Looking south: Australia’s strategic Antarctic interests in the 21st century
10 Oct 2014|

Aurora Australis in the sunset.Australia should re-focus its Antarctic efforts, clearly state its Antarctic strategic interests and match its Antarctic aspirations with action and carefully directed investment. These are the essential elements of a report released today by the Australian Government: the 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan. I was commissioned last year to take a broad look at Australia’s Antarctic engagement and to focus on Australia’s strategic interests in the region.

Australia has extremely important strategic interests in the Antarctic: we assert Australian sovereignty over 42% of the Antarctic continent—that’s roughly the size of mainland Australia minus Queensland; Australia has one of the largest maritime jurisdictions in the world—30% of our maritime zones are south of mainland Australia; and the Antarctic Treaty demilitarises all of the planet below 60o South—so Australia doesn’t need to maintain or mobilise substantial military assets for potential conflict on our southern borders.

Australia also has substantial political, diplomatic, scientific, economic and environmental protection interests in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

But the report states that Australia’s historic position as a leading player in Antarctic affairs shouldn’t be taken for granted. Other nations are investing substantially in Antarctic science, logistics and infrastructure. The pre-eminence that Australia has traditionally held because of its long historic connections, Antarctic exploration and its scientific and diplomatic leadership, can no longer be assumed.

The recent decision by the Government to proceed with the tender process for the construction of a new icebreaker to replace the ageing Aurora Australis, is a significant investment in Australia’s Antarctic future. But there are other important issues that also need to be addressed in the short, medium and long term.

On Australian Antarctic infrastructure, the report argues that Australia should capitalise on its icebreaker investment and the development of its ground-breaking intercontinental air transport system by looking at new air capabilities that weren’t available when the system was developed in the early 2000s.

Part of developing the scope for new Antarctic air-transport capabilities should involve, among other things, engagement with Defence and whether there are future opportunities to use defence heavy-lift aircraft in certain circumstances to support Australia’s Antarctic program. Big decisions like those should be made on a whole-of-Government basis so that Australia gets the most from its investments in national infrastructure. Conversely, significant assets like the replacement for Aurora Australis should be considered for other uses when not engaged in the Australian Antarctic Program.

The report also argues that there are considerable opportunities for Tasmania if the state is able to capitalise on the growth in other nations’ Antarctic logistic capabilities and expanding Antarctic research interests. That requires investment in Hobart’s port infrastructure to ensure it can meet the future needs of Antarctic shipping and resupply, and capitalising on the potential provided by the extension of the Hobart airport runway (another recent Government decision).

Australia should clearly and publicly articulate its strategic Antarctic interests, and see these as an integral part of nation-building—as those as far back as Sir Douglas Mawson did. At the same time, Australia shouldn’t be isolationist in Antarctic affairs. The unique nature of the Antarctic Treaty System requires substantial international engagement in diplomacy, logistics and science.

Antarctic science, an integral part of Australia’s Antarctic engagement, is both expensive and logistically complex. National and international collaboration in major science programs on the water and on the ice are the way of the future. Australia should be positioned to influence and lead those major efforts.

Antarctic science has revealed much about the weather and climate in Australia’s key agricultural regions, for example. Careful investment in a properly-resourced Antarctic program that builds national and international collaboration in priority Antarctic science will have direct economic benefits for Australia.

Australia’s position as a leader in Antarctic logistics, science and diplomacy will play a significant role in the influence that Australia will be able to exert in Antarctic affairs in the future. Australia should work hard to ensure that the peace and security that the Antarctic Treaty provides us is maintained for the future: a strong and effective Antarctic Treaty System is in Australia’s national interests.

Tony Press is the CEO, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Watch ASPI executive director Peter Jennings speaking with Tony Press about the 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan report.