Could Great Power Rivalry Come South?

Shaun Cameron


As Australia’s 2021-22 Antarctic summer season begins, it is worth reassessing its position and the security of our southern border. Australia lays claim to 42 per cent of Antarctica, a territory of nearly 5.9 million square kilometres and the largest of seven claims, and while the region falls under a treaty system creating a foundation for a continent free from militarisation and energy exploitation, times could be changing. The Arctic was once seen as a region of cooperation until great power rivalry spread north, and now some predict competition is heading south as well.


In the Arctic, climate change has changed the geography to allow access to new energy resources and trade routes, leading to interest from Russia and China. Similar predictions of energy reserves, although contested, have been made in the south. A 1991 U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that there may be up to 19 billion barrels of oil and roughly three trillion cubic metres of gas in the Antarctic, and the Ross Sea could contain 50 billion barrels of oil and over 100 trillion cubic metres of gas. Extremely difficult terrain means only a fraction is recoverable and the cost of exploiting and transporting such reserves would be unviable, with the reserves sitting under layers of ice five kilometres thick. However, with warming temperatures and melting ice this could change.


The quest for resources in the Antarctic has been described as an ‘El Dorado Complex’ by some, following the presumption that unknown lands must hold vast riches, but others believe that energy treasure must exist due to the Earth’s natural geographical spread. What is certain is that the Antarctic mining ban is in place until 2048 and will continue unless 75 per cent of Treaty signatories agree on a new form of regulation. This hasn’t stopped Russia surveying the region for potential resources, and China and Russia both wish to relax the ban. Both nations may be gambling that a lot can happen geographically and geopolitically in 30 years.


While energy exploitation may only be a distant opportunity, both Russia and China have taken advantage of lucrative fishing opportunities and have opposed forms of environmental protection that could affect their yield. China has an established Antarctic krill fishing industry, employing the world’s largest krill trawler. The Antarctic also holds 60 per cent of the world’s freshwater, has the potential for tourism, and offers three new potential shipping routes.


The Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan appears to see opportunities and vulnerabilities in the region, and provides ongoing support for icebreaking ability and infrastructure. These are steps towards ensuring access to the Antarctic, something that the U.S. reportedly could lose in the Arctic by 2050 due to poor funding and resulting decreased capability.


Presence is a factor in maintaining access and influence. Beijing has already declared itself a key stakeholder in the Arctic to pursue its foreign policy and economic goals. China has a smaller investment in Antarctica, sending 154 researchers over 2021-2022, a reduction from 180 over four sites in 2018-2019. In comparison, Chile maintained 450 over 11 stations and the U.S. 1,400 over 22 sites during that same season. Australia sent 300, and while this number halved due to shrinking funding during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is estimated that around 500 will be on the continent over the 2021-22 season. Increased presence is important in not only justifying funding and infrastructure development, but also in countering possible claims to territory from other states. Australia may have dropped the ball by cancelling plans for a long-awaited aerodrome, ostensibly due to potential environmental impact, but also giving up an opportunity to increase its capability and influence.


The Antarctic Treaty System supports Australia’s position in that it ‘freezes’ challenges to territorial claims, ensures a non-militarised continent, and prohibits mining, although the expanding number of decision-making states has changed the balance of power. This system could offer opportunities for Beijing in influencing the votes of minor states. Treatises have not stopped China from engaging in unreported military activities and mineral exploration, nor in self-declaring that it will manage territory that holds the best opportunities for space observation on Earth. Neither has it inspired confidence that it will not engage in coercive tactics in Antarctica similar to those employed in the South China Sea. The United States’ ice capability is ageing and focused on the Arctic, so Australia needs to ensure it is capable of rebuffing territorial claims itself, perhaps at the end of swarms of fishing and krill trawlers, as experienced in other waters by the Philippines.


Other suggestions for Australia’s strategy in the Antarctic have included forming an Australian Antarctic Council, allying with states with similar priorities such as New Zealand, and strengthening the Antarctic Treaty System as a tool for regulation and diplomacy. Other recommendations include modernising infrastructure, appointing an Antarctic Ambassador, and funding domestic infrastructure, thereby allowing states such as Tasmania, Victoria, and South Australia to become hubs for Antarctic logistics without acquiescing to investment from Beijing.


Australia holds claims over Antarctic territory, but it could only be a matter of time before powers such as Russia and China look south for energy, shipping routes, and other resources. Australia must ensure it is ready to meet threats and challenges on all fronts so that it will not find itself in the position of losing influence in the Antarctic.


Shaun Cameron is a postgraduate student working in Asia. He has a background in academic research, teaching, and psychology.