The Antarctic Treaty System turns 60

The Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961 with 12 participating countries. Sixty years later, 54 countries are signatories to the treaty and the various related instruments that comprise the Antarctic Treaty System. Will the ATS mark another 60 years in 2081? Well, it depends.

Legal eagles will point to the complex requirements and processes for ‘exiting’ the treaty. Environmental scientists are racing to better understand how climate change will shape Antarctica by 2081, and strategic scholars expect great-power competition to rewrite the rules of engagement for the resource-rich and unclaimed continent. Discussion about the future of the ATS is far too caught up in the potential for the system to fail. Instead, the focus should be on the need to recognise and grasp the coercive elements of Antarctic cooperation and the entrenched nature of grey-zone activities on the continent.

Upholding the ATS continues be in Australia’s national interest. It delivers a great return on investment—a whopping big claim shelved into perpetuity and no military conflict on the doorstep. But conflict is underway in Antarctica; indeed, grey-zone activity is a hallmark of the continent. And not only does the ATS facilitate grey-zone threats, but Australia’s national security settings are failing to navigate them.

Grey-zone activities are actions taken by state or non-state actors that are coercive, undesired and even undermining, but that fall short of war. Strategic competition today is facilitated by new technologies and non-traditional security threats, which supports normalisation of grey-zone activities.

Antarctica, shelved as ‘siloed’ from strategic competition elsewhere and ‘protected’ by the ATS, is an environment in which grey-zone campaigns thrive. Examples include dual-use technology that can be applied in both scientific and military contexts, and Russian fishing vessels spoofing their locations to signal that they’re not in protected Antarctic waters. (Of course, one could argue that marine protected areas are an extension of some claimants’ territorial ambitions as well—a charge often levelled at Australia.)

Subversion, deception and sophisticated interpretations of international legal norms in Antarctica are all becoming hallmarks of the ATS. We tend to laud cooperation between nations in Antarctica, mainly because the ATS remains standing. However, this cooperation can be weaponised to frustrate the consensus nature of the ATS and the long-term protectionist foundations of the treaty. This grey-zone element of the ATS is a wicked problem of sorts. Actions beneath the threshold of war don’t breach the agreed rules in Antarctica and are undertaken by liberal democratic states as much as by autocratic revisionist ones.

The ATS facilitates grey-zone activity because the contours of peacetime and wartime, and the conceptions of security threats and acts that constitute militarisation, are different today than they were 60 years ago. And they will be different again 60 years from now. The current ATS business-as-usual approach is perhaps more of a worry than a breakdown in the system entirely. The collapse of the ATS would at least see Canberra craft resolute responses and act on them (after an awkward discussion with Washington, which doesn’t recognize Australia’s Antarctic Territory).

I see three possible avenues for actively protecting national interests in Antarctica. First, we could strengthen the ATS. That might involve inserting new rules of engagement, clarifying permissible and off-limits activities in terms that are relevant to the 2020s, or putting some teeth into ATS enforcement mechanisms. The second avenue involves relaxing the ATS. Parties would agree to disagree but would build tangible rules of engagement (such as resource-extraction caps) or establish regulatory bodies that carry a hard stick. A final option would be to change the system entirely and push for the elusive UN world park status for Antarctica. In not considering these strategic alternatives, and in not taking leadership in the future history of Antarctica, Canberra might be faced with a ‘might versus right’ scenario in 2081.

To get the ATS to 2081, a lot of domestic policy work needs to be done. The Australian government has already put out some signals that suggest a slight shift in strategic conceptions of Antarctica. For instance, the 2013 defence white paper declared: ‘There is no credible risk of Australia’s national interests in the Southern Ocean and the Australian Antarctic Territory being challenged in ways that might require substantial military responses over the next few decades’. In the 2016 defence white paper, that became: ‘The Australian Antarctic Territory faces no credible risk of being challenged in such a way that requires a substantial military response for at least the next few decades.’

Significantly, the 2016 statement clarified that a military response to protect our Antarctic interests was now on the cards. No doubt policymakers will be focusing on the sad state of our Antarctic and Southern Ocean defence capabilities. With no assets (we rely on the French to conduct much of our search-and-rescue responsibilities in the Southern Ocean) or adequate sustainment plans, it would be a short battle.

Immediate policy work should focus on standardising Australia’s national interests in the region. Geographically, policymakers have made this an even harder task; defence white papers and last year’s defence strategic update prioritise the northeast Asian sector of our region. Our Indo-Pacific strategy also appears to miss the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, despite it being a linkage between the two theatres and a key component of US Indo-Pacific Command’s strategic command. We also need to communicate our national strategic interests in Antarctica, and clearly articulate how the maintenance and functionality of the ATS delivers on these interests.

While the 2016 Australian Antarctic strategy and 20 year action plan underscores our interest in supporting a strong ATS and maintaining freedom from strategic and political confrontation by preserving sovereignty over the Australian Antarctic Territory, it doesn’t set out a clear strategy. Policy frames our ideal course of action and outlines our interests. But strategy is more about deliberate actions that employ all political, military, diplomatic and economic tools to advance national interests. A good strategy will be efficiently shaped by the international system in responding to shifts when they occur, whether tomorrow or in 2081.

For now, Australian Antarctic policy appears to be stuck in the romantic age of conquest. In contrast, the strategy of another enthusiastic Antarctic player, Russia, is first and foremost about ensuring national security, facilitating economic development and enhancing Russian identity. Of course, it’s worth noting that these ends for Moscow can be secured by holding up the ATS, not undermining it.

An absence of conflict doesn’t signal an absence of coercive strategies in Antarctica. Missing the elements of coercion and thinking of cooperation as a static concept put stakeholders at risk of strategic complacency. Supporting the ATS serves collective national interests, but these are not necessarily conciliary.

It’s not all doom and gloom; the ATS might yet celebrate another 60 years. But to get to 2081, the treaty and self-appointed leadership states like Australia must accept that the maintenance of the ATS will embolden grey-zone activities. Whether these activities serve to undermine the system this year or in 2048 or 2081, at the very least we must acknowledge that the ATS is a low-cost, high-reward solution that enables and legitimises Chinese and Russian access to and presence on one of the world’s most strategic continents.

Antarctica can be both home to a functioning ATS and a sphere of great-power politics in which grey zone activities proliferate. Australia needs a real strategy to compete. Maybe then we will celebrate another 60 years.