James Brown
Aust government leaves Antarctic plans on ice

Silence, it seems, is the thing that strikes visitors to Antarctica most profoundly. That and an acute awareness of utter isolation from the rest of humanity. For former explorer Phillip Law, an early architect of Australia’s Antarctic program, journeying to the white, silent continent evoked “a sense of feeling infinitesimally small in the face of the magnitude of nature”. Frank Hurley’s masterful photographs of Ernest Shackleton’s epic continental escape a century ago capture some sense of this awesome isolation. It is precisely because Antarctica is so silent, so far away, that it rarely pierces our consciousness. Yet by a legacy inherited from our British antecedents, Australia ambitiously lays claim to more than 40 per cent of a continent now in the midst of change.

The strategic currents of Antarctica are anything but still and silent. Two recent reports commissioned by the Australian government draw attention to the various changes under way in Antarctica and compel a rare display of whole-of-government thinking on the future of Australia’s Antarctic activities and national interests. The first is the 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan, written by former Antarctic Division director Tony Press and commissioned by Environment Minister Greg Hunt to deliver on a 2013 election promise. It calls for greater funding for logistical resources and scientific research, and argues for a more comprehensive effort to sustain and articulate Australia’s national interests on the continent. A second report, compiling the senate’s inquiry into Australia’s future activities and responsibilities in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic waters, echoes many of the conclusions and largely supports the recommendations of Press. Among the senate committee’s main findings was a widespread view among Antarctic experts that Australia’s historical leadership in Antarctica is in decline “at a time of significant, even exponential increase in that of other nations”.

Though it is not the only country deepening its involvement in Antarctica, China’s activities are the most obvious. It is building new icebreakers, has established a Polar Research Institute, and swelled the number of its polar scientists fivefold in the past five years. Plans are mooted for the development of additional icebreaking assets, ice-capable aircraft, and in time possibly an Antarctic airfield. Since 2008, China has established two stations in Australian Antarctic Territory and now has the ability to operate in parts of the continent that Australians do not reach often, or at all. Spending on Chinese polar expeditions has tripled in 10 years and the South Pole accounts by some estimates for more than 80 per cent of this resourcing. 

Other Asian nations are deepening their involvement in Antarctica, too. Japan has increased its presence, South Korea is commissioning new icebreakers and a new research station, India and Malaysia are committing more funding to their Antarctic expeditions.

In part, these developments are about national prestige. Like space exploration, Antarctic programs showcase the sophistication of national science programs and endurance in adverse conditions. Some of the nationalism of maritime territorial disputes between Asian neighbours is bleeding over into the increase in scientific activity and base-building at the South Pole. Some countries are very clear about their motivations for increased usage of Antarctica. Iran, for example, last year announced it had plans to build an Antarctic base as part of a process of establishing itself as a global maritime power. Regulations established in Russia make clear that the country has an interest in Southern Ocean fishery stocks and the future possibility of extracting mineral resources from Antarctica (currently prohibited by international agreement). But despite this, Press’s view remains that there is no resources grab under way in Antarctica – nor one foreshadowed. Instead, countries are largely managing to both assert their national interests and maintain the fragile peace that has lasted in Antarctica for more than 50 years.

The multiple national interests, competing territorial claims and overlapping scientific activities under way in Antarctica are held together by the Antarctic Treaty System. Tony Fleming, the director of the Australian Antarctic Division, terms it “an elegant mechanism”. Against the backdrop of Cold War military strategic competition, and intractable disputes between Antarctic claimant countries such as Britain and Argentina, the Antarctic Treaty simply formed agreement to “freeze” territorial claims. No claims were acknowledged, no rights to make future claims were forfeited. The difficult questions were simply suspended so that all countries could focus on co-operative scientific endeavours on the continent. Military activities were banned, though some countries still today use military logistics and personnel to support their polar missions. For Australia, this brought an additional benefit – the freedom for defence planners not to be concerned about the strategic situation to our south.

Within the Antarctic Treaty System, as Australia’s 20 Year Strategic Plan acknowledges, science is the primary currency of legitimacy. Antarctic science is critical to our understanding of climate change, and the weather systems that affect Australia. Yet in recent years Australia’s scientific program has contracted. In part this has been as a result of ageing infrastructure, such as our Antarctic stations, eating into the overall budget for the Antarctic Division. Replacing plumbing and habitats is expensive when supplies and personnel take months to be shipped in and when windows for resupply are so scarce. 

The Antarctic Division has not been immune to the funding cuts and efficiency dividends imposed across the public service. Its budget was cut by nearly 20 per cent last year, and larger cuts to the CSIRO also have throttled Australia’s scientific activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. In the past decade, the number of marine science days available to Australian research ships operating in Antarctic waters has approximately halved. 

The other currency of legitimacy in Antarctica is logistics. For Australia to maintain both its current scientific programs and the future legitimacy of its territorial claims, it must preserve the ability to fly or ship people and supplies in to and out of Antarctica. Already there are many parts of our own claimed territory that are inaccessible to Australians because of a diminished logistical capability. For years there has been uncertainty about the replacement of the Aurora Australis, Australia’s ageing icebreaker.

Yet now a co-ordinated and bipartisan strategic policy is emerging for Australia’s place, and role, in Antarctica. Environment Minister Greg Hunt is personally leading a thorough examination of Antarctic strategy and has provisioned funding for a new icebreaker capability. Thoughtful contributions to Antarctic strategic policy have been made recently by Labor’s David Feeney and the Greens’ senator Peter Whish-Wilson. There is a solid foundation of parliamentary consensus on what needs to be done in Australian Antarctic Territory. New co-operative research centres and academic partnerships have been funded. And a more co-ordinated, whole-of-government approach is generally evident in Antarctic policy. Last month, for example, an agreement signed with the Chinese government paved the way for Hobart to become a logistics hub and staging point for Chinese Antarctic expeditions – continuing co-operation that began when an Australian ship took the first Chinese explorers to Antarctica more than 30 years ago. In the margins of the G20 meetings, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart to inspect a Chinese icebreaker. Reportedly, he described Antarctic co-operation as a “very bright spot” in the bilateral relationship.

Yet there are some latent anxieties amid the government’s reinvigorated Antarctic policy. There are privately expressed concerns about nuanced yet deliberate efforts by certain countries to undermine some of the environmental conservation systems that underpin the Antarctic Treaty System. Press’s report calls for the appointment of governors and the commissioning of flags for Australia’s subantarctic islands. It is not clear precisely how Australia intends to ameliorate the paucity of current surveillance of illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean. And a recommendation from the senate inquiry to appoint an ambassador could be viewed as much as a restatement of Australian sovereignty as an effort to lift the profile of polar issues.

While the cadence of activity around this country lilts in the coming weeks, Antarctica will be at its busiest. The summer population is more than four times greater than the number of over-wintering scientists. Relatively warmer temperatures open up access to polar territories and the multinational scientific summer program is now moving into full swing. 

In a recent year, Australia’s Antarctic scientists undertook 61 projects, collaborating with more than 70 institutions across 24 countries. More than 40,000 tourists are expected to travel to the Antarctic this summer, too. This flurry of scientific endeavour and sightseeing activity on land, in the air and in the cold waters beneath latitude 60 degrees south must be completed before chillier weather returns, committing Antarctica once again to a wintry slumber.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 13, 2014 as "Leaving Antarctic plans on ice".

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James Brown is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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