A GROWING number of voices are warning that Australia’s complacency in Antarctica could open the door for China to lay claim to parts of the icy continent.
Antarctica is a mineral rich continent and underpinning the suspicion is the fact that China is seen as a resource hungry nation in need of fossil fuels and minerals to feed its growing economy.
Australia has by far the largest claim in the polar region of any nation with the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) covering 42 per cent of the continent. It was claimed by the United Kingdom and placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1933. However only the UK, New Zealand, France and Norway recognise Australia’s claim over the territory.
China recently began work on its fifth Antarctic research facility — a move that has prompted strategic and defence think tanks in both the US and Australia to raise concerns about China’s clear desire to exert greater control in the region, potentially at Australia’s expense.
“I would sum up the Australian response as needing to be alert but not alarmed,” says Professor Donald Rothwell from the ANU’s Centre for Military & Security law.
“I say alert because obviously any potential presence of another state within the Australian claimed territory could lead, at some future point in time, to a challenge to Australian sovereignty.”
But for the time being there is no reason to be alarmed “if only because as things currently stand all of the activities that are being undertaken by China are regulated within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty”.
Antarctica is essentially governed by a system of treaties and agreements that to date have prohibited any militarisation or mining on the icy continent.
Among the original signatories of the overarching Antarctic Treaty are the seven countries — Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom — with territorial claims to parts of Antarctica, some of which are overlapping.
Professor Rothwell does concede the obvious allure of mineral and fishing resources for countries with an Antarctic presence.
“Ultimately anyone who is down there and has a significant presence would have an interest in Antarctic resources and that includes both the mineral resources but also the living resources by way of fisheries around the continent,” he said.
“That interest in resources is as relevant for Australia as it is for China. And even more so for Australia because Australia has been there longer and has a territorial claim over Antarctica.”
In August, defence think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute warned Australia’s leadership role is being eroded because of long-term under-investment at a time when other countries are expanding their presence and influence in the region.
“China has conducted undeclared military activities in Antarctica, is building up a case for a territorial claim, and is engaging in minerals exploration there,” the reportsaid.
Despite international law, “China has never stopped exploring Antarctic mineral resources,” the report claimed, also pointing out the Chinese government has stated in policy documents that it reserves the right to make a claim in Antarctica.
This month, US think tank the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, echoed the suspicion in a report detailing challenges for US polar maritime operations.
“Australia faces competing priorities in the Antarctic. Its interest in protecting Australia’s sovereignty over the AAT is being undermined by the growing number of Chinese stations and exploration missions in its sector,” the report said.
“At the same time, however, Australia plans to rely on Chinese users to recover costs for infrastructure improvements in Tasmania and Antarctica. The Australian government will soon need to reconcile these conflicts or be prepared to protect its sovereignty over the AAT and keep Antarctica free of conflict.”
It’s certainly not the first time Western policy groups have expressed concern about the erosion of Australian power in the region.
In 2011, the influential Australian think-tank the Lowy Institute, published a reportwarning Canberra against complacency when it comes to its territorial claim in the Antarctic.
Despite the warnings, Prof Rothwell has faith in Article Four of the Antarctic Treaty, which places an absolute prohibition on any new claims in Antarctica.
“There is a very strong and robust legal framework that has been in place for over 50 years which has seen Antarctica not become the subject of international disputes over competing territorial claims.”
Part of that treaty system is the 1998 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty — known as The Madrid Protocol — and will be up for review in 2048, which would include discussions of mining operations beginning in Antarctica.
Several mining proposals have been discussed in the past but have all been rejected. Currently the treaty designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”
While the treaty can be reviewed in the coming decades, Prof Rothwell doesn’t think that is likely to occur.
“It doesn’t automatically come up for review. It will come up for review at the request of one of the state parties, so a review needs to be triggered as opposed to a review automatically occurring,” he said.
“There is in fact a review mechanism under the Antarctic Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty itself could be subject to review and that review mechanism became active in 1991 and yet, to date, no one has sought a review,” he said.
The growing desire to exert influence in the region mirrors a similar strategy China has undertaken in the other polar region.
China has recently struck a deal with Iceland to fund and build a joint research facility in the Arctic to increase its presence in the crowded north.
“We all know China is very interested in the Arctic,” Dr Liu from the University of New England’s School of Law told news.com.au in November.
The relationship with Iceland is more about a move from “symbolic participation to real participation”, he said.
Most importantly, “China wants to ensure it doesn’t get left behind.”
Prof Rothwell sees obvious parallels between China’s action in Antarctica and the Arctic but thinks the latter holds more potential benefits for the emerging super power in the immediate future.
“You can certainly observe that China is becoming more assertive in terms of developing polices as they apply to the polar regions,” he said. “In my own view it’s probably the Arctic which is going to bear more fruit for China in the short to medium term because we know the ice is melting in the Arctic and that’s opening up navigation routes.”
Conversely, because of the international agreements around Antarctica “any fruition of Chinese aspirations in Antarctica might take quite some time to bear fruit,” he said.
Source : News.com