Australia is one of the founders of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), a claimant state and the country that, together with France, contributed the most to the birth of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. In “Politics Among Nations”, Hans Morgenthau wrote: “A nation whose foreign policy tends toward keeping power and not toward changing the distribution of power in its favour pursues a policy of the status quo”. This statement provides a comprehensive description of Australian policy in Antarctica: the one of a powerful state aiming to preserve its status of key actor.
The Antarctic Regime is regulated by peculiar membership and decision-making mechanisms. Members of the ATS are divided between Consultative Parties and Contracting Parties; the former have decisional power in all Antarctic matters, while the latter do not have any role in shaping policies within the Southern continent. Consultative Parties regularly meet during Antarctic Meetings, and decisions are taken through consensus rule. For decades, this meant that ATS founders had veto power and exclusive sovereignty over decision-making. But the situation has recently changed, since a growing number of countries has acquired the status of Consultative Party, weakening the privileged position of ATS founders. The three main countries that, by becoming Consultative Parties, changed the Antarctic balance of power, were Brazil (1983), India (1983) and China (1985).
Moreover, Australia’s status of key actor in Antarctica has further been challenged by emerging world powers (China in primis), which recently started to build new scientific stations and infrastructures in Antarctica. These powers have also been more active during Antarctic Meetings: in 2017, for instance, the Chinese delegation of the 40th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) promoted a more “balanced approach” towards exploitation and conservation in the Southern Continent.
This doctrine is a symptom to the rhetoric that Beijing adopts to legitimize its desire to strengthen its position and presence in Antarctica. In practical terms, the fact that China is currently building the first-ever permanent Antarctic airfield is nothing but an example of China’s strives in this direction.
Canberra’s priorities in Antarctica are twofold: on the one hand, the preservation of its status of key actor; on the other, the forestalment of the regional influence of any new actor. The Australian government pursues these two objectives by defending and promoting the principle of environmental conservation within the Antarctic Treaty System. This is reiterated, for instance, in the Australian Antarctic Division official website, which claims that “gaining recognition as the international leader in Antarctic environmental management is one of the Government’s priorities for the Australian Antarctic Program”.
The Australian strategy was taken up during Antarctic meetings. In 2016, during the 39th ATCM in Santiago (Chile), the Australian delegation and 20 other countries submitted a joint statement entitled “Confirming the Ongoing Commitment to the Prohibition of Mining Activity in Antarctica, Other Than for Scientific Reasons”, which was signed by all the founders of the ATS except Russia, and was not supported by China and India. Furthermore, in the 40th ATCM, Canberra responded to the Chinese promotion of a “balance” between use and conservation in Antarctica by stressing the principle of environmental conservation as a priority of Antarctic policies in light of the fact that “the Environment Protocol created a comprehensive protection regime for Antarctica”.
By acting as a champion of environmental protection, Canberra attempts to confirm its status of key actor and “guardian” of Antarctic wilderness and, at the same time, to hinder emerging actors (China especially) that are trying, through the increase of their scientific and human presence in the region, to change the Antarctic balance of power.
Another channel through which Canberra implemented its Antarctic strategy was its scientific program. Science has often enabled countries to increase and legitimize their presence and influence in Antarctica. In July 2010, Canberra elaborated the Australian Antarctic Science Strategic Plan (ASSP) which has led Australian research in the Southern Continent for ten years, and three of the four main thematic areas covered in the ASSP focus on the environment. The plan identifies as a priority those research projects that focus on the role played by Antarctica in stabilizing the climate worldwide; that measure the impact of local and global human activities on the Antarctic ecosystem; and that assess the effects of climate change on the ecosystems of the Southern Ocean with the final aim to elaborate a plan for the sustainable management of fisheries.
Canberra is not just trying to re-focus its research efforts, but also to increase them. In the 2017 ATCM, the Australian delegation expressed its commitment to transform Tasmania in a leading East Antarctic gateway and research hub, while the building of Nuynia (the 160m and 25000 tons icebreaker that will be finalised in 2020) is proof of Australia’s determination to remain an active and powerful actor of Antarctic politics. Nuynia will be the lifeline connecting Australian scientific stations in Antarctica, while the marine science research labs will play an important role in the Southern Ocean research.
Australian policy in Antarctica is developed both through diplomatic statements and scientific research projects, and its main objectives are the defence of the principle of environmental protection in Antarctica and the limitation of human activities in the continent. In pursuing these two objectives, Canberra aims to strengthen its status of key ATS actor as well as defender of the Antarctic environment. At the same time, the Australian government aims to counter emerging powers that seek to increase their presence in the continent.
This policy will be effective only if Australia will oppose any attempt to loosen environmental constraints to human activities. A more permissive environmental regime in the continent, in fact, would allow China, India and other emerging countries to expand their presence and investment projects in Antarctica to an extent that Australia cannot equal. Canberra’s strategy might be ironically defined as a “less-is-more approach”, since more stringent limitations in states’ activities in Antarctica will translate in an increase of Australian presence and influence in the Southern continent. The main arena for the application of this approach is the issue of mineral exploitation: the Australian government will have to strenuously oppose any attempt to lift the ban on mining activities in the continent.
The cornerstone of this strategy is the preservation of the consensus rule: any attempt to implement majority rule in Antarctic decisions might weaken Canberra’s influence in the Antarctic decision-making, and it has to be perceived as a threat to the Australian status in the continent. However, Australia cannot pursue this strategy alone, and it needs to build stronger diplomatic bonds with other actors that share similar interests. Canberra’s “natural allies” are other claimant states: countries that claim sovereignty over a portion of the Antarctic territory, that see the increase of other countries’ activities in Antarctica as a weakening of their influence and that are jealous of their veto power on Antarctic decisions.
Amongst the claimant states, New Zealand is likely to be the most valuable ally for the pursuit of this “less-is-more” strategy, mostly because the two country have very similar priorities in Antarctica: defence of the principle of environmental conservation, protection of territorial sovereignty claims and maintenance of the ATS and its current governance mechanisms. Wellington’s 2016-2020 Statement of Intent for Antarctica advocates for the protection of the Antarctic environment in the name of its intrinsic value, reaffirms its sovereignty over the Ross Dependency and affirms New Zealand’s “Strong and vested interest in ensuring that the Antarctic Treaty System continues to be recognized as the appropriate mechanism for the management and government of the region”. Australia, New Zealand and other claimant states will need to create a cohesive diplomatic front that promotes the strengthening of the environmental protection mechanisms, while strenuously opposing against any attempt to change the decision-making processes of Antarctic meetings, in order to preserve the consensus rule.