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Antarctica adrift: Australia’s southern blind spot

Read Dr Elizabeth Buchanan’s remarks for the 2022 Sea Power Conference panel on maritime competition on Australia’s southern flank – Antarctica.

Read Dr Elizabeth Buchanan’s remarks for the 2022 Sea Power Conference panel on maritime competition on Australia’s southern flank – Antarctica.

Views are personal and not the views of the Australian Department of Defence or Royal Australian Navy. 


When it comes to Antarctica there are four key problems Canberra faces. First, Australia overlooks its southern flank in somewhat of an impressive manner. Not only does the continent regularly go missing from government publications – including our Defence and foreign policy white papers, but the region also itself is often relegated to a “pop-out” table or box in any publication. This is despite our rather sizable (at least, by far the largest) territorial sovereign claim to 42 per cent of the continent. 

Why is this the case? Australian policymakers have all but normalised national strategic complacency via the notion of if it isn’t broke” don’t tinker. It is assumed the existing Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is willing and able to do all the heavy lifting. Retrospectively, of course, we will be able to pinpoint the transition moment in which we assumed good order and peaceful intentions were international values. Quite simply, Australian policymakers haven’t done enough to cultivate a national sense of agency in any debate over Australia’s Antarctic interests. 

The second challenge Australia faces on the southern flank is that our strategic conception of the region is at odds with even our Indo-Pacific mates. We lack a common geographical definition of the Indo-Pacific to speak to – and boundaries and definitions do matter in geopolitics. For instance, US INDOPACOM specifically includes Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in its Indo-Pacific vision and area of operation. Australia’s Defence Strategic Update 2020 (DSU20) narrowed the Indo-Pacific framing to our north-east Asian approaches – with a dash of south-west Pacific. There are knock-on effects for clear operational boundaries too. In terms of capabilities the US Coast Guard is reinvesting in its Polar Security Cutter (PSC) program and plans to station one vessel permanently in the Southern Ocean region (perhaps Hobart). Meanwhile, Australian Navy has not one ice-hardened vessel and needs the French to assist in patrolling one of the world’s largest SAR zones (Southern Ocean).

Third, our Antarctic problem stems from the reality that Canberra drank its own cooperation cool aid. Both in terms of the longevity (and features of) East-West cooperation, as well as the milage left in the ATS’ Cold War success. But the mere continued functioning of the ATS is not an efficient way to measure Antarctic geopolitical health. This is not to argue the ATS is failing, indeed, states have an interest in upholding the system as it is – but this is the problem. The ATS facilitates strategic competition, as it always has since its Cold War birth. Upholding the ATS continues be in Australia’s national interest: It delivers a great return on investment – a nice territorial claim shelved into perpetuity. 

However, we need to recognise and grasp the coercive elements of Antarctic cooperation and the entrenched nature of grey-zone activities on the continent (dual-use technology that can be applied in both scientific and military contexts; Russian fishing vessels spoofing their locations to signal that they’re not in protected Antarctic waters; and we could also argue (as some states do) that marine protected areas are an extension of some claimants’ territorial ambitions as well – a charge often levelled at Australia. Overall, subversion, deception and sophisticated interpretations of international legal norms in Antarctica are all hallmarks of the ATS. 


So, what can (or should) we, as proponents of the existing liberal rules-based order, do when it comes to Antarctica? This leads us to a fourth area of Antarctic challenges: grasping palatable solutions for the consensus-based governance system we know is imperfect, under strain, and yet in our national interest to protect. I think the window to build credible enforcement mechanisms into the ATS is gone, this is now incompatible with Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China coexisting in the Antarctic ecosystem. 

But we can raise the stakes of system failure by looking at the areas of mutual interest in Antarctica. Climate research and science is at the heart of our solution. Antarctica is the sole and longest running global data set we have for weather patterns – autocracies and democracies alike recognise this value. Australia must turbo charge investment and support international linkages within the currency of science. Next, we show up and show up with credibility. See, presence is influence and influence is power in the Antarctic context. Traditionally, we relied on a handful of Antarctic gateway states (South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) as gatekeepers for flights and ports in and out of the continent. Times have changed: states like China have stood up sovereign naval industries. 

Perhaps the biggest strategic mistake Australia has made on the southern flank will prove to be the nixing of a year-round ice-free paved runway in East Antarctica. There is nothing stopping the Chinese (or Russians) from building on the proposed site. Even announcing yet another iteration of the proposal has given a green light to other states in any case with regards to permissibility of the venture. Australia could have cost-shared with China, Russia, India to deliver the infrastructure needed to resupply bases, ensure rapid health of expeditioners, and stop climate scientists having to use weeks at sea to access data – we don’t have the time. Even our like-minded states are already (and still) building runway infrastructure on Antarctica – Italy has just finished its new gravel runway (pitched to reduce reliance on the US runway system). Even then, private tourist firms are building a litany of runways and injecting tourist numbers like never before (which brings a new set of security challenges to the pristine continent).  

Finally, with 70 per cent of the Earth’s fresh water, hydrocarbons, and clear shots to space on offer in Antarctica, as well as a Southern Ocean rich in vast krill and fisheries stocks, we can’t deny Antarctica is a prized bounty. It would appear given recent Pacific developments and the trajectory of Beijing, that we need at least consider seriously a national Antarctic policy which pays equal attention to the ATS and to the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) – the system and the claim are mutually reinforcing. Not since the 1980s has Defence policy really highlighted the national interest of our sovereign territorial claim. 

Australia needs to revise assumptions which led us to the 2016 Defence white paper idea that the AAT faces no credible risk of being challenged in such a way that requires a substantial military response for at least the next few decades. Where’s our capability? Are we skilled and ready? What’s the threat? Is it even in breach of ATS norms? What does the challenge look like? Will we see it? Has Washington acknowledged the AAT? Or are we to find ourselves in a few decades wondering how we lost Antarctica? 

Dr Elizabeth Buchanan is adjunct Fellow of the Griffith Asia Institute and non-resident Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point Military Academy. Views are her own. @BuchananLiz 


Antarctica adrift: Australia’s southern blind spot
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