The future of Antarctica: Conflict or consensus?
If one were to believe all that is written in the media then this century is witnessing the dawn of a new era of conflict and expanded territorial claims in Antarctica, driven by the rush for its mineral resources.
A noteworthy headline in Le Monde exclaimed ‘Led by Russia, a quiet rush may be on for Antarctica’s Resources’. In a similar vein the Sydney Morning Herald article headed ‘Chinese Resources Chief eyes Antarctica Minerals’, while in the United Kingdom The Guardian suggested a strategic battle for control of Antarctica akin to a chess match led by Russia and China was now underway in its article headed ‘Pawns in Play on Antarctic Ice-Cap’.
The recent media interest in Antarctica’s resources follows a similar response that engulfed the media in 2008 when the Russian flag was planted on the seabed below the North Pole. The narrative that played out in media reports centred on the perceived rush for the Arctic’s resources and the possibility that this could provoke territorial tussles between the Arctic states.
While storylines like this may make good copy for the media, sober analysis of international law and an understanding of the reality of the resource exploration potential of Antarctica throw this storyline into doubt.
In fact rather than seeing an escalating conflict in the polar regions, developments in international law and diplomacy suggest the polar regions are heading in quite the opposite direction. Co-operation rather than conflict seems a more likely scenario for the future.
Much of the debate surrounding the perceived escalation of conflict in Antarctica centres on the region’s potential, but as yet unproven, mineral wealth. A range of different minerals have been identified in Antarctica including deposits of iron ore in the Prince Charles Mountains and coal in the Transantarctic Mountains. Other minerals have also been found to be present in largely unknown quantities including copper, gold, silver, uranium and titanium among others. Natural gas has too been identified on the continental shelf. Since the 1973 discovery it has been hypothesised that potential sites for hydrocarbons may exist in several locations.
Theoretically, the presence of hydrocarbons in the Weddell Sea and the Bellingshausen Sea could prove problematic for relations among Antarctic claimants, given these two areas fall within overlapping territorial claims by Chile, Argentina and the United Kingdom.
However, for the time being the main disputes relating to oil and gas in the region lies outside Antarctica further north, principally in the areas surrounding the Falkland Islands, known in Argentina as the Islas Malvinas. There, the Falkland Islands Government has issued exploration licences over some 400,000 km2 of ocean despite strong objections from Argentina.
More significantly, the technical capacity to mine Antarctica is still many years away. Unlike the relatively shallow waters of the Arctic, the depth of waters around Antarctica would require the development of a totally new generation of floating structures and production systems to access any oil and gas reserves.
Given its remoteness, any resources extracted from Antarctica would need to be transported by ship across the waters of the Southern Ocean, one of the most dangerous sea routes on earth. Ice flows and rough seas would present a major obstacle to shipping of such resources.
Even if the technological and logistical challenges to mining in Antarctica were to be overcome, mining is currently prohibited and the ban on mining is not likely to be removed anytime soon.
For over 50 years Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have been governed by a sophisticated and largely effective system of international treaties known as the Antarctic Treaty System. The foundation of this system is the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and the 1991 Madrid Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty.
Key provisions of the Antarctic Treaty include a freeze on territorial claims; promotion of scientific research; demilitarisation and a ban on nuclear weapons testing. Most significantly Article 7 of Madrid Protocol bans any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research.
Even if countries such as China or Russia wished to lift the ban on mining in Antarctica, it would be several decades before that could be possible. Under Article 25 of the Madrid Protocol, any party can request a conference be convened to review the operation of the protocol. However, such a request cannot be made until the expiry of 50 years from the 1998 date of entry into force.
Even if a review conference were to be convened in or after 2048, the prohibition on Antarctic mining must continue until there is a binding legal regime in place to regulate mining. All states party to the existing Madrid Protocol would have to agree to the terms of the new regulatory regime which, given the current pro-environment stance of most countries in Antarctica, looks improbable.
The only other alternative for any country that wanted to mine in Antarctica would be to withdraw from the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol which is highly unlikely.
By 2015, challenges to the legitimacy of the Antarctic Treaty System from states outside the “Antarctic club”, have all but disappeared. Most notably, Malaysia has now ratified the Antarctic Treaty (which entered into force for Malaysia in October 2011).
China has been the focus of most media attention with concerns expressed about its increased activities in Antarctica. Many media commentators see China’s increased engagement with Antarctica as more than just about resources, instead posing a fundamental challenge to claims to sovereignty over Antarctic territory by the existing (and potential) claimants.
While there may be some media commentary to suggest otherwise, there is no official act that China has taken that suggests that it wishes to act outside the existing international norms that prevail in Antarctica.
China’s interactions and increasing engagement with the various forums of the Antarctic Treaty System are entirely consistent with its obligations under international law and should be welcomed rather than criticised. In engaging in scientific research in Antarctica, China is no different to any other state.
The media love a good story about conflict – narratives of contest, competition and potential clashes attract readers. But much of what is portrayed in the media does not match reality. Nonetheless, in coming decades it will be important that the newly emerging actors, as well as states with a long history of engagement with Antarctica, continue to operate within the system of governance that has grown up under the Antarctic Treaty and its associated treaties and protocols.
The interests of all states lie in maintaining and strengthening international law. Australia as a state with a long history of active engagement in polar affairs will have a vital role to play in developing and strengthening these frameworks.
David Leary is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney and has published widely on International Law Antarctica and the Arctic. In January 2016 he will travel to Antarctica.
For the original article published on the Australian Institute of International Affairs website, click here.
Story by: Dr David Leary
Photo: Australian Institute of International Affairs
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