Cold calculations: our Antarctic choices
28 May 2013|

Ship compass in Antarctica

The 2013 Defence White Paper says that: ‘There is no credible risk of Australia’s national interests in the Southern Ocean and the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) being challenged in ways that might require substantial military responses over the next few decades’. But in the decades to come, major military conflict between the major powers could well have an Antarctic dimension, given the possible role of Antarctic bases in surveillance and satellite monitoring. There’s also the possible scenario where we might have to deal with illegal, unreported or unregulated resource exploitation in our territory or elsewhere in Antarctica.

Over recent weeks, contributors to The Strategist have looked at a range of issues relating to our Antarctic policy, and have set out a cluster of major national interests that we pursue in the Antarctic. These include sustaining opportunities for critical scientific research and cooperation, resource conservation and environmental protection, and geostrategic interests that involve economic and security considerations. The last relates to maintaining a stable political and legal order in the region, especially the demilitarisation of the continent, that’s dependent on the preservation of the Antarctic treaty.

The Antarctic treaty is the international vehicle through which we pursue our polar interests. It continues to serve our national interests well, particularly in offsetting any latent conflicts over territorial claims. This year’s Defence White Paper points out that in coming decades the Antarctic treaty might come under pressure as resources become scarcer elsewhere. The Madrid Protocol forbids exploration and exploitation of Antarctic minerals but, as Pat Quilty’s post noted, ‘Ultimately, resources of sufficient strategic or economic value will be exploited for a resource hungry world. International agreements can always be re-negotiated’. Our diplomatic efforts to protect and advance the Antarctic treaty are being diminished by shrinking resources in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has responsibility for leading our delegations in treaty meetings. (This year’s budget subjects DFAT to significant efficiency measures.)

Several contributors to our series noted that our Antarctic investment is struggling: our research and logistic infrastructure is aging and we’re facing critical decisions about our future access to and activities within Antarctica. At the same time, others are rapidly building their presence in our territory—so we’re running the risk of being left behind. China’s established a station at Dome A, the highest point of the AAT. India’s opened a base near Davis Station. China’s building a new icebreaker and will soon take its presence in the AAT to three stations, with the addition of a second inland station. (A fourth Chinese station is proposed in the adjacent New Zealand sector). There’s even talk of Iran establishing an Antarctic base. Meanwhile, we’ve got no presence in the Australian Antarctic Territory’s (AAT) eastern sector, besides Mawson’s Hut at Cape Denison.

On research matters, ‘big science’ in Antarctica now focuses on Southern Ocean oceanographic and ecosystem research, the stability of the Antarctic ice sheets and deep-drilled ice cores. But our capacity in these areas is weakening. China’s deep field capabilities in our territory, for example, position it to find the ‘holy grail’ of old ice: a million-year ice core.

China, Japan, the Russian Federation, South Korea and South Africa have launched or announced new icebreakers in recent years. Australia’s Aurora Australis, the Antarctic program’s multi-purpose icebreaker vessel, is approaching the end of its serviceable life. But there was some silver lining in this year’s budget: provision was made for life extension works, at a cost of $7.9 million over four years, on the Aurora Australis, and Hobart’s Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre received $25 million to continue its work on Antarctic climate science. As well, the government has allocated $1.7 million for the development of a business case for a new Antarctic shipping capability

But that was a bright point in an otherwise gloomy picture. We run our Antarctic program on the smell of an oily rag: for this coming financial year it’s overall budget is $169 million, an 8% cut from last year. A continued downward trajectory in budget allocations might well lead to closure or mothballing of stations, reduced scientific gains and a diminished standing in Antarctic affairs.

Other nations’ deep field logistic capabilities allow them to visit parts of our territory that we’ve never seen and can’t get to. They give them their own place names. Yet our inter-continental air link is unreliable in mid-summer—the time of peak demand—and it only services Casey station. It can’t provide a solution for intra-continental movements (which require ski-equipped aircraft). We’re not using Defence resources to support our Antarctic program. But many other nations use military personnel and equipment to support their polar logistics. (It’s part of the verification regime that they should report the use of military personnel, but many don’t.)

If we’re fair dinkum about pursuing our Antarctic interests, we need to be active in Antarctica. But our present capability means that we can’t match what others are doing in our territory, let alone lead. We’ll need to invest more if we’re going to regain our position as a leading Antarctic player, particularly in our own patch, and ensure that critical Antarctic science is adequately funded and supported. We should be serious about Antarctica; it’s part of Australia. Our role there gives us international influence in Antarctic affairs, as well as opportunities to work with Asia. The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper also promotes the importance of fostering closer cooperation with China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia and other partners on Antarctic research and logistics.

We could start by commissioning a replacement icebreaker, and increasing our reach within our territory by providing deep field traverse and air access. We could then establish an ongoing presence in the unoccupied eastern sector. The lack of progress is disappointing. Six years ago in a co-authored ASPI report I wrote that:

We need a solid foundation for planning Australia’s Antarctic policy over the next decade… Without [it], the government can’t make good decisions about the investment we make in the Antarctic region and how we best use our strengths and attributes to ensure our Antarctic future.

We need a long-term plan for Antarctica: the white continent demands a white paper from the next Australian government.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user David Schroeder.