Australia is investing heavily in Antarctica, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that will cement the nation’s presence in the region which is expected to become an increasingly important strategic theatre.
As revealed last week and confirmed in the budget, $55 million will be spent over 10 years on infrastructure in the region, along with $83.1 million over four years to support Australia’s presence there.
Further out, an eye-popping $413.1 million is earmarked for investment starting from 2020‑21. All up, the new funding in the budget, according to the environment department, is $2.167 billion, includes $200 million over 10 years in new spend, which the government says “provides long-term certainty for the Australian Antarctic programme”.
It is all part of Australia’s Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan launched last week, aimed at building scientific and operational capabilities in the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic sea ice zone and extensive ice shelves that fringe Antarctica, which is believed to be a huge store of natural resources, including vast oil deposits. Part of the money will fund an increased tempo in scheduled flights by the Royal Australian Air Force.
It’s the most significant package of measures ever developed by an Australian government for the region and it looks like the current investment is just the beginning.
Key components include:
- A $529 million icebreaker, which will also be responsible for managing Southern Ocean fisheries and ecosystems;
- A mobile research station supported by a traverse to allow access;
- Year-round aviation access, allowing Australia’s Antarctic program unprecedented lengths of activity across East Antarctica, and
- Enhancing Hobart as an Antarctic research hub and gateway to the region.
The announcement of the infrastructure investment and existing programs could be seen as a move to hold its own as global players, like China, start to become active in the region.
The Australian Antarctic Territory is largest claim in Antarctica covering nearly 5.9 million square kilometres – around 42% of Antarctica. That’s roughly the size of mainland Australia minus Queensland. Norway has the second largest claim.
There are known deposits of minerals such as coal and iron ore in Antarctica, but the dangers and economics of extracting these resources prevent commercial operations.
Australia first became associated with the ice-covered continent after Sir Douglas Mawson joined British explorer Ernest Shackleton on his 1907 Nimrod expedition, then returned in 2011 leading Australian and New Zealander expeditioners. His second trip in 1929 was instrumental to the territory being placed under the Australian authority in 1936.
In 1991, nations of the Antarctic Treaty system agreed to ban mining in Antarctica indefinitely upon signing a comprehensive Protocol on Environmental Protection, known as the Madrid Protocol. This agreement came into effect in January 1998.
Despite this agreement China, and emerging global polar power, has shown an interest in exploiting Antarctica’s minerals.
Suddenly, everyone wants a piece
In a forthcoming book — China as a Polar Great Power — Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist from the University of Canterbury, explores the Chinese polar interests since 2008.
“It’s a resource, a global resource from their point of view that has the potential to be exploited, notwithstanding the restrictions on it at the moment as part of the Antarctic Treaty,” she told the ABC, adding that it was just “a matter of time” until the Asian power took action.
China has been drastically scaling up its presence in Antarctica in a bid to increase its influence in the region, announcing it would open a fifth base there, following its fourth last year.
This year it also set up its first Antarctica air squadron, is building a second icebreaker ship and recently concluded its 32nd expedition to the region, which involved a 277-member team.
Beijing claims that its bases are for scientific research. However, it also admits that its push for Antarctic influence plays into future operations aimed at ensuring access to resources, including plentiful fishing waters and mineral and hydrocarbon wealth.
Business Insider’s Jeremy Bender recently reported that the current ban on commercial drilling of resources in Antarctica is due to expire in 2048, unless the Protocol on Environmental Protection is re-ratified by consensus.
If the accord does expire, Antarctica could become the next major source of hydrocarbons on earth.
“The region is believed to have an approximate 200 billion barrels of oil, in addition to being the largest single repository of fresh water on the planet,” Bender writes.
The Artic, in the north, has recently emerged as a economic opportunity for surrounding countries tapping into the region’s energy and mineral resources.
Nations bordering the Arctic are drilling for oil and gas, and mining, shipping, and cruising in the region. Russia, Canada, and Norway are growing their icebreaker fleets and shore-based infrastructure to support these enterprises.
Russia even maintains a military presence in the Arctic, and has plans to solidify it.
In the same way Australia has one of the largest maritime jurisdictions in the world — 30% of our maritime zones are south of mainland Australia.
And while the Antarctic Treaty demilitarises all of the planet below 60 degrees South — so Australia doesn’t need to maintain or mobilise substantial military assets for potential conflict on our southern borders – the fact that it will expire in just over two decades casts a different light on Australia’s increasing activity there.
It’s not just about science
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1961. It recognised Australia’s claim, but it also recognised everyone else’s claim to not recognising Australia’s claim. Only four countries do – the UK, France, Norway and New Zealand.
Here’s the key article:
There are now 53 countries which are party to the treaty. The 46 which do not have a claim on Antarctic territory do not recognise the claims of the seven which have a stated claim.
At this stage, the treaty will not be in force after 2041.
In 2011, the Lowy Institute aired its concerns that Australia wasn’t doing enough to protect its Antarctic interests as the deadline for both the Antarctic Treaty and the ban on mining loomed.
“Australia”, it said, “has limited Antarctic presence and capability, and posits its policy in terms of science and environmental management rather than national security.”
“This raises questions about its ability to preserve its sovereignty claim.”
There’s also a ban on military presence in Antarctica, except for occasions where military equipment is used to aid scientific research and personnel operations.
The Lowy Institute in 2011 was particularly concerned about Australia’s lack of aircraft suitable for the Antarctic.
Fast forward to the week before Scott Morrison’s first budget as treasurer, where environment minister Greg Hunt prefaces a surge in funding for the AAT by releasing a new Antarctic strategy and 20-year-plan.
In the first year of its 20-year plan, Australia’s new vision includes “an arrangement for Department of Defence support to the Australian Antarctic programme, inclusive of a regular programme of flights to Antarctica using Australian Defence Force C-17A aircraft”.
Year two includes “further scoping options to deliver year-round aviation access between Hobart and Antarctica”.
By year five, the government hopes to have “developed our aviation operations to make best use of the upgraded Hobart International Airport, the major hub for air access to the region, including with Australian Defence Force C-17A support”.
Russia, according to the Lowy Institute, has since 2010, invested in “a new ice runway, several ski-equipped planes and two new ice-breaker vessels, 26 which will be funded from the US$2 billion it has allocated to Antarctic activities to 2020”.
It unapologetically rejects all sovereign claims on Antarctica, has all but assured it will be making a claim on Antarctica, and has in the past flouted international protocols by collecting data on oil and gas reserves in the region.
The extra funding announced by Morrison in last night’s budget now covers beyond the 2048 mining deadline and commits another $10.3 million a year until 2060 toward (emphasis is ours) “maintaining a sustainable level of operations to protect Australia’s environmental, economic, scientific, security and strategic interests in Antarctica.
Making it stick
The new policies and funding by the federal government are critical for Australia’s Antarctic future and is a firm commitment to maintaining our position as an regional leader.
As Anthony Bergin, deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and co-author of Frozen Assets: Securing Australia’s Antarctic Future, says in an article published in The Age: “It’s not rivers of gold, but it’s a good result in terms of sustainable funding.
“Greater investment in Antarctica will return huge dividends to Australia, not just diplomatic influence, but in scientific knowledge that’s key for this country’s future.
“But our new Antarctic strategy and 20-year action plan won’t do all that just by its release; even the best strategy is worthless unless it’s well implemented.”