The Antarctic Treaty is sixty years old this year. While there may not be such heated international disputes over the South Pole as there are over the North Pole, the competition between the world powers is still in evidence there. The situation today of each country trying to expand its influence in the Antarctic is reminiscent of the state of play in the Arctic a decade ago. Once again, China has been the most dynamic power in recent years, and is developing its partnership with Russia in the Antarctic to strengthen its position in its growing confrontation with the United States.

The Antarctic, which as well as the continent of Antarctica includes the waters of three adjoining oceans and the islands located there, has always attracted the attention of the world powers. Australia, Argentina, the UK, New Zealand, Norway, France, and Chile have all laid claim to individual parts of the Antarctic, with territorial disputes over this vast area threatening to erupt into a major international conflict last century.

The tension was reduced in 1959, when twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty declared that Antarctica should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes, and that all disputes over territorial sovereignty should be set aside. The treaty has now been signed by fifty-four countries.

The original treaty has since been enhanced by several important additional agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System. One of these is the Protocol on Environmental Protection (1991), also known as the Madrid protocol, which prohibits mining there.

For a long time, the most active nations in the Antarctic were Australia, the United States, European countries, and Russia, but in recent years, an increasingly prominent role has been played by China, which joined the treaty in 1983.

The Antarctic isn’t as important for China as the Arctic, which is closer and offers more opportunities. Still, expanding its presence at the South Pole is another way for China to confirm its status as a truly global power. Beijing is investing in research, infrastructure, and logistics: next year it intends to open its fifth research center there, and also has plans to add a nuclear icebreaker to its current two polar icebreakers.

Officially, China’s purpose in the Antarctic is scientific research, in keeping with the treaty. It also has the second biggest number of Antarctic tourists (about 8,000 people) after the United States (about 27,000). Its main aim right now, however, is fishing for Antarctic krill: it is currently building the world’s biggest krill trawler.

In the long term, Beijing is interested in the Antarctic’s wealth of mineral resources: its deposits of gold, coal, iron ore, copper, zinc, nickel, lead, and—most importantly of all—hydrocarbons. One area of the Ross Sea alone contains an estimated 50 billion barrels of oil and over 100 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Beijing understands perfectly that it cannot stake its claims to Antarctic territory for now, and that mineral extraction there will still be banned for a long time to come. For now, there is no public discussion of exploiting Antarctic mineral deposits, but in 2048, the Madrid protocol is due to be reviewed, and it’s unlikely the status quo will remain in place.

There are several possible outcomes. The global energy crisis could prompt countries to allow the extraction of Antarctic resources, which will become more accessible due to global warning. Or a new agreement could be reached, regulating activity in the Antarctic. The current ban may even be reviewed before 2048.

China’s increasing activity is forcing other powers that began exploring the Antarctic much earlier to examine their relationships with Beijing. Australia lays claim to 42 percent of the continent’s territory, and was for a long time Beijing’s main research partner in the region. After Xi Jinping’s visit to Tasmania in 2014, the two sides signed an agreement allowing Chinese expeditions to use the Tasmanian capital Hobart as a gateway to Antarctica.

Another convenient port for the Chinese was Christchurch in New Zealand, but since China’s relations with Australia and New Zealand have deteriorated, the scale of their cooperation in the Antarctic has also diminished.

In 2019, China began talks with Chile on access to the Punta-Arenas port and expressed its interest in the Argentinian port of Ushuaia, which Chinese tourists already pass through on their way to the Antarctic.

China also considers Russia an important ally. In 2017, the two nations’ research institutes signed a memorandum of cooperation in the Antarctic. Two Chinese research stations are located close to Russian facilities, so the two sides agreed to work together to carry out certain scientific and logistical operations.

Russia and China have also coordinated their positions on regulatory issues, joining forces to veto three proposals to create new marine protected areas off Antarctica in November 2020. (China believes the international community should focus on monitoring existing protected zones in order to assess their impact.)

Australia and its allies view this blocking of initiatives and other Russian-Chinese actions as eroding the decisionmaking process under the Antarctic Treaty. These tests of the treaty’s resilience are the cause of some concern in Canberra.

Australia has other reasons to be unhappy. Back in 2013, China proposed creating a new special area around its Kunlun station, which is located in the Australian sector. China insists that this 20,000 square meter area requires “higher security,” because of its “significant scientific, ecological, and logistical value.”

Beijing also proposes coordinating activities in this new area. Its plan would divide the territory into several zones, in the largest of which—the Clean Air Zone—transit would be forbidden, along with flights and the erection of permanent constructions. While informal discussions of this initiative in 2013–2017 were inconclusive, if Beijing obtains approval for even a truncated version of its plan, this will confirm its increased influence within the Antarctic Treaty.

Another nation watching the growth of Chinese activity in the region with alarm is the United States. If ten years ago China lagged significantly behind the Americans in terms of both financing its Antarctic program and the number of staff at its research stations, now it has almost caught up in most respects. Work on modernizing U.S. infrastructure, meanwhile, has been put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s a popular opinion in the United States that the present situation in the Antarctic resembles that in the Arctic a decade ago. General Charles Q. Brown Jr., the Air Force chief of staff, has said he believes the South Pole “is just a number of years” away from being the same kind of focal point of competition with Russia and China that the Arctic is now. 

The United States and its allies will likely continue to put forward proposals for new marine protected areas. In a ministerial joint declaration on April 28 following a meeting on the designation of Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean, fifteen countries including the United States, UK, and several EU countries reaffirmed their commitment to establishing a system of protected areas, and stated they were joining efforts to continue to build consensus on the proposals.

In the meantime, it cannot be said that there are no areas of common interest among the world powers in the Antarctic. When pushing for the establishment of a marine park in the Ross Sea, the United States went to some lengths to secure the support of China and Russia. One of those involved in the negotiations was then secretary of state John Kerry, who has now been appointed a special presidential envoy for climate. The Antarctic could therefore still become a rare area of cooperation amid the current conflict-ridden relationship between the great powers.

This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.

  • Natalia Azarova