The ever changing Antarctic landscape. Reuters/Alister Doyle
Science has always drawn people and nations to Antarctica. But territorial claims and political tensions are also part of the history of that continent.
China is investing heavily in infrastructure and capability in Antarctica with research stations, airfields, field camps and plans for more. Science must continue to play a pivotal role in easing territorial tensions, as interest in Antarctica increases.
A brutal scientific history
Some argue that Captain Robert Scott and his team perished on their infamous return journey from the South Pole because of their dogged determination to haul 15kg of geological specimens.
Science has always nestled alongside the dominant motivation of territorial claims. But in Antarctica, it has evolved as a tool of diplomacy between nations, as a means to suppress tensions about national claims to the land.
This tension is not new. It was during his 1929–31 expedition that Sir Douglas Mawson claimed what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) as British sovereign territory, with sovereignty eventually being transferred to Australia in 1936.
Australia’s National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), formalised in 1947, were not established for scientific reasons. Rather, they were meant to support our territorial claims and enable investigation of valuable mineral and marine resources located within the AAT.
A recent event in Hobart held by the Australian Academy of Science, examining the future of antarctic science was underscored by such themes.
In their 2016 book, The Scramble for the Poles, academics Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall suggest that the planting of a Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007 precipitated a new scramble for resources in the polar regions.
In their view, there is an ongoing and under-discussed unease among Antarctic players when it comes to territory. This is felt particularly keenly by countries that have publicly reserved their right to make a future Antarctic claim (such as the United States and Russia), and those that have made no such claim, nor reserved such a right (such as China).
Australia is one of the original seven Antarctic claimants; we claim 42% of the continent. Our actions in Antarctica are pivotal as we grapple with increasing interest in the continent from assertive states such as China.
In a Special Report to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2017, Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury outlined three stations, three airfields and two field camps that China has in the AAT. She also noted China’s intention to build a fourth station on King George Island, with plans for a fifth station for the Ross Sea region.
Only weeks ago, Brady released a book, China as a Polar Great Power that further examines the game changing nature of China’s growing strength at the poles.
This power has grown, she argues, thanks to the country “investing more in capacity than any other nation”. This includes investment in BeiDou, China’s own global GPS network, which will enhance capability for the Chinese military.
Australia is emerging from a long period of under-investment in Antarctica to slowly address this geopolitical situation.