Antarctic sovereignty: are we serious?
30 Apr 2013|

Guest editor Anthony Bergin

In February this year, former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke made a flying visit to Antarctica to officially open the Wilkins Runway Living Quarters.

Eighty years ago Australia received from Great Britain its largest ever gift: six million square kilometres of Antarctica. Three years later it became the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). 42% of the Antarctic continent is Australia’s. If it were a country in its own right the AAT would be the world’s seventh largest. It is next door to us. We discovered, explored, mapped, studied and occupied significant parts of it. We still do.

The AAT has considerable value to Australia. Its scientific values are diverse and have long-lasting national benefit. Its environmental values embrace superlative natural features. Its resource values include fishing and tourism; minerals are undoubtedly present, even if not exploited; and other resource potential we can’t yet imagine will emerge. Its diplomatic values allow Australia influence in Antarctic governance with flow-on effects in other international forums. Its cultural values inspire Australians in the arts. Its proximity gives us ready access.

The AAT is an exceptional piece of real estate that has been a fact in Australian law since 1936. All Australians should feel proud of it. Yet many have only rudimentary consciousness of the region’s significance beyond, at best, heroic era misadventure or the annual whaling conflict.

Sovereignty historically underpinned Australian Antarctic policy. Although Australia has done nothing to conceal its sovereignty, we sometimes appear ambivalent. Yes, we have asserted our right to maritime zones under the law of the sea. Yes, we have enjoyed our status as a sovereign state to influence Antarctic affairs and have used it to replace the Antarctic mining convention with an environmental regime. But is that it?

Six other nations have Antarctic territory. While they act differently to advance their claims, none can demonstrate that their Antarctic claims are stronger than Australia’s. Indeed, three of the other claims overlap and are directly disputed: not our problem—the AAT has no competitors. There’s no ambiguity about the AAT’s boundaries because each of our three neighbours recognise Australia’s sovereignty.

None of the seven Antarctic territories are universally accepted. That is one reason why the Antarctic Treaty was negotiated: a peace Treaty not to stop hostilities, but to prevent hostilities. Article IV is at the heart of the Treaty and deals with sovereignty. The Treaty recognises that the claims exist and doesn’t diminish them:

No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting , supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica. No new claim, or enlargement of an existing claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica shall be asserted while the present Treaty is in force.

Despite the popular cliché, the Treaty didn’t ‘freeze’ the claims, with the implication they’re somehow suspended. It’s not the claims that are frozen, but the disruptive argument about them which is set aside.

While it’s true that both the US and the Russian Federation have reserved the right to make their own claims (which may or may not include parts of the AAT—they haven’t said), the Treaty stops them. It’s clearly to our advantage to have secured the AAT ahead of the Treaty. The Treaty therefore protects Australia’s sovereignty and our security interests in the adjacent region to the south.

So if the status quo is protected, why be alert to the sovereign interest? Because it can still give us influence, just as it did while negotiating the Treaty and in later developments. But over 50 years the Treaty has grown from 12 to 50 nations, diluting our influence in the Treaty’s consensus system. Changing interpretations and expectations stand to weaken us.

We risk getting left behind. East Antarctica is no longer on the dormant side of Antarctica, away from the hustle of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Ross Sea regions—Russia is coming out of hibernation in the AAT and the aspirations of China continue to grow. We have three small coastal stations. China, a relative newcomer, is proposing its third station in the AAT. We have no presence at all in our neglected Eastern Sector. Effective occupation as a measure of sovereignty might be questioned.

Operationally our reach is short. We have never visited, or rarely visit, great lengths of the AAT coast. There are vast expanses in the AAT we can’t even get to. Others can conduct science or observations throughout the AAT and assign foreign names to places we’ve never seen.

A potential issue for Australia is one of inertia or complacency—accepting that the norms of the last 50 years of the Treaty will apply indefinitely. The threats to the AAT might come not from a direct challenge by others—the Treaty protects our position—but  from ourselves, should we take our eye off the ball as developments incrementally change the playing field.

Some things Australia can do:

  • act with confidence in a way that a sovereign nation might be expected to act, taking advantage of opportunities to advance our position
  • position Australia as the lead nation in the AAT, with the widest operational reach, the best science, the most effective environmental protection measures, the most comprehensive maps and the best information about the region
  • defend and strengthen the Antarctic Treaty system as the best means of Antarctic governance, and for protecting our sovereignty and Antarctic security interests
  • challenge misconceptions that suggest that Antarctic claims are dormant or decreasing relevance
  • promote the AAT in the Australian consciousness. Give it a flag. And, just occasionally, wave it.

Andrew Jackson is an honorary fellow at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. Image courtesy of Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities’ Antarctic Division.