When a huge iceberg broke away from Antarctica in 2017, the New York Times reported that “maps will need to be redrawn”. The 7th continent is warming due to climate change, and it is on its way to becoming more accessible and habitable by the end of the 21st century. Future exploitation of minerals and marine resources, increased tourism, and the possibility of environmental refugees relocating to the “White Continent” present challenges to the current governance regime secured by the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Established in 1959, the Treaty dedicated Antarctica to peace and science by freezing seven territorial claims (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom) and preserving the continent from military activities. The 1991 addition to the Treaty, the Protocol on Environmental Protection, banned mining on the continent until at least 2048 (when it will be up for a revision) ensuring the preservation of its pristine environment. The ATS has been celebrated as one of the most successful international regimes. However, the reality is that geopolitics have never left Antarctica, and science (or the pretense of it) has been used to advance the national interests of the signatories of the ATS.
The ATS was established on a shaky foundation, a land that lacked defined borders and clear titles. The absence of an established and recognized territorial sovereign resulted in a failure to attribute responsibilities and to implement law-enforcing mechanisms. In the context of this jurisdictional vacuum, the increasing number of interested parties contributes to the worry of Antarctica becoming a place of conflict over resources. The continent is estimated to be rich in oil, gas, precious minerals as well as fishing stocks and freshwater reserves. Furthermore, the continent is of strategic importance for the accuracy of the GPS systems. It is of no surprise that many states are more and more interested in the governance of Antarctica and the management of its resources. In fact, back in 1982, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during the UN General Assembly suggested that Antarctica should be declared “the common heritage of all the nations of this planet” so that riches of the continent benefit all. Between 1945 and 1960 three dozen new states in Asia and Africa gained autonomy from the European colonial rule, thus the development of the ATS regime did not involve a significant proportion of current states. In fact, the ATS has been referred to as an exclusive club, participation in which was contingent on scientific activity on the continent, which many developing states cannot afford. The latecomers to the ATS such as China have been shaking up the status quo of the system that is reminiscent of colonialism.
China has evolved from a minor player in the polar affairs to a major actor in the last decade. From gaining a consultative status within the ATS in 1983, China has emerged as a rising polar power in just over a few decades. Chinese government spends more than any other country on its Antarctic research program and infrastructure. It has the technological underwater capacity to search for gas hydrates in the deep sea. Furthermore, China is in the process of building its fifth research base, which has steered up some controversy. The construction started before the environmental impact assessment was complete, which was in violation of the Protocol. The case highlighted the weaknesses of the ATS, i.e. lack of enforcement and punishment mechanisms. China’s 1st Antarctic paper released in 2017 caused anxiety among established Antarctic players such as Australia. A report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute stated that China has been engaging in undeclared military activities and mineral exploration, which might have breached international law.
Another player in the race for control of Antarctic resources that has drawn some criticism for wanting to exploit Antarctica post 2048 is Russia. Russia has been a great polar power long before China. Unlike China however, Russia is not prioritizing investing in infrastructure on the White Continent. The Arctic gets prioritized when it comes to Kremlin funding the polar regions. It is no surprise that Moscow is interested in investing in the Arctic and should continue doing so; it contributes to one fifth of Russia’s GDP. The North holds a key to Russia’s economic future with its oil and gas reserves as well as the potential of the Northern Sea Route. That being said, Russia has played a key role in discovery of the 7th continent and the development of the ATS. Moreover, the Soviet Government at the time of the creation of the Treaty pressed the importance of participation of all interested parties in the regime of a region of international significance such as Antarctica. To counterbalance China’s expansionism and to prevent China from having a technological superiority and potential monopoly in mineral exploitation, Russia should exercise its consultative status power and push the ATS toward a more inclusive and global regime.
Democratization of the ATS is the only way forward to avoid potential post 2048 conflict over the resources of the 7th continent. First step in this direction would be to lax the scientific activity requirement. This would enable interested parties to participate in the decision-making process. A common heritage approach similar to the International Seabed Authority is the most optimal for an Antarctic mineral regime. The reality is that China is not going anywhere and will maintain its presence in Antarctica. To avoid unregulated mining, it is essential that the ATS adapts to the new challenges and evolves into a system with enforcement mechanisms to fill in the jurisdictional vacuum. The system was based on an “agree to disagree” principle but it is time to draw maps and borders that the international community agrees on rather than having a few selected states calling the shots.