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Ice Floe

We can’t just go with the floe in Antarctica

By Anthony Bergin and Tony Press

Foreign Minister Marise Payne last week pointed out that our relationship with China was a comprehensive strategic partnership with five key pillars. “But all of these things will need to be reviewed,” she said.

Part of any such review should include our longstanding Antarctic relationship. China has committed to regular port calls to Hobart for its Antarctic icebreakers. Its Xue Long 2 icebreaker visited last month. This was facilitated to assist China’s efforts to repair its other Antarctic research vessel stranded in Antarctica.

Australia and China collaborate in logistics and science. We transport Chinese expeditioners on intercontinental flights from Hobart to Antarctica and within Antarctica. China reciprocates by assisting our Antarctic program through its intra-continental aircraft for transport and science surveys.

Australia claims 42 per cent of Antarctica. In light of China’s expanding power and influence on our southern flank, we need a new look at how we manage our Antarctic relations.

China has two permanently occupied Antarctic stations, is building a third and has other Antarctic facilities.

In east Antarctica, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, China has extended its presence in a fairly narrow sector. Three of its Antarctic facilities and two of its aircraft skiways are in this area. It’s building a station on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea region and constructing marine research vessels able to operate in the Southern Ocean. It announced four years ago that it would build its first nuclear-powered icebreaker and is investing heavily in shipping for Antarctic tourism. It has its first polar cruise ship and has ordered 10 polar expedition vessels. It has recently built a krill-fishing vessel for the Antarctic, the largest ever constructed.

It’s sometimes suggested that China may be seeking to make a territorial claim in Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty provides that no acts or activities taking place while the treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting a claim to sovereignty in Antarctica.

But China’s activities there have established a significant presence “on the ice”: in a broader context, China’s activities in the South China Sea have demonstrated Beijing’s willingness to ignore international law when it identifies a compelling strategic reason to do so.

China sees near-term economic opportunities in Antarctica, such as in fisheries and tourism. Some Chinese government figures have expressed a longer-term interest in the potential of exploring for minerals and oil. China has become increasingly active in Antarctic forums where it’s been a disruptive presence by using its ability to block consensus, the lawmaking foundation of Antarctic governance.

In the longer term, Chinese interests and priorities for Antarctica will diverge from Australian interests, especially if it pursues polar mineral resource extraction. We therefore need a more transactional approach in our Antarctic engagement with China, making it clear what we require from co-operation and what we expect.

Understanding the implications of China’s military-civil fusion strategy for Beijing’s Antarctic presence will be key. President Xi Jinping’s signature initiative is a strategy to maximise contributions from civil government, businesses and research organisations to Chinese military capability. We should expect the maximum exploitation of potential dual-use technologies and activities for PLA purposes, including in Antarctica.

Given Beijing’s track record in moving rapidly on a broad front, as it’s done in the South China Sea, we need to be prepared to respond to a rapid increase in the speed and scale of its actions in Antarctica.

We shouldn’t help China use Antarctic research for resource exploitation, to gather information on advanced technology with clear potential for military purposes, or to act in environmentally harmful ways. Australia should regularly inspect Chinese facilities (and China can inspect ours).

The government should establish a ministerial Antarctic council to assess our Antarctic engagements, including our links with China. Our intelligence community should regularly brief our scientists and officials about China’s aims in Antarctica and what scientific co-operation might illustrate about its motivations.

We need a dialogue with friends and allies to develop shared understandings of Chinese ambitions for Antarctica.

Antarctica might be considered a topic at the next AUSMIN meeting. Antarctica should be the agenda at the Australia-China High Level Dialogue. We should increase our Antarctic collaborations with Asia. Hobart’s role as a gateway to Antarctica should be promoted to Japan, South Korea and India.

In some areas of important scientific research, we’re running the risk of becoming a mendicant to Chinese research funds. Modest Australian reinvestment in Antarctic science funding will diminish that risk.

The challenge is to manage the Australia-China Antarctic relationship without putting at risk areas of co-operation with its mutual benefits. But we should be prepared to walk away from aspects of polar co-operation when that’s the right thing to do.

Originally published by: The Australian on 27 Apr 2020