Australia risks being outflanked by China if it continues a complacent attitude towards its Antarctic territory.
Australia must wise up to secret Chinese military activities and the threat of a land grab for resources in Antarctica, a report warns.
Research from defence think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says Australia’s leadership role is being eroded because of long-term under-investment at a time when other countries are expanding their presence and influence in the region.
“China has conducted undeclared military activities in Antarctica, is building up a case for a territorial claim, and is engaging in minerals exploration there,” the report says.
“The calculation that the Australian government has long made in short-changing Antarctic affairs in order to boost activities up north is looking increasingly risky.”
China has ceased being a minor player in the polar regions and is becoming a major actor as a result of a huge budget increase in the past decade. Beijing is operating two icebreakers down south and has a third under construction.
The report, by Anne-Marie Brady, noted three out of four of China’s Antarctic bases and two of its field camps are in the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Australia’s territorial claim in Antarctica spans 42 per cent of the continent.
The report warns China’s expanding presence in Antarctica is aimed at angling for resources including minerals, hydrocarbons, fishing, tourism, transport routes, water and bioprospecting.
“China has never stopped exploring Antarctic mineral resources, despite the requirements of the Madrid Protocol,” the report said.
Exploration activities have stepped up since 2012 including preliminary surveys of coal reserves and investigations of undersea metal deposits.
It’s in Australia’s national interest that Antarctica remains free from military competition, the report argues.
But in recent years China has frequently failed to accurately report the extent of its military’s activities in Antarctica as well as defence use of some of its scientific projects there, which is a breach of the Antarctic Treaty.
“China regards Antarctica as a useful laboratory for preparing for an advanced space program,” the report says.
“The engineering needed to build a modern research station in Antarctica can be applied in many other extreme environments, including space.”
Australia needed to urgently look at its funding priorities in Antarctica to protect its interests and encourage the Chinese to be more transparent about their polar policies.
“With careful diplomacy, a clear-headed strategy and leadership, and strategic investments in capacity, Australia can better manage its economic and political relationship with China while protecting its own national interests in Antarctica,” the report said.