Geostrategic rivalry heats up in Antarctica during pandemic

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica with flags of the original 12 signatory nations to Antarctic Treaty. Photo: Bill Spindler/Wikimedia Commons (CC0)
Professor of International Law, ANU College of Law
Thursday 11 June 2020

Antarctica is the last frontier for COVID-19 and the continent remains free of the disease. This may partly be due to good luck rather than by design. The pandemic began to spread and take hold throughout the world just at a time when Antarctica was beginning to close down at the end of the summer season. Antarctic researchers were returning to their home countries, and over-wintering researchers, scientists and support staff were preparing themselves for the long months of isolation ahead. Cruise ships with Antarctic tourists had their voyages either abandoned or returned to port due to COVID-19 outbreaks. As a result, Antarctica effectively became insulated from COVID-19. However the continent will not be immune from its impacts.

The most significant anticipated impact for Antarctica will be a reduction in the size and scale of research activities for the 2020-21 summer. The Australian Antarctic Division conceded in April that COVID-19 was having a “significant impact on all aspects of the Australian Antarctic Program” and the 2020-21 program has been scaled back. Similar impacts are also facing the New Zealand and United Kingdom Antarctic programs. Issues will also arise for the Antarctic ‘gateway’ ports in South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa that provide shipping access to the continent. Ports such as Hobart and Lyttelton (New Zealand) will need to develop protocols as they receive resupply ships in advance of the next Antarctic summer research season to ensure the continent remains COVID-19 free.

Antarctica is governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty which entered into force in 1961 and currently has 54 parties. The Treaty became the basis for the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) and has spawned three additional instruments including the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the 1991 Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The Antarctic Treaty sought to set aside disputes over sovereignty (Article IV), promote scientific research (Articles II and III), and prohibit military activities (Article I). That the treaty was negotiated during the middle of the Cold War, had the Soviet Union and the United States as major parties, and sought to effectively neutralise the existing seven territorial claims that had been made to the continent (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, United Kingdom) was remarkable for the time.

The combination then of Antarctica being COVID-19 free and the only continent governed by a treaty which effectively sets aside traditional notions of sovereignty, makes it unique. However, the continent is also increasingly becoming the subject of geostrategic rivalry as some States seek to assert greater influence in Antarctic affairs. The most prominent of these is China, who became an Antarctic Treaty party in 1983 and a Consultative Party in 1985. This latter status, granted in recognition of China’s scientific engagement in Antarctic affairs, has allowed China to become more active in Antarctic diplomacy including through hosting the 2017 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Beijing. China has also expanded its engagement in Antarctica and now has four scientific bases with another under construction. China’s Antarctic engagement has been bolstered through acquiring two polar class icebreakers, the Snow Dragon 1 and Snow Dragon 2, both of which were engaged in China’s 2019-2020 Antarctic research program. With three of China’s Antarctic scientific bases located within the Australian-claimed Australian Antarctic Territory there has been increased interest in China’s engagement not only in Antarctica but also within the Australian Antarctic Territory, with questions being raised as to China’s long-term Antarctic aspirations and intentions.

While international law has in the intervening years developed more sophisticated mechanisms for ensuring State party treaty compliance in many different regimes including nuclear disarmament, the original Antarctic Treaty mechanisms have remained largely unchanged.

A unique feature of the Antarctic Treaty is that the parties are able to undertake Article VII ‘inspections’ so as to enable a form of mutual reassurance of treaty compliance. The inspection system reflected the importance the original Antarctic Treaty parties attached to mutual cooperation in Antarctic affairs, especially with respect to scientific research. While international law has in the intervening years developed more sophisticated mechanisms for ensuring State party treaty compliance in many different regimes including nuclear disarmament, the original Antarctic Treaty mechanisms have remained largely unchanged. As a result, as concerns have increased about the environmental impact of Antarctic scientific bases and the type of research that is being carried on, Article VII inspections have increased in their importance. In 2020 Australia conducted its tenth inspection since 1963 and its first since 2016. The Australian inspections, led by the Australian Antarctic Division with support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, were focussed on East Antarctica and the Ross Sea area and included the research stations at Jang Bogo (Republic of Korea), Inexpressible Island (China), Gondwana (Germany), Taishan (China), Molodezhnaya (Russia), and Mountain Evening (Belarus). In addition to these Treaty-based Article VII inspections, Australia also visited six other Antarctic stations, including Zhongshan (China). The United States also conducted inspections this past summer, including on China’s Inexpressible Island base.

Australia was intending to table the results of these inspections at the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting scheduled for Finland in May 2020, but that meeting was cancelled due to COVID-19. There is now the growing prospect that other ATS meetings set down for 2020, including the annual CCAMLR Commission meeting in Hobart, will also be postponed or cancelled. The consequence of this will be that a number of the ATS mechanisms which facilitate monitoring and compliance with the treaty will have been compromised for at least a year and the next formal ATS meetings may not occur until 2021.

Antarctica may be COVID-19 free but its impacts are being felt across Antarctic operations at a number of levels ranging from scaled back scientific programs to governance. States such as Australia, which has heavily invested in supporting the ATS and its Antarctic scientific research program, will be anxious to ensure that others do not take advantage of this uncertain period to gain geostrategic advantage in Antarctica.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team