Australia Must Keep ‘Eyes Wide Open’ on China’s Antarctic Claim

May 14, 2020 Updated: May 21, 2020

A Canberra-based defence think tank is warning the federal government to take a more proactive approach to engaging the Chinese communist regime in Antarctic affairs as future interests over the icy continent may “diverge.”

On April 27, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a new report titled “Eyes Wide Open” that outlines China’s ambitions for the continent, and how they could potentially conflict with Australia’s.

Anthony Bergin, a co-author of the report, told The Epoch Times that Australia was the main country to “get China into the Antarctic system” and has supported it with training and logistics support via Tasmania.

“However that was all predicated on the idea that its much better to have the Chinese in the system, than outside it. But we have to be careful we’re not being seduced into assuming positive outcomes will result,” he said.

Australia currently has a territorial claim over 42 percent of Antarctica and operates four research stations there.

The CCP’s Antarctic Expansion

The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) established in 1961 is a key agreement governing international relations on the continent. The treaty is considered one of the most “successful sets of international agreements” because it has relied on the goodwill and peaceful cooperation between nations to uphold.

In 1983, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ratified the treaty, since then it has been steadily expanding its footprint on the continent.

Currently, the regime has four research stations on the continent, despite having no territorial claim, and is building a new one. It operates two Antarctic icebreaker research vessels.

China's 31th Antarctic exploration team
China’s 31th Antarctic exploration team aboard the icebreaker ‘Snow Dragon’ returns to Waigaoqiao dock in Shanghai, China, on April 10, 2015. (VCG via Getty Images)

The regime is also building what it claims to be the largest krill ship in the world for Antarctic fishing, with several more already in construction. China has also invested heavily in Antarctic tourism, becoming one of the largest tourist markets for the continent.

The CCP, along with Russia, is simultaneously mounting a claim for the Arctic in the northern hemisphere, ratcheting up tensions with the United States, Canada, and Finland.

Disrupting International Cooperation

Bergin said there were plenty of “blinking, yellow lights” around China’s involvement in Antarctic affairs. One issue has been its disruption to international decision-making, which traditionally focused on scientific research and conservation.

“China, as well as Russia, sees the continent through the lens of development and extraction,” he said. “Long term, it sees (Antarctica) has the capability of being exploited. Now, that can be in bioprospecting, fisheries, tourism, and minerals, etc.”

Epoch Times Photo
A Gentoo pinguin bites a gopro camera in Orne Harbour, Antarctic, on March 05, 2016. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images)

“Our judgement was Australia’s interest and China’s over the longer term will diverge,” said Bergin.

Last year, at a meeting for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), Australia tabled a proposal to establish a conservation zone for wildlife protection. However, the bid was rejected by China and Russia. This was the eighth time such a bid was rejected, with China or Russia opposing the measure.

Tony Press, former head of the Australian Antarctic Division told the ABC that the outcome of the 2019 meeting raised questions over why Russia and China had the authority to veto such decisions.

He said, “It raises questions about the behaviour of parties in ignoring the views of the vast majority of members.”

According to Bergin, “Australia wants China invested in the rules of the Antarctic Treaty, but my judgement is, China in the long term would prefer to re-write a lot of the rules.”

Military-Civil Fusion Doctrine Cause For Concern

The CCP’s doctrine of military-civil fusion was introduced by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which mandated Chinese civilian technologies could be repurposed for military use if needed.

The U.S. State Department has expressed concerns with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning the Silicon Valley Leadership Group earlier this year about the doctrine.

Berger said, “There’s absolutely no reason why Antarctica would be immune from this doctrine.”

“Particular technologies, particular pieces of scientific research, could be morphed into part of a bigger system. It’s not so much we would expect a direct military threat from Antarctica,” he said.

“Drones, remote submersible systems, satellite technologies that the Chinese are using in Antarctica, some of the experiences using them could be valuable for military purposes elsewhere.”

Epoch Times Photo
View of China’s base in the King George island in Antarctica, on March 13, 2014. (Vanderlei Almeida/AFP via Getty Images)

Berger recommended Australia regularly inspect Chinese stations and involve the defence department. He conceded that Australia was in the dark regarding the CCP’s long term intentions around its technologies.

“We don’t know, we haven’t made any systematic and regular effort to find out the nature of how Chinese science might have military applications.”

Academics have pointed out that Antarctica could be useful for various surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and would assist China’s satellite navigation system BeiDou—a rival to the U.S. GPS system.

The federal government reaffirmed its commitment to Antarctic affairs with the release of a new 10-year strategic plan on April 26. The plan is underpinned by a $2.8 billion (US$1.8 billion) commitment and will provide a framework around scientific research, environmental management, and human interaction.