Australia’s scrapping of Antarctic aerodrome could pave the runway for China
30 Nov 2021|

While environmentalists have welcomed the Australian government’s decision to abandon the Davis aerodrome project in Antarctica, China is likely now drafting its own year-round aviation plans for the site.

Canberra had already completed much of the required environmental impact work and articulated its ambition to build the continent’s first paved runway to facilitate unfettered aviation access to Antarctica. As a self-appointed Antarctic Treaty System environmental ‘leader’, Australia has now shown that it’s entirely permissible to plan, plot and develop a concrete runway to bolster Antarctic logistical capabilities and access. While Australia ultimately abandoned the plan, a precedent has been set. Any future unease stemming from Chinese action along the same lines, let alone on the same ground, could be painted as a double standard, and Beijing knows it.

The Davis aerodrome project was unveiled in 2018 as the tabled solution to delivering on the Australian Antarctic strategy and 20-year action plan’s intent to secure year-round aviation access between Australia and Antarctica. By December 2019, the government had earmarked more funding to advance the project to the design and environmental assessment stage. Environmental impact studies were completed, draft comprehensive environmental evaluations were shared with Antarctic Treaty consultative parties (who by and large had no major concerns), and by November 2021, the final decision hinged on Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

The aerodrome has been binned (at least publicly) for a range of reasons. The sheer scale of the project, which would have required approximately 11,500 prefabricated concrete pavers, each weighing about 10 tonnes, compounded with cost considerations (both financial and environmental) ultimately killed the project. But if cost was an impediment, why did Australia not engage collaboratively in the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty with the other states operating bases in the Australian Antarctic Territory? That could have seen cost-sharing, co-running and collaborative use of the new infrastructure.

Political considerations, including the potential of triggering an ‘aviation arms race’ in Antarctica, likely played a supporting role in this decision. Yet such fears are misplaced: aviation activities are already proliferating on the continent and they’re largely driven not by geopolitics or strategic competition, but by the commercial tourism sector. Just last week, a private tourism operator facilitated the landing of an Airbus A340 on an ice runway, underscoring plans to ramp up flights to shuttle back and forth those cashed-up baby boomers jostling to ‘glamp’ in Antarctica.

The Davis aerodrome ought to have been green-lit on its strategic business case alone. The site, in the Vestfold Hills of east Antarctica, had been earmarked since the 1970s when the Australian Army pinpointed the unique features of the region (generally ice-free all year, an elevated rocky foundation and optimal wind conditions) and noted its viability for runway infrastructure. Such geographical features are found nowhere else in east Antarctica.

With the Davis project now off the table, the government must put forward alternative strategies for delivering on year-round aviation capability in east Antarctica. Ley’s announcement assured Australians that our ‘strategic presence across the continent’ would be delivered by new icebreaker RSV Nuyina’s ability to ‘support medium-lift helicopters’. But that doesn’t deliver year-round (let alone agile) capability for Australian Antarctic interests—not only to ensure the safety of the Australian men and women who operate in Antarctica if they need medical evacuation or to facilitate rapid access to critical climate datasets essential to understanding global warming, but also to enable enhanced inspections of Chinese and Russian bases in east Antarctica.

Ley further noted that the decision to dump the Davis aerodrome project was reflective of the need for ‘all nations … to respect the Treaty system’. The sheer maintenance of the Antarctic Treaty for 60 years doesn’t necessarily reflect its health or efficiency; states want to uphold it because it delivers on their various national interests. While Canberra might be patting itself on the back for taking the environmentally respectful decision to not build the aerodrome, the idea that Australia’s inability to fund the project (let alone build it efficiently) will somehow set a standard or put off other Antarctic nations from scoping similar infrastructure projects is perplexing. In a treaty system devoid of enforcement mechanisms that relies on goodwill and consensus, an enhanced presence and inspection capability is going to be required—and in turn would strengthen our enduring claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory.

The decision to scrap plans for year-round aviation access to Antarctica is an inflection point which generations of Australians will look back at and ask: Where was the strategy? Environmental concerns are valid, of course, but surely they were just as valid five years ago when the project was announced? Cost blowouts could have been mitigated through international partnerships.

The idea that broader national security interests played a role in the decision is best captured by the notion that the runway presented a ‘chicken or egg’ nightmare for Canberra. Australia could build the runway, but could it control it? In the spirit of the treaty, international access ought to be facilitated and, indeed, welcomed. Does Australia have the airpower or capability to maintain an upper hand in east Antarctica? Perhaps the government didn’t want to test those waters just yet.

The scrapping of the aerodrome at least leaves us with a lesson. The Australian Antarctic Division is part of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. The intersection of security threats and challenges presented by Antarctica to Australia’s national interests are such that the government must make the division a statutory body. Australia’s ‘broader national security interests’ in Antarctica require strategic foresight.

It remains to be seen if the gamble pays off for Australia. In 2021, China tabled a five-year plan which highlighted the role of the ‘polar silk road’ and included ambitions to enhance Beijing’s Antarctic ‘utilisation’. Of course, any utilisation slapped with ‘science’ or ‘research’ labels is largely permissible. Will the cancellation of the Davis aerodrome ultimately trigger Australia’s biggest (east Antarctic) geopolitical challenge of the 21st century? Let’s hope Beijing starts answering our phone calls.