The Seventh Continent – The Great Unknown
For a continent that is thirty five percent larger than all of Europe, Antarctica receives scant little attention. It has no official government, no indigenous population, and no permanent residents; instead, it is administered via a series of agreements called the Antarctic Treaty System, which was established in 1959 by twelve countries but has since been signed and ratified by fifty nations. Twenty eight of these parties take part in annual “Consultative Meetings” to discuss topics pertaining to the region, including setting regulations on shipping, tourism, and fishing, and despite numerous overlapping territorial claims (see this map), relations among states in the region are for the most part cordial. Most have long abided by the very first sentence of the Treaty, which states that Antarctica is to be used “for peaceful purposes only.” The dual ideals of conservation and peaceful scientific research have carried the day for most the continent’s history; moreover, various articles of the treaty explicitly prohibit activities such as military deployments, nuclear explosions, and natural resource extraction.
Thanks to this tradition of robust cooperation, Antarctica is often showcased as a success story in the long historical record of international governance. Of course, the widespread perception of Antarctica as a barren wasteland with little strategic value has helped immensely in ushering in this era of peace and cooperation, but attitudes have changed in recent years; increased interest in the area’s potential military and economic functions is putting significant pressure on the Antarctic Treaty System. Even though the framework as it stands today will not open for review until 2048 (and any changes require the approval of ¾ of the treaty’s signatories), more nations have begun to voice claims and increase their financial commitments to Antarctica in what can best be described as not-so-subtle attempts position themselves as major players in the region for the future.
Thanks to its isolation and unique environmental conditions, Antarctica is well suited for specialized research in numerous fields, from geology to marine biology to atmospheric meteorology. It serves as a hub of scientific activity, housing anywhere from 1,000 to 4,000 scientists. On the matter of research, however, a substantial gray area lies beneath the continent’s frozen white surface.
Antarctica is ideally suited for conducting satellite and space research – such “dual-use” capabilities can be used to send and receive signals for civilian communications, military surveillance and intelligence, even offensive missile systems operations. A 2013 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute explicates this view, claiming that the region has undergone a quiet but very real militarization in recent years. While both China and India operate robust Antarctic programs in the name of scientific research, neither has reported the use of any military personnel as required by the treaty. Moreover, the report highlights a newly established Chinese base named the Kunlun Station that is auspiciously located at one of the highest altitudes of the South Pole, ideal for satellite and space operations.
Despite official pledges to abstain from any military activity, nearly every nation has armed forces stationed there; the United States, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand all maintain defense forces in the area. And while these specialized armed forces mostly provide logistical support and emergency relief to tourists and scientific expeditions, their close proximity to private enterprises makes it hard at times to distinguish between peaceful research operations and those that take on a more strategic nature. This military presence provides ample opportunity for countries like China to exploit the research-military ambiguity to their own strategic advantage.
As with any treaty, the Antarctic Treaty System is only as strong as its member nations make it out to be. Questionable research activity in Antarctica is not reason enough for economic sanctions – unless faced with a dire threat, most nations would rather let the seemingly inconsequential issue slide, so as not to aggravate partners or adversaries. And though the Australian report demonstrates a clearly hawkish view of the situation – after all, there is no actual proof that any nation has engaged in any behaviors that directly violate the treaty – the fact that the Australian government even commissioned the report shows that it is taking no chances. This potential militarization of Antarctic research programs represents a serious threat to the mutual cooperation and trust that has characterized the region for decades.
Such tensions, however, are not limited to matters of security. Despite the legal ban on the extraction of mineral resources that will remain in place until 2048 (and quite probably beyond), countries are loathe to discount Antarctica from the discussion over resources. Today, it seems that the Arctic Circle occupies the spotlight when it comes to talking about oil and gas reserves – countries such as Norway, Russia and the United States seem determined to win the race to make the most of the region’s rich mineral resources. In Antarctica, the effect has been more muted, thanks to both the explicit ban on resource extraction as well as the enormous costs associated with drilling for oil and gas in the Southern Sea.
In truth, we simply don’t know all that much about Antarctica’s energy resources, and even if the treaty were to be revised to allow for such ventures, the present price of oil and other resources are far too low to support such projects. Several recent news articles have pegged the continent’s oil reserves at over 200 billion barrels, though others question that figure. If such reserves do exist, however, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which drilling for oil, coal, or even fresh water might look like an attractive option by the time 2047 rolls around as the world’s demand for resources continues to grow.
The most visible way nations have ramped up their presence in Antarctica in recent times has been by making renewed commitments to research activities. As mentioned above, China opened up its fourth base in the region earlier this year and has plans for a fifth, and it has increased annual spending on Antarctic projects from $20 million to $55 million in the last five years. With the notable exception of the United States, other nations are following suit. On October 10, the Australian government released what it has called a “20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan” examining its strategic interests in the area and recommending that the government make investments to position the island of Tasmania as a gateway to the region. This is on top of the $87 million in spending the nation already commits to the region.
There is also activity on the resource front; a recent report by Defense News indicates that numerous South American countries are building up their Antarctic assets and purchasing so-called “icebreakers” and other polar ships with the expectation that the treaty’s ban on mineral exploration will be loosened after 2048. For Chile, such purchases are part of a larger plan that involves further opening up the continent to tourism as well as upgrading its airstrips so as to accommodate a wider array of military and civilian aircraft.
Until more information is known about Antarctica’s strategic and mineral resources, it seems likely that countries will continue to engage in essentially speculative actions, most often in form of increased commitment to research activities. But we should not discredit these seemingly harmless commitments; it is clear that Antarctica has earned a more serious look than it first received.