Recent analysis has given considerable attention to the growing presence of China in Antarctica. On the other hand, the pivotal geopolitical importance of Antarctica to South America and the protagonist role of its most engaged nations are often overlooked.
The Antarctic Peninsula rests at approximately 1000 kilometres from South America. Since the mid-twentieth century, Southern Cone nations (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) have promoted expeditions beyond the Drake Strait hoping to occupy the newly discovered continent. Concerns regarding the possible occupation of these lands by European nations such as the United Kingdom and Norway arose in response to their increasing presence throughout the region, leading to the first territorial claims in Antarctica.
Despite their strong rivalry, Argentina and Chile, nations with partially overlapping claims, shared a great concern over the possibility of the re-establishment of European presence in the region, fearing that should a foreign nation successfully solidify a military presence in West Antarctica, it could potentially impose a naval blockade on the Drake Passage disconnecting Argentina from the Pacific and Chile from the Atlantic and therefore pose an existential threat to both Santiago and Buenos Aires.
Other South American nations also recognise Antarctica’s strategic importance and modestly project themselves in the continent as is the case with Ecuador, Uruguay and Brazil, the latter increasingly less engaged since the devastating fire of 2012 which completely destroyed its only scientific station.
Geopolitics has always influenced South American policies towards Antarctica. However, as environmental changes increase concerns over the reflexes of climate change in the region, substantially more incisive in nations neighbouring the Antarctic Peninsula, ecological dialogues have raised the stakes of decision-making processes related to Antarctica.
Nonetheless, the commonly known status quo remains intact. The Antarctic Treaty does not recognise its signatories claims on Antarctica nor does it imply the abdication of their claims. Instead, it serves merely as a framework for international cooperation towards a model that allows responsible shared-use of the region bellow the 60th parallel South. Perhaps more importantly, it also enforces complete demilitarisation of the region, although armed maritime forces remain an indispensable asset for all nations actively present in the region.
This convenient ‘time-out’ imposed by the Treaty allows for those interested in the occupation of Antarctica to assert their positions in peaceful yet highly competitive ways.
Legitimacy should be seen as a key element in discussions that, in the future, will result in a different order in Antarctica. Failing to avoid resorting to geographical deterministic principals, it is logical that Argentina and Chile feel obliged to seek prominent roles in international debates related to Antarctica as they’re geographically bound to its future.
This ideal led both nations to wield a substantial number of assets when it comes to occupying Antarctica. They share the privilege of being the only nations to maintain permanent civil settlements in the region and both have substantial infrastructure in the continent.
Furthermore, both nations continue to recognise their Antarctic dependencies as part of their sovereign territory and a strategic priority in their respective foreign and defence policies. Continuing investments dedicated to enabling year-round access to Antarctica can be observed even in times of declining economic growth, as is the case with Chile’s first nationally-built icebreaker set to be completed in 2023, the first of this type of vessel ever developed by a nation from the Southern Hemisphere.
For the moment, the Antarctic Treaty remains a beneficial agreement for those Southern Cone nations deeply committed to Antarctica. It assures that no extra-regional nation will solidify a military presence and threaten free trans-oceanic navigation. Strong arguments can also be made about its success in preserving the abundant and nearly-immaculate natural resources of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, a particular economical concern to Chile which, like Australia, is highly dependent on the export of mineral resources and could be severely damaged should mining become a reality in the region.
The Treaty allows for nations geographically privileged with easier access to gradually increase their presence and acquire more favourable means with which to legitimise their claims, the most important of which are the increase of their permanent civilian populations and the expansion of infrastructure capable of facilitating permanent year-round presence.
Hence, status quo preservation remains the safest option for all parties, conserving the silent race for these territories. As determined by Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, it is in Australia’s best interest to continue to invest in the Treaty for securing sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory and its sovereign rights over its offshore waters, as is cooperation with like-minded countries eager to prevent Antarctic militarisation.
Antarctica’s future is of profound importance to Australia, thus the intentions of foreign nations equally invested in it, however distant those may be, cannot be overlooked and should be considered when thinking about our position.
Arthur Mac Dowell is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.