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Defrosting Australia's Antarctic Policy

Source: Unsplash

Hugh McFarlane

The Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) has always been a territorial oddity, encompassing an impressive 42% of the Antarctic continent and situated more than 3,500 kilometres away from Canberra. Paradoxically, while the territory is enormous - almost 77 per cent of the size of Australia itself - the AAT occupies little to no space within the Australian psyche. Few Australians are aware of its existence and fewer still recognise its importance to the nation’s welfare.

Neglected though it may be, the AAT is nonetheless of vital significance to Australia. Its fragile ecosystems are intimately tied to those of the Australian continent. Moreover, its political status under the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) as a military-free region ensures that Australia does not have to worry about its southern flank turning into an area of inter-state competition.

The fact that the ATS has managed to preserve Antarctica as a scientific preserve free of military activity, mineral exploitation, and nuclear weapons has allowed Australia to take the benign conditions on the continent for granted. However, as climate change grows in severity and the ban on Antarctic mining eventually lapses, environmental conditions that were previously favourable are now deteriorating. Likewise, as a confident China expands its network of Antarctic stations and continues to push illegitimate territorial claims elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the time has come for Australian strategic policymakers to take Antarctica and the AAT seriously.

Combining strategy with science

It is important to recognise that while strategic policymakers have largely neglected the AAT, there are groups of Australians who value and prioritise Antarctica. A prime example of this is the Australian scientific community, which has led the effort to understand and protect Antarctic ecosystems for over a century. As a result of their leadership in the field, Australian scientists largely dictate Australian Antarctic policy independently of politicians and strategic policymakers.

While it is entirely understandable that the scientific community would lead Australian activities in Antarctica, it is not surprising that the lack of consultation with strategic policymakers has produced an Australian Antarctic policy in need of additional strategic planning. Australian Antarctic scientists naturally care more about protecting and studying local Antarctic ecosystems than projecting sovereignty or participating in geopolitical competition. Such preferences for science over politics are reflected in the conduct of the agency responsible for managing Australia’s Antarctic program, the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). Sadly, the AAD has historically paid relatively little attention to asserting Australian territoriality in Antarctica, as it is a primarily scientific agency and by its nature unlikely to prioritise politics when it has important scientific research to conduct. It is possible that for some in the AAD, the idea of Australia asserting its territorial rights in Antarctica could be seen as a threat to the very same ecosystems the agency was created to study and protect.

Antarctic analysts have pointed out that Antarctica is likely to have similarly vast mineral reserves to the Australian continent, with both landmasses tracing their lineage back to the ancient Gondwanan supercontinent. These Antarctic mineral deposits are projected to become more accessible than ever due to global temperature rises, coinciding with a possible start to Antarctic mining from 2048. Given this worrying projection, it is not unreasonable for scientists to fear that any Australian push into Antarctica would be accompanied by a mining bonanza driven by resource-hungry politicians.

Map of the Australian Antarctic Territory Source: Wikimedia Commons

Australian sovereignty and Antarctic environmental protection

However, what such anxieties ignore is the fact that Australian territoriality itself is the perfect vehicle for protecting Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems from climate change and destructive mining. Although Australian law technically applies to all Australian citizens across the AAT and has done since 1933, since the AAT is on the same administrative level as Christmas Island and Norfolk Island, decades of disinterest in actually asserting Australian sovereignty have meant that relevant legislation cannot be enforced across large swathes of the territory. One example of this was Australia’s failed 2019 proposal for a marine protected area in the East Antarctic waters of the AAT. In this case, the appropriate legal mechanism for establishing such an environmental reserve was through the ATS. However, most ATS member states do not recognise Australia’s territorial claim, which sadly allowed key Antarctic stakeholders China and Russia to leverage their growing influence across the Antarctic region to veto the proposal.

Beijing and Moscow’s decision to block such an important plan demonstrated that environmental protection is no longer a shared goal for the members of the ATS, suggesting there is already an appetite for the exploitation of the continent’s precious marine and mineral resources. Furthermore, the proposal’s rejection signalled to Australian analysts that Canberra is losing influence in a region of vital importance. Given that China’s rise coincides with a period of increased climate volatility, a disinterested Australia’s gradual loss of influence in Antarctica could not come at a worse time.

Furthermore, the 2019-2020 drought and bushfire season served as a harrowing reminder to Australians of the dangers of climate change. Not only is the Australian continent at heightened risk of catastrophic natural disasters as a result of its already extreme climate, but it is also especially dependent on ecosystems in neighbouring continents. At the same time as Australia’s precious bushland was being ravaged by fire, Kenyan towns were being swept away by devastating flooding as changing sea temperatures in the Indian Ocean exacerbated opposing rainfall patterns. Similar patterns can be observed between Australia and Antarctica, with changes to the health of meteorological and ecological systems in one continent going on to have significant effects on the other.

Making Australian sovereignty a reality

Australia must rapidly step up its efforts to better integrate the AAT into its strategic policymaking, as the territory is an integral part of its geopolitical landscape. The effort to turn theoretical sovereignty into a reality must begin in the minds of the Australian public and Australia’s Antarctic policymakers. The fact that 42% of the Antarctic continent is legally Australian territory should not be a little-known fact reserved for trivia nights. It should be something that is taught in Australian schools, reflected on Australian maps, and taken seriously by all policymakers with responsibility for the AAT. This will naturally increase the political importance of the AAT to Australian policymakers as the public comes to expect Canberra to take the territory seriously.

Once the AAT is on the priority list, Australia must increase the size and number of its Antarctic stations so that Australian scientists and technicians can protect and study larger portions of the AAT in line with Australian environmental law. This should include significant investment in the types of infrastructure, personnel, and emerging technologies that already promise to make the frozen continent more accessible. At the same time, Australian officials must ensure that other ATS member states with research stations in the AAT are not only abiding by the rules and regulations of the ATS, but also by Australian expectations.

However, the argument for increased Australian influence in the AAT should not be interpreted as a push for colonial-style expansion into a continent rightly recognised by the ATS as an asset to be shared by all of humanity. Rather, the assertion of Australian sovereignty should be recognised as the best method for Australia to ensure that a continent of vital importance to its fragile environment is protected from human mismanagement and damaging resource exploitation. It is also imperative that cities like Hobart, Melbourne and Adelaide do not eventually come under threat from a militarised Antarctic continent.

Ultimately, Australia’s environmental and national security prospects in Antarctica are rapidly changing. The time has come to bring Australia’s Antarctic policy in from the cold and reassert Australian sovereignty in the AAT.


Hugh McFarlane is an Outreach and Research Officer within the Young Diplomat Society’s podcast team, Global Questions. He is also studying a Bachelor of Security Studies at Macquarie University.



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