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Australia’s Antarctic Frontier: Our Unchecked Indo-Pacific Strategic Faultline – Part 2

This article was originally published on 7th of October 2020.

Our Unchecked Indo-Pacific Strategic Faultline

Argentinian Station Antarctica South Pole

Demanding greater strategic attention from Canberra is the future of the Antarctic, a frontier where Indo-Pacific contestation is rising. This is the second post in a two-part blog piece examining the strategic impact of inattention; Part 1 can be read from here.

While the ATS explicitly bans militarization, incremental militarization is none the less underway in Antarctica. The grey-zone interpretive nature of the ATS is facilitating significant military capabilities being established under the guise of dual-use technologies. Here, Buchanan notes the ATS allows military capabilities to be deployed on Antarctica if they are supporting scientific research; this aspect of Antarctic governance is ambiguous and ripe for exploitation.[i] China is establishing strategic satellite capabilities that enable missile tracking and positioning, and detect enemy satellites, drones and missiles.[ii] Russia has recommenced Naval Antarctic expeditions and enabled strategic airlift operations.[iii] While described as research capabilities, the primary value could be asserted as military due to the critical strategic role they will execute in any conflict. Similarly, the US is investigating satellite capabilities indicating expanded competition could result.

Such expansionism should be cause for international alarm and reinvigorate strategic debate in Australia. However, the Defence White Paper 2016 states ‘the AAT faces no credible risk of being challenged’. Antarctic militarisation suggests that Australian policy is misaligned and should include the emerging threats to Antarctic security.[iv] Further, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update is without any reference to Antarctica, which is interesting considering the 42% territorial claim Canberra promotes.

Strategic concerns linked to Antarctica include Indo-Pacific food security. Global food production is under pressure due to rising populations and the impact of climate change on arable lands. Without a rules-based framework, fisheries over-exploitation should be expected. In the Antarctic, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) regulates sustainable marine resource practices. However, CCAMLR enforcement mechanisms are weak and have been largely ineffective. These weak mechanisms enable illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that is negatively impacting breeding grounds; concerningly, IUU activities have possible ATS signatory sponsorship.[v] Further, China recently rejected application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) off Antarctica, stating international laws may not apply in the Southern Ocean and resources are ‘first come, first served’. Brady states China is already disregarding international law with violation of CCAMLR limits on krill.[vi] China’s resource exploitation, with disregard to international law, is similar to past South China Sea behaviour. Similarities are further reinforced with the recent tasking of the State Oceanic Administration with Antarctic oversight, the Chinese government arm executing South China Sea policies. A gradual but persistent erosion of international law is occurring and inattention could allow this challenge to accelerate exponentially.

Similarly, Antarctic minerals are plentiful and continued inattention could enable more assertive regional policies. Antarctica has significant mineral reserves including coal, uranium, oil and rare earth minerals.[vii] While the ‘1991 Madrid Protocol’ bans resource extraction, it allows prospecting for scientific purposes (Antarctic Treaty 2017). As consensus is required to remove the exploitation ban after 2048, it would be prudent to consider that states are currently leveraging the Protocol’s ambiguity on prospecting, and posturing for future exploitation. In 2001, Russia prospected for oil reserves and announced an Antarctic resource strategy. Most concerning is the possibility that resource competition could be a catalyst for conflict; whilst appearing remote, this has been a significant catalyst for previous conflict. Possible posturing to disregard the ‘Madrid Protocol’, combined with militarisation, CCAMLR breaches and UNCLOS rejection further justifies concerns of the South China Sea pattern being repeated. The strategic impact of inattention to the violation of international laws and norms in Antarctica is immense and undermines the established system.

Reinvigorating our Antarctic attention

Australia should elevate Antarctic attention into the strategic discussion, reinvest in Antarctic activities and reinforce the ATS. Australian interests can be enhanced through inland basing and vigorous opposition of Chinese ‘specially managed territory’ claims. These efforts require a whole of government approach, elevating discourse into the national strategic setting, specifically the National Security Committee. Leadership, in the form of a Ministerial Council with DFAT, Defence and Environment Ministers, led by the Prime Minster, or a Ministerial appointment, would publicly elevate Antarctica’s importance and demonstrate a renewed Australian commitment. Leadership must be reinforced by policy. Future Foreign Affairs and Defence White Papers should elevate Antarctica from a secondary interest, or implied task, to a core interest outlining occupation patterns and capabilities.[viii] Further, Australia should reinforce the ATS with like-minded countries developing ‘shared positions on critical international issues’ to offset cumulative ATS erosion from a lack of consensus. While the Treaty is imperfect it remains the best framework to promote Australia’s interests and the rules-based order. Australian policy should elevate leadership and review national security and foreign affairs policy to move Antarctica from a peripheral issue to one of emergent concern.

Broader Indo-Pacific attention should reinforce the multi-lateral ATS approach through strengthening inspection and enforcement. Article VII of the Treaty enables inspections between ATS signatories; however, ‘enforcement has been lacking’.[ix] Two multi-lateral inspection options could be considered to strengthen the ATS. Firstly, an International Atomic Energy Agency concept could be employed; whereby, inspection teams comprised of multiple countries inspect random facilities on a regular basis. Alternatively, an Indo-Pacific centric approach expanding the Asian Forum of Polar Sciences membership from China, India, Japan, and Korea, to include Indo-Pacific ATS signatories, could encourage consensus building. Regardless of approach, the current inspection regime should change, as it has neither the inspection frequency, nor the capacity to enforce ATS mandates required to engender trust and reduce miscalculation between states. However, inspections alone will not resolve this challenge. Credible consequences must follow if violations occur; if there is no risk of detection or fear of punishment the agreement (ATS) will be discredited. Penalties require consideration and could range from public attribution and sanctions, to expulsion from conducting Antarctic research activities and possible military enforcement.[x] The ATS has weakened due to an ineffective inspection and enforcement regime; these frameworks must be strengthened.

Antarctica is vulnerable and demands greater attention. Occupation patterns and strategic narratives are eroding the ATS and in doing so jeopardising the rules-based order. Significant strategic occupation is targeting Antarctica’s rich resource potential and incremental militarisation is occurring under the guise of dual-use technology. The ATS is further disregarded in the Southern Ocean where marine resources are being exploited in contravention to the CCAMLR and China has rejected the application of UNCLOS. This receives only minor attention outside of environmental forums. Similarly, patterns indicate that resource exploration and possible exploitation is occurring and yet the risks to the ‘Madrid Protocol’ are not broadly acknowledged. Antarctica’s current trajectory is concerning. If the status quo is maintained it will likely result in ATS disintegration.

[i] Article One of the ATS states ‘Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. There shall be prohibited, inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons. The present Treaty shall not prevent the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose’ (Antarctic Treaty 2017, p.21).

[ii] These capabilities are being established on Dome Argus, providing strategic reach across the Southern Hemisphere and ‘is the highest point on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (Tiantian 2017).

[iii] Russian Naval expeditions are significant as they have been re-invigorated after a 30 year absence (Buchanan 2019, p.2), indicating a renewed focus on Antarctica.

[iv] This argument does not explore Australian Defence Force posture disposition. Nor does it advocate for the physical movement of forces, rather consideration of Antarctic threats.

[v] ATS states currently flag vessels as non-CCAMLR states, China also leverages off Hong Kong’s status as a non-signatory; key ports for landing IUU caught fish are located in States that are not party to CCAMLR making enforcement difficult, including Indo-Pacific states: Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore (AAD 2003). For further detail on IUU fishing refer to Osterblom and Bodin (2012).

[vi] China’s krill catch increased from 55,000 tonnes in 2014 to between one and two million tonnes in 2015; the CCAMLR restricts krill fishing to 680,000 tonnes (Brady 2017, p.19).

[vii] For further information on how practical obstacles to oil extraction in inhospitable conditions are being removed refer to Fogarty (2011, p.4).

[viii] Capabilities could include Antarctic inland capable aircraft and extreme cold weather training for military forces. Given the ban on military activities, such training could be conducted in the Arctic with the US and Canada.

[ix] For example Australia has conducted inspections in only five Antarctic summers: two facilities in 1985-6, 26 facilities in 2004-5, six facilities in 2009-10, three facilities in 2010-11 and two facilities in 2016-17. A significant number of these facilities were operated by either the US or New Zealand (Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, 2019).

[x] Expulsion would seek to remove approval under the ATS for states to continue to operate research facilities that could be used for dual-use capabilities.

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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