In February, as the navy’s new patrol ship Wellington hammered through mountainous seas off Antarctica, New Zealand was sending a message to the world: we’re here, and we intend to stay.
But some of the planet’s most powerful nations think otherwise. With the prospect of massive oil and mineral fields opening to new technology, the continent is facing the likelihood of a rush for wealth that will swat any existing claims aside.
A report by Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy warns that the existing treaty system is under increasing strain and may not survive, a view echoed by predictions of increased competition by New Zealand defence planners.
Last year’s defence assessment placed the use of military force to impose an Antarctic claim among a list of potential sudden shocks the nation may have to deal with.
The Lowy Report, by national security Fellow Ellie Fogarty, urges Australia to include the continent in its security and strategic planning, and to increase the involvement of its Defence Force in a range of measures to defend its claim to vast areas of Antarctica.
Fogarty also suggests extending present diplomatic and military cooperation between Australia and New Zealand to the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic, including naval and air patrols and potential surveillance by pilotless drones, already being investigated by the NZDF.
Both countries have much at stake. New Zealand and Australia were among the countries claiming large swathes of the frozen continent which in 1959 negotiated the original Antarctic Treaty, deeming it a zone of “peaceful and co-operative” science and banning military intervention.
All existing claims, including those of the United States, the former Soviet Union, Britain, Japan, Norway, Belgium, Argentina, Chile and South Africa were suspended, and no new claims were allowed. The treaty has since expanded to include other countries as consultative members with a say in administration, and now also embraces mining bans and other environmental agreements.
Australia’s claim is the largest, covering more than 40 per cent of the continent. New Zealand claims constitutional sovereignty of the Ross Dependency, a 413,540sq km wedge that extends from the South Pole to the Southern Ocean, embracing the Ross Sea and ice shelf, and the Transantarctic Mountains.
Few others recognise the claims and the treaty itself is due for review in 2048. “The treaty remains a fragile and imperfect compromise,” the Lowy Report says. “[It] was drafted to allow the original signatories to protect their immediate interests … [and] in future, states may feel that their best interests will be served by withdrawing.”
New Zealand’s defence assessment reached similar conclusions: “The Antarctic treaty system is in good order, but there is heightened interest in Antarctica’s resources, and also in the fisheries in the adjacent Southern Ocean where competition is increasing. This is likely to intensify.”
The most likely catalyst will be the continent’s enormous, untapped wealth, including coal seams, manganese ores, iron, uranium, copper, lead and other metals – and, critically, oil.
Predicted oil reserves have been estimated at up to 203 billion barrels, 50 billion of which are believed to lie under the Weddell and Ross Seas above the continental shelves adjacent to Australia and New Zealand’s claimed territories.
“If the total estimate is correct and the oil can feasibly be extracted in the future, Antarctica’s reserves would be the third largest in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela,” the Lowy Report says.
“As international interest in extraction and development increases, the current framework for Antarctica’s co-operative international administration is likely to come under increasing strain and may not be sustainable …
“It seems inevitable that the mineral resource question will be reopened in 2048.”
Claimants are armed with an array of supporting arguments: Argentina and Chile cite the Antarctic Peninsula as an extension of the Andes, India that its base lies at the point where India snapped off 120 million years ago, New Zealand, its common origin as part of the ancient Gondwanaland supercontinent.
Although no part of any claim yet, the US could make similar assertions. New research has shown that Texas and the Antarctic were part of another giant continent, Rodinia, more than 1 billion years ago.
The US, like other major powers, is not bothering with the niceties. It rejects all existing claims while reserving the right to make its own in the future and, the Lowy Report says, American policy advice has “expressly foreshadowed” the end of the Antarctic Treaty system, including bans on mineral exploitation.
The Russian Federation also rejects all sovereign claims while apparently preparing for its own. It has already surveyed regional gas and oil reserves, is considering Antarctic resources for its future economic and energy security, and is planning major studies of mineral and hydrocarbon sources ahead of the treaty’s 2048 review.
China is also boosting its presence, backing its determination for greater say in the continent’s affairs with studies of Antarctic resources and new equipment, including a new icebreaker, ski-equipped planes and helicopters, increased research and year-round ice stations.
Australia and New Zealand have invested considerably in research and an entrenched presence to support their claims. But the Lowy Report has criticised Australia’s science effort as inadequate, echoing criticism of New Zealand’s research in submissions to the framework of priorities for the next decade due to be handed to Cabinet in October.
The Lowy Report says Australia has become complacent, largely ignored the Antarctic in strategic and security thinking, has failed to provide adequate transport and logistics, and lacks standing military capacity to provide routine surveillance or assistance with most peaceful activities there.
By contrast, the report says, other countries, including New Zealand, the US, Argentina and Chile, have used military personnel and material.
New Zealand has recognised the Antarctic in strategic policy, noting the nation’s “direct interest in peace and stability in the Antarctic region including the seas that surround it”.
The Defence Force uses RNZAF Hercules and other assets to support Scott Base and is required to provide the ability to patrol and protect the Southern Ocean. The two new offshore patrol vessels, Otago and Wellington, were designed to operate in Antarctic waters.
“New Zealand conducts regular patrols of the waters adjacent to its claimed territory, and the NZDF is investigating investment in an unmanned aircraft for Southern Ocean and Antarctic surveillance,” the Lowy Report says.
“Noting the two countries’ lengthy defence relationship and many common strategic interests, co-operative surveillance or joint investment in unmanned capabilities with New Zealand might be explored.”
The Lowy Report’s message is blunt: shape up, or be prepared to ship out.