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Australia's Antarctic spending surge is extravagant, un-strategic and poorly targeted

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2022

On 22 February PM Morrison announced $804.4 million in additional investment on Australia's Antarctic territories over the next ten years.  The stated reason is "to strengthen our strategic and scientific capabilities in Antarctica"...and "provide more opportunities for local businesses.......especially in Tasmania.”

There are also the unstated motives.  The main one is to resist China's expanding presence in the Antarctic and a possible future land-grab.  It is also obvious that the Government (to a lesser extent) seeks to pork-barrel Tasmania in order to gain votes in the coming federal election.

According to the PM, “The money we are investing in drone fleets, helicopters and other vehicles will enable us to explore areas of East Antarctica’s inland that no country has ever been able to reach before.....My government will continue to back our world-class scientists and expeditioners.....because their critically important to Australia’s future".  (The reason why such research is "critically important" has never been explained.)


Antarctica was originally the ultimate "Terra Nullius", and Australia lays claim to 42 per cent of the continent.  Our claim is largely the legacy of a British one, that was transferred to Australia in 1933.  The catch is that only four other countries, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, and Norway, recognise Australia's claim.  The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), based in Tasmania administers the area, primarily by maintaining three year-round stations: Mawson, Davis, and Casey, and employs about 300 full-time staff.

Sovereignty on the continent is fraught, and provides an opening for other countries interested in staking a claim.  The Chinese and (to a lesser extent) the Russians have shown an increasing interest in Antarctica.  There is a long history on the part of Australia of Antarctic cooperation with China.  Last year, China built its fifth research station base in Australia’s territory and is now suspected of wanting to subvert the Antarctic Treaty by exploiting fisheries and tourism, and, possibly, by mining the continent or using it for military purposes.

One wonders whether, if the positions were reversed and China was the country with a historic claim on Antarctica, would China would be tolerant of Australian bases?  China’s activities in the South China Sea point to Beijing’s willingness to ignore international law, when it identifies a compelling reason to do so.

China actually condemned Morrison's plans to boost its scientific and strategic presence in Antarctica.  It claimed Australia’s multimillion-dollar plan was part of the “Morrison government’s anti-China agenda” and was driven by “hostility toward China.”

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty bans mining, protects fisheries, and stipulates the continent can only be used for scientific and peaceful purposes, and promotes cooperation between countries.  The treaty did not deny or support the territorial claims of the 12 signatories.  (China was not one of them.).  A protocol to the 1959 treaty was signed in 1991.  It banned mineral and oil exploration for 50 years and included regulations for the protection of the Antarctic environment.

The tenuous nature of Australia's hold on its Antarctic territories coupled with our commitment to use the territory exclusively for research and conservation purposes means two things:


·       The first is that Australia may never get an economic return from its claimed Antarctic territories.  [That said, this is not sufficient reason for abandoning our claim to such a large expanse of territory.  It does, however, suggest that we should be prudent in our spending.]

·       The second is that it is difficult for Australia is to assert sovereignty because of weak support in international law.  Australia also has a weak military compared with major powers so that Australia would struggle to defend its Antarctic claim or exclude occupation by other potential claimants.  [In this context it is worth noting that Britain in 1948 had conflict with Argentina and Chile, involving token gunfire from the British navy, over claims to Antarctica by these countries.]

So what is un-strategic about what Australia proposes to do?  In my opinion the problem is that spending large amounts of money on "research" on the Antarctic mainland is unlikely to achieve much.  We should instead pay more attention to our sub-Antarctic external territories, where we have a stronger claim and may be able to potentially exploit their economic resources, particularly in marine areas of our exclusive economic zone.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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