Antarctica: An unlikely arena for international rivalry and scientific cooperation

CJ Cowan, Senior Editor

2 October 2018

Antarctica, melting blue ice

Antarctica, melting blue ice


Geopolitics can play out in even the most unlikely, most obscure, and most remote places in the world. There is virtually nowhere on  this planet that is spared by international squabbling and great power politics. Antarctica is a place many might associate with unforgiving cold, the ravages of climate change or even cute penguins, but it is not commonly associated with politics. Yet, politics can be found there, and these particular dynamics have interesting and far-reaching implication; offering unique insights into international politics.

There is an inseparable link between scientific research and politics when it comes to Antarctica, and this link is what fostered and sustained international cooperation on the world’s southernmost continent. It cannot be underestimated the value that climate scientists put on Antarctica. Scientific research in Antarctica, such as those involving ice cores and CO2, have greatly expanded our understanding of anthropogenic climate change. It is often underestimated how these scientific pursuits have shaped international cooperation and geopolitical rivalries on the continent. The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) that allowed the continent to become a centre for scientific research was born out of the geopolitical quagmires of the 1950’s, such as dwindling colonial empires and quarreling superpowers, rather than solely scientific idealism as the treaty’s framers would have history believe.

In the lead up to the ATS there were numerous, competing territorial and sovereignty claims on the continent. British, Argentine and Chilean claims over the Antarctic Peninsula overlapped which led to a festering three-way sovereignty dispute. To complicate matters further, the Americans and Soviets refused to recognize anyone’s sovereignty over Antarctica, and they maintained their right to claim any part of the continent for themselves. During this period the cold war played out on the coldest place on earth. Public assertions of power such as the building of research bases, grand expeditions, and even the British Antarctic Survey itself could be seen as assertions of “environmental authority” as if their symbolic conquering of the harsh environment could legitimize their sovereignty and territorial claims as well as their geopolitical ambitions.

The IGY, International Geophysical Year 1957-58, had a very dichotomous nature. It was a massive international scientific undertaking which sought to coordinate geophysical research globally with the expressed purpose to improve scientific understanding of the planet’s natural systems. It entailed unparalleled amounts of international cooperation, and this is made even more remarkable by the fact that the cold war was extra chilly during this period. IGY also served as an arena for geopolitical competition with competing powers trying to outdo one another with the value and complexity of their scientific contributions. IGY accumulated in the twelve nations with research interests in Antarctica negotiating the Antarctic Treaty amongst themselves. On December 1, 1959, the Antarctic Treaty suspended all sovereignty claims to the continent and sought to continue to promote the scientific cooperation already ongoing in the region, which implicitly intended to reserve Antarctica as “a continent for science”.

Despite the treaty, the seven territorial claimants of Antarctica still voice their sovereignty, but this is largely irrelevant to the everyday goings-on in Antarctica. The ATS permits any signatory to operate a research station wherever they like, irrespective of sovereignty claims.This does not mean this treaty is entirely an egalitarian, open exercise in international cooperation. The treaty makes it a requirement that a country is pursuing scientific research in Antarctica before it is given a voice in decision making. The necessary economic expense to meet this prerequisite serves to exclude poorer countries from the Antarctic politics and research. This is especially true when it comes to African representation, as South Africa is the only country in Africa to be a member.

This treaty has consequences that go beyond science and politics, as it has implications for the very ecosystem itself. The Protocol on Environmental Protection, an addition added decades later after the treaty was signed, was conceived to “enhance protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems”. This does seem on the face of it to be an important and decisive motion, but a single line in Article Seven of the Protocol has far-reaching commercial consequences. It states, “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited”. This is especially interesting considering the continent is known to have deposits of coal and other valuable minerals but the amount is still unknown.  The mining ban will remain in place until 2048, when it then becomes up for review. This is likely to amount to a geopolitical struggle over resources, sovereignty, and mining rights. It is possible humanity’s better nature will win out in favour of preserving the unique quality and desolate beauty of the continent, but that remains to be seen.

China is widely considered to be a rising polar superpower. In recent decades, its annual  Antarctic spending has gone from 20 to over 55 million dollars which is thrice the People’s Republic of China’s spending in the Arctic. It might seem odd to spend even that relatively modest amount in such a desolate region. China, like any other international actor, rarely does anything against its interests. These polar interests are not quite as material as China’s most common pursuits, but these aims serve to maximize their position in important, albeit less tangible, ways. China staking a claim and being an active player in this geopolitically unique continent serves to both bolster national pride and benefit its international standing while securing its so-called  “polar rights”. China’s assertive zeal on the continent in recent years can be explained due to it entering the Antarctic Treaty as a latecomer in 1983 with other signatories having a seat at the table for much longer. Even though China often feels that the ATS is a “rich man’s club” it still publicly complies with the treaty’s restrictions, which in practice, are not often properly enforced due to an ineffective inspection regime. This allows many states to benefit from non-accountability even though this dynamic fosters mistrust and insecurity, especially when it comes to the military presence on the continent. China is perfectly happy to employ it's notorious “ do, don’t say” foreign policy in the absence of effective oversight.

There have been other growing trends on the continent in recent years. It would be unthinkable when the Antarctica Treaty was signed that tourism would be an important part of the continent’s place in the world, but tourism is now the biggest industry in Antarctica. The Smart Revolution has even touched the continent’s icy shores.  Robots and Drones are being used in scientific research to examine ice sheets and glaciers, this new era of polar research has been dubbed “ Smart Antarctica”.There is also the most obvious and widely publicized development on the continent which is the fact that ice sheets are disappearing. The Antarctic continent has lost three trillion tonnes or more of ice since 1992.

It seems that Antarctica has a unique and important role in science and global politics, but the rapid changes happening to its ecosystems could begin to unravel the status quo on the continent, which could amount to it becoming a quagmire of international conflict and disputes, with the ultimate victims being our collective scientific understanding, the life that's lives there. and it’s ecstatic beauty.