Antarctic Plateau ascent on Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) as a ‘conquest, implies a latent nationalism in China’s policy’. Buchanan asserts that China’s request for Kunlun Station on AAT to be designated a ‘specially managed territory’ reflects an established Chinese pattern of exploration, followed by occupation and militarisation.[ix] China is becoming more ‘vocally disruptive and uncooperative in ATS meetings’, further eroding consensus. Current Chinese Antarctic behaviour outlined by Buchanan, and rhetoric described by Bergin undermines ATS consensus and is reminiscent of the South China Sea contest. In particular, the term ‘specially managed territory’ could be argued as sovereignty by another name. Similarly, India and Russia are establishing occupation patterns and narratives that could support future claims. The ATS is under pressure and challenges by key Indo-Pacific states could result in the ATS fracturing, creating a management framework void and ultimately a new era of Antarctic contestation.

[i] The Antarctic refers to the area south of 60 Degrees South Latitude including all ice shelves; Antarctica refers to the continent; the Southern Ocean is comprised of the international waters surrounding Antarctica (Antarctic Treaty 1959, p.23).

[ii] An uninhabited Antarctica, with no indigenous human population, means that traditional complications regarding resource ownership do not exist.

[iii] For further detail on geopolitical Indo-Pacific definitions refer to Das (2019) and Scott (2010).

[iv] Antarctica is strategically important to Australia that claims 42% of the Antarctic continent; this claim was transferred to Australia in 1933 by Great Britain (Buchanan 2019).

[v] For further discussion on ATS success refer to Triggs 2011, Harris 1984, Scully 2011, Fogarty 2011 and Liggett et al. 2017.

[vi] Antarctica comprises two paragraphs of a 188-page Defence White Paper (2016, pp.4 and 54). Similarly, it comprises half a page of a 124-page Foreign Policy White Paper (2017, p.85).

[vii] Activities testing the ATS include: China pushing for the establishment of a code-of-conduct system to provide an alternative to the current rules and norms (Bergin & Press 2020, p.12); Russia not allowing inspectors to land at Perseus airfield (Buchanan 2019, p.2) and China pushing reservations on the application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea off Antarctica (Keyuan 1993, p.242). For broader discussion refer to Buchanan (2019), Fogarty (2011) and Liggett et al. (2017).

[viii] Strategic Antarctic locations are those that provide military and or resource opportunities in addition to research (Brady 2017; Buchanan 2019; Fogarty 2011).

[ix] This pattern is previously demonstrated by Chinese activity in the South China Sea, Tibet to secure water resources, disputed territories with India and Bhutan as well as the East China Sea; at each step China publicly stated they would not militarise these regions (Foster & Goswami 2019).

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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Matthew Struthers on 29 September 2020 - 6:49am

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.