Australian investment and the situation around Antarctica


On February 22, the Australian Prime Minister’s website stated that the Morrison Government will send a clear international signal of Australia’s world-leading Antarctic leadership with an $804.4 million investment over the next ten years to strengthen Australia’s strategic and scientific capabilities in the region.

Antarctic Treaty and territorial claims

Australia has a long connection with Antarctica. On June 13, 1933, the “Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act” was issued. This Act provided for the accession to Australia of most (42% of the continent) of East Antarctica. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was concluded, which entered into force in 1961, consolidating the existing status quo, prohibiting new claims and expanding old ones. Among the signatories of the Treaty were seven countries – Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom – with territorial claims, sometimes overlapping.

Since then, many other countries have joined the Treaty, today the total number of participants is 54. It is worth emphasizing that all parties to the Antarctic Treaty have the right to have seasonal (summer) and year-round research stations on the continent. Today, Australia operates three year-round scientific stations on the continent and one on subantarctic Macquarie Island.

How the new funds will be spent

Of the AU$800 million funding, a large chunk is going to enhance Australia’s logistics capacity in Antarctica, in particular in East Antarctica where lie Australia’s territorial claim. This includes:

  • $136.6 million for inland travel capability, mapping, mobile stations, environmental protection, and other core activities;
  • another $109 million will fund drone fleets and vehicles to map “inaccessible and fragile areas of East Antartica”, establishing an “Antarctic Eye” with integrated censors and cameras feeding real-time information back;
  • other funds will go to the icebreaker Nuyina, removal of old waste from Australia’s stations and more funding for glaciology and ice sheet research.

Antarctica must remain a place of science and conservation

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said: “We need to ensure that the Antarctic remains a place of science and conservation, one that is free from conflict and which is protected from exploitation.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said the government’s funding would mark Australia’s commitment to the Antarctic Treaty system requiring Antarctica be used only for peaceful, scientific purposes, and “freezing” any challenges to Australia’s claim of the Australian Antarctic Territory.

Experts: “Release of funding comes as China expands its presence and activity in the hard-to-reach Antarctic hinterland”

As The Diplomat newspaper notes, although China was never mentioned in the announcement, the strategic rivalry with China’s growing influence and presence in Antarctica has again become the headline of the Australian media. Experts note that the release of funding comes as China expands its presence and activity in the hard-to-reach Antarctic hinterland within the 42 percent of the continent claimed by Australia.

Thus, at a media conference Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not mention specific countries by name, but he said some were eager to “use its resources.”

“We are stewards of some of the most important and most sensitive environments anywhere in the world,” he said. “We need to keep eyes on Antarctica because there are others who have different objectives to us.”

In response to such statements, China’s state media outlet Global Times said Beijing had “always abided by the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty System in carrying out scientific expeditions in the Antarctic region.”

Concerns about rising tensions in Antarctica

Experts are concerned that Australia’s promise to spend close to $1 billion on a fleet of new drones and autonomous vehicles to fly across Antarctica could trigger an Antarctic “arms race” for surveillance technology. Thus, Antarctic strategy expert Elizabeth Buchanan from Deakin University said the investment in drones was “sorely needed” but would need to be carefully managed. “While it is easy enough for Australia to smack ‘science’ on drone policies, making use permissible in Antarctica, this may embolden Russia and China (which have stations) to enhance their own dual-use technologies — an arms race of dual-use capabilities.”

Moreover, experts studying the region say that in the past few years, the aspirations of international actors to become a “polar great power” have also increased, not only for scientific research, but also in order to use its resources.


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