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The Survival of the Coldest, the Squabble over Antarctica

July, 2020

“… a natural reserve devoted to peace and science”

The late 1960’s drew the curtains on the remnants of European colonization. It has been decades ever since and now, is a relic of the past, at least in popular opinion. The people of a land decide who will govern it. Governments are for the people, of the people and by the people, barring the few monarchies left. But what if there are no people? This is the case at the southern end of our world - Antarctica, the uninhabited frozen continent. A land with no native population and no indigenous political purpose.

So, who owns Antarctica? And no, it is not the penguins. Let’s leave them to Jim Carrey. Twice the size of Australia, the continent revels in untapped resources. With no normal indicators of ownership, the closest a ‘Government of Antarctica’ comes to is a glass tinted office in downtown Buenos Aires run by a staff of 9. The Secretariat of the Antarctic treaty is tasked with deploying the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Usually, territory with no clear signs of ownership are divided on geographical or historical claims. Antarctica, however, is governed under an idealistic agreement. One which prioritizes scientific progress, peace and international cooperation.

Signed in 1959 with 12 countries on board initially, it is one of the most successful yet least known multilateral agreements ever signed. Today, 54 parties have agreed to prioritize the betterment of science and nature in the region. Rather than fighting for geopolitical claims, nations cooperate peacefully in the name of research and environment. At least, attempt to do so.

Antarctica is one of the few places on Earth which has seen no war, where the environment is protected, and research is of topmost importance. The treaty prohibits military activities and promotes international scientific cooperation. To ensure territorial disputes do not take the center stage, Article IV of the treaty forbids any new territorial claim other than the claims by the 7 original claimants (Australia, Argentina, Chile, France, New Zealand, UK). However, it does allow expeditions and stations in the region. Parties meet annually to discuss scientific cooperation and operational issues.

Governed in an exceptionally unique framework, this model has become even more interesting as of late because of the fraying edges of the treaty and the geo-political fallouts from Covid-19.

While the continent is perhaps one of the only places without corona cases, it has not been safe from fall out effects. With economies collapsing left, right and center, nation states have cut Antarctic operations and funding. Governments across the world have had to announce bailout packages for citizens and industries leading to drained coffers and a halt on Antarctic operations. This has opened up vulnerabilities in the regions as other players gear up to take advantage and build a strong hold on the continent.

Australia, one of the largest players in the continent had a dedicated budget of over $190 million for 2020-21. With coronavirus in the picture, the Australian Antarctic Programme would be compelled to scale down significantly as also stated by its director, Kim Ellis. This entails reduced recruitment and training, decreased operational capacity and delays in ongoing projects. The British and United States’ ventures in the white continent are also facing mounting pressure. The $488 million allocated in the previous year for polar expeditions and activities by the US National Science Foundation will definitely take a hit. It is just a matter of when and not if.

These cuts have a two-pronged effect. The first is a clamp on scientific progress and research regarding rising climate change and rising sea levels. And, the second, which has driven up geo-political tensions, is opening up of vulnerabilities in the region for states with military and resource driven objectives to take over. The West scaling back will open up a chasm in the region.

Russia and China, although subscribers to the Antarctic treaty and thus, Article IV, which prevents them from making territorial claims, have been suspected of conducting operations to gain a military footprint and mine resources even before corona. I bring these two countries up specifically since they have been strong proponents for relaxing the prohibitions around mining and oil drilling in the continent. Krill fishing (commercial fishery of krill) is another growing environmental threat in the Antarctic. Moreover, Chinese fishing activities are hard to find and with the country’s 2014 krill catch approximated at $10 million, it has raised red flags. There have also been claims of fishing activities acting as proxies for mineral mining. There is another way to look at this, I must admit beforehand that it is a little naïve though.

Think of this as an open season for any player (who can afford it) to build a presence down South. A presence, complying with the existing treaty, continuing the Agenda of furthering scientific progress. We can believe that China is on its way to do so, with its fifth station anticipated to become operational by 2022. Well, I did it say it would be naïve. So, I leave you with this question - has the sun set on the world’s most successful multilateral agreement? And, like its Northern counterpart, will this mission of peace and cooperation also soon transform into a flag-planting power struggle? I would like to leave you with the memory of Russia, with what I would like to believe was a mere stab at re- enacting 18 th century colonization, planting a flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007.