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CSIRO and China: We can’t just go with the floe in Antarctica

By Anthony Bergin

Last week CSIRO announced it would terminate a five-year research collaboration in the Southern Ocean with China’s Qingdao National Marine Laboratory.

The Qingdao laboratory leads China’s Transparent Ocean initiative, which uses satellite-mounted technology to pinpoint submarines at depths of up to 500m. The laboratory has worked with China’s submarine academy. It would have shared data obtained under the CSIRO partnership with China’s armed forces.

China is linking its Antarctic ambitions to its rising global profile. ASIO head Mike Burgess recently warned research organ­isations to reconsider ocean temperature modelling partnerships with foreign scientists as they could be used to support submarine operations against Australia.

The Antarctic treaty between our two countries has provided a stable framework for collaborative research for 60 years. But just as Antarctica can’t be quarantined from the global climate, it can’t be quarantined from geopolitics. China is pushing to change the Antarctic treaty from within to meet its future interests. It’s building a fifth research station on the frozen continent.

CSIRO’s decision highlights a real dilemma for the future of our southern flank. The treaty provides that Antarctica be used for peaceful purposes. It prohibits measures of a military nature, although it allows for military personnel or equipment to be used for scientific research or other peaceful purposes. The interpretation of these provisions has never been tested.

The most likely potential military uses of Antarctica involve the continent being more fully integrated into global military activities, rather than generating any direct military threat within or from Antarctica. But Antarctica could be very useful for various command, control, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, as well as for basing satellite-receiving and processing stations.

China is rolling out its BeiDou satellite navigation system, a dual civil-military technology that’s essentially China’s equivalent of GPS. BeiDou ground-receiving stations installed in Antarctica improve the overall global performance of the Chinese system, and particularly its accuracy. Knowledge of scientific equipment, such as drones, remote-controlled submersible vehicles, satellite technologies and remote sensing equipment could be used in Antarctica for military purposes.

Given its sheer size and remoteness, Antarctica is a region prone to “grey zone” trickery where a state could look to exploit resource wealth or enhance military capability. It’s going to become increasingly difficult to distinguish between legitimate activities and activities that should be prohibited by the treaty’s non-militarisation provisions.

Xi Jinping’s signature “military-civil fusion” initiative will add to the pressures here. It’s aimed to maximise contributions from civil government, businesses and research organisations to PLA military capability.

The CSIRO case of ocean research collaboration with China highlights the need to make sure Australian researchers are aware of any possible impacts when dual-use or advanced technologies are employed in their research. Our intelligence community should regularly brief our scientists about China’s aims in Antarctica and what scientific co-operation might illustrate about Chinese motivations. It would help here to co-operate much more with the US on Antarctic affairs. Antarctica might be considered a topic at the next AUSMIN meeting.

All this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t co-operate with China in Antarctic science, especially climate change research where we have mutual interests. Such co-operation down south, as long as we go into it with eyes wide open, might be one of the few areas that allows for an important part of our relations with China to be less conflictual in times, like now, where there’s wider bilateral tensions.

Originally published by: on 17 Jun 2021