The inhabitable regions of the earth, the North and the South pole are now a point of contention among the global powers including the US, China and Russia. Amid the pandemic, when the US is cutting back and delaying its Antarctic activities, China and Russia are silently expanding its operations.
“China’s interest in Antarctica is not limited to the short term” or “shaped by scientists,” says Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The continent is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System which was signed in Washington on December 1, 1959. According to the treaty, the continent should be used for peaceful purposes like promoting scientific research.
The treaty prohibits Antarctica to be used for military purposes like the establishment of military bases or weapons testing. However, experts say that “Russia and China were using the guise of scientific research to stake a further claim on the continent”.
According to Jennings, unlike other countries, China’s intention might be to lay claim on the continent for its minerals and military advantages.
With collapsing economies around the world due to the COVID-19 situation, most of the countries including Australia have started limiting its operations in Antarctica. Australia is one of the major players with dedicated spending of $190 million in its Antarctic Program for 2020-21.
The US National Science Foundation, which earmarked $488 million of its 2019–20 budget for the arctic regions, said that “there will no doubt be implications for the next austral-summer field season,” according to Stephanie Short, the NSF’s point person for the Antarctic.
On the other hand, the Chinese company Shanghai Chonghe Marine Industry has ordered Antarctic krill trawler which will be the largest one ever built and will be completed by 2023. Krill (a small fish specie) is food for many Arctic sea creatures and is also used as oil and feed in China.
It has suffered a drastic population decline which is a serious threat for the Arctic ecosystem. China’s “fishing expeditions” are a threat to such an ecosystem. Experts fear that “fishing is a proxy for minerals” because the treaty prohibits any mining activities on the continent. Russia and China both want this condition to be relaxed.
Russia remains active in the arctic region just like China. In February, Russia announced a seismic survey in the area, the purpose of which is to assess the offshore oil and gas potential of the area using the latest technology.
This is likely to create a geopolitical conflict with the rest of the signatories of the treaty. Even though geological surveys have been carried out for decades but unlike Moscow, no country has ever explicitly admitted the hunt for oil and gas.
“The Antarctic has always been a place where countries can put aside their political differences in the interests of peace and science and so to endanger that, would be extremely unfortunate at a time when there is so much geopolitical conflict,” said Claire Christian, the executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC).
In April, the Russian navy’s research vessel Admiral Vladimirsky arrived at the continent purportedly to identify the location of the South Magnetic Pole’s point. “We might yet see a Russian flag plant in the South Pole, mirroring the 2007 Arctic-seabed PR stunt,” said Elizabeth Buchanan of Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Science, Australia. She added that such missions are a way to show Russia’s “global relevance and international reach in polar regions”.
The US has been struggling with the presence of Russia and China in the arctic for decades. “The capabilities that we have in the Arctic are the same capabilities that we probably want to have in the Antarctic. And when I look at the competition, and the melting ice in the Arctic, and the competition with both Russia and China … we’ve got to pay attention to that,” said Pacific Air Forces commander Gen.
Charles Q. Brown. Pentagon has warned the risk of strengthened military presence in the arctic region including the deployment of submarines to act as deterrents against nuclear attack.
Even at a time when China and Russia have been struggling with the effects of the pandemic, they have not put brakes on current or future projects in the Antarctic.
This reasonably confirms their seriousness towards the demonstration of supremacy in the polar regions. China is already facing a global backlash over its handling of COVID-19. Jennings questioned that “How viable is that hope after [China’s] duplicitous and damaging handling of the virus. I believe that in the long term the [Chinese Communist] Party would take a similar approach to Antarctica.”