The RSV Nuyina floating in the dry dock in the Romanian shipyards where it is being built. (Supplied: Damen/AAD)
Australia is spending $2 billion on a new Antarctic icebreaker — the biggest single investment in the history of our Antarctic program.
- China and Russia have been investing big in Antarctica over the past decade
- Concerns are being raised over the spectre of militarisation and resource-grabbing
- It comes at a time when Australia’s Antarctic funding commitment is being criticised
The state of the art RSV Nuyina — which was floated last month — will primarily support Australia’s scientific research team in Antarctica, but it also has another purpose: shoring up our territorial claim to 42 per cent of the icy continent, where countries including China and Russia have been ramping up their presence.
But why does Australia need to lay claim to so much of Antarctica? What has gotten other countries so interested in the region? And why does it even matter?
For the answers to these questions and more, we’ve put together a handy guide — here’s what’s going on south of our shores.
What is Australia’s role in Antarctica?
The Australian Antarctic Territory covers a whopping 5.9 million square kilometres, making it nearly 80 per cent of the size of Australia and the largest Antarctic claim of any country, according to the Australian Antarctic Division.
Australia claims the largest share of territory in Antarctica — but it’s not guaranteed. (Australian Antarctic Division: Richard Youd)
Australia has three year-round research stations on Antarctica, as well as one on Macquarie Island, and conducts dozens of scientific research programs.
But in recent years Antarctic experts have been critical of the Australian Government’s commitment to our efforts on the icy continent, both in terms of funding and attention.
“Australia’s standing in Antarctic affairs is eroding because of historical underinvestment at a time when new players are emerging in Antarctica,” expert Tony Press warned in a 2014 Government-commissioned report.
“The leadership that Australia has naturally assumed by its proximity, history, and experience, now risks decline.”
Who are the new players and what are they doing there?
Six other countries lay claim to parts of Antarctica — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom — while many more also have research stations there and take part in joint scientific projects.
In the past decade, China and Russia in particular have both ramped up their presence in Antarctica.
China in particular has become a “leading polar player” in just 10 years and now spends more in Antarctica than any other country, according to a report by Anne Marie Brady, an expert on China and the Antarctic at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
Australia has a long history of exploration, science and research in Antarctica. (Supplied: Sydney Kirkby)
Much of China’s activity is taking place inside the Australian Antarctic Territory and to Australia’s knowledge.
China now has three Antarctic bases, two field camps, and three airfields located there, according to Dr Brady’s research.
Meanwhile, Russia has a long history in Antarctica and claims it discovered the icy continent in 1820, a claim shared by the United States and the UK.
Once a leader in Antarctic scientific research, the collapse of the Soviet Union saw funding dramatically wound back in the 1990s and three research stations closed.
But a resurgent Russia is once again investing in the Antarctic with a focus on scientific research and planting satellite receivers.
The icy continent has a unique natural environment that is under threat from climate change. (Supplied: Ida Kubiszewski)
Why are they so interested?
For most of us, Antarctica conjures up images of majestic icebergs and adorable penguins.
And while the icy continent is home to some of the world’s most breathtaking environmental wonders, it is also the site of untapped resources — oil, gas, minerals, and extensive fishing reserves — that many countries want to get their hands on.
But there remains a divide between the countries that want to keep it pristine, such as Australia and New Zealand, and the ones that hope to eventually exploit its potential, like China and Russia, as global resources decline and a ban on mining comes up for renegotiation in 2048.
But even more crucial, according to Dr Brady, is that Antarctica has emerged as a site of global strategic importance.
Antarctica is protected from mining under an international treaty that is up for renegotiation in 2048. (NASA: Jeremy Harbeck)
This, she explains, is largely because both China and Russia are developing GPS systems to rival the United States’ system, which is currently the only one in the world.
Antarctica is key to their strategic plans as it provides an ideal location to place satellite receivers.
Dr Brady says a shifting global order has made Antarctica more strategically important than ever before, and China has developed undeclared military interests there.
“Rising powers, resurgent powers, and countries that wish to have more of a say internationally, are looking to places like Antarctica, which are not under the control of one nation, which have opportunities to take advantage of,” she says.
What does this mean for Antarctica’s future — and ours?
The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 does not necessarily guarantee Australia’s claim to territory on the icy continent, as many people seem to think.
In fact, the University of Adelaide’s Daniel Bray says that the treaty “essentially set aside all claims to Antarctica in order to create a legal [framework] to manage human activity on the continent”.
“It’s the only part of the world where you have a territory that’s managed without sovereignty, and that is really misunderstood in the Australian public,” he says.
Nations regularly work together on science and research projects but there is concern some are moving to militarise the continent. (Supplied: Peter Campbell/Australian Antarctic Division)
But many analysts believe the treaty is under threat with many nations gearing up to compete for what Antarctica has to offer.
While states are working within the bounds of the current treaty system, they’re also actively pursuing a Plan B in case it collapses, Dr Brady says.
“If that system of governance starts to unravel it could be very bad for [Australia],” she says.
Dr Bray agrees, saying “Australia doesn’t want strategic rivalry at its southern borders”.
So what are we doing about it?
Australia has “ignored or downplayed the risk” presented by strategic rivalries in Antarctica, Dr Brady says, instead focusing on issues such as security risks to the north and the hot-button political issue of asylum seekers.
I call it a sort of ‘bare bum strategy’ — Australia’s very well dressed up north and nothing much down south,” she says.
In some senses, China and Russia are still playing catch up in Antarctica, but their might looks set to continue growing.
The RV Investigator is an Australian research vessel that supports activities in Antarctica and beyond. (Supplied: Marine National Facility)
In his 2014 report, titled the 20-Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan, Dr Press warned that Australia had a “narrow window of opportunity to underline its Antarctic strategic interests and guarantee its leadership in Antarctic affairs”.
The then-Turnbull Government followed up the release of the report by announcing the new icebreaker — which will cost over half a million dollars to build and about $1.5 billion to operate and maintain — as well as $255 million in funding for the Antarctic program.
But many Antarctica policy watchers would argue Australia still hasn’t gone far enough.