60 years of Antarctic Treaty system
The Antarctic Treaty entered into force in 1961 with 12 participating countries. Sixty years later, 54 countries are signatories to the treaty and the various related instruments that make up the Antarctic Treaty system. Will the ATS mark another 60 years in 2081? It actually depends.
Legal Eagles will point out the complex requirements and processes to “get out” of the treaty. Some environmental scientists doubt the Antarctic ice sheet will exist in 2081, and strategy scholars expect major power competition to rewrite the rules of engagement for the resource-rich continent, not claimed. Discussions about the future of ATS are far too caught up in the risk of system failure. Instead, the focus should be on the need to recognize and grasp the coercive elements of Antarctic cooperation and the ingrained nature of gray zone activities on the continent.
Maintaining the ATS continues to be in Australia’s national interest. It offers a great return on investment – a huge claim shelved in perpetuity and no military conflict at the door. But a conflict is underway in Antarctica; indeed, the activity of the gray zone is a characteristic of the continent. And not only does ATS facilitate gray area threats, Australia’s national security settings fail to handle them.
Gray zone activities are actions taken by state or non-state actors that are coercive, undesirable, and even undermining, but which fall outside of war. Strategic competition is now facilitated by new technologies and non-traditional security threats, which promote the normalization of gray zone activities.
Antarctica, sidelined as “silo” from strategic competition elsewhere and “protected” by ATS, is an environment in which gray-zone countryside thrives. Examples include dual-use technology that can be applied in scientific and military contexts, and Russian fishing vessels usurping their position to signal that they are not in protected Antarctic waters. (Of course, one could argue that marine protected areas are also an extension of some claimants’ territorial ambitions – a charge often leveled against Australia.)
Subversion, deception and sophisticated interpretations of international legal norms in Antarctica all become hallmarks of ATS. We tend to praise the cooperation between the Antarctic nations, mainly because the ATS remains standing. However, this cooperation can be instrumentalized to thwart the consensual nature of the ATS and the long-term protectionist foundations of the treaty. This gray area element of ATS is kind of a nasty problem. Actions below the threshold of war do not violate the rules agreed upon in Antarctica and are undertaken by liberal democratic states as much as by autocratic revisionist states.
ATS facilitates gray zone activity because the contours of peacetime and wartime, and conceptions of security threats and acts that constitute militarization, are different today from what they were 60 years ago. And they will be different again in 60 years. ATS ‘current status quo approach is perhaps more of a concern than a total system failure. The collapse of the ATS would at least see Canberra craft resolute responses and act upon them (after a delicate discussion with Washington, which does not recognize Australia’s Antarctic Territory).
I see three possible avenues for actively protecting national interests in Antarctica. First, we could strengthen the ATS. This could involve the insertion of new rules of engagement, the clarification of permitted and prohibited activities in terms relevant to the 2020s, or the establishment of ATS enforcement mechanisms. The second avenue is to relax the ATS. The parties would agree to disagree but establish tangible rules of engagement (such as caps on resource extraction) or establish regulators with a hard stick. A final option would be to completely change the system and push for the elusive status of the United Nations World Park for Antarctica. By not considering these strategic alternatives and failing to take leadership in the future history of Antarctica, Canberra could face a “power versus law” scenario in 2081.
To bring the ATS to 2081, a lot of national policy work needs to be done. The Australian government has already issued some signals which suggest a slight change in the strategic conceptions of Antarctica. For example, the 2013 Defense White Paper stated: “There is no credible risk that Australia’s national interests in the Southern Ocean and Australia’s Antarctic Territory will be challenged in a way that could. require substantial military responses over the next decades ”. In the 2016 Defense White Paper, it became: “Australia’s Antarctic Territory runs no credible risk of being challenged in a way that requires a substantial military response for at least the next decades.”
Significantly, the 2016 statement clarified that a military response to protect our interests in Antarctica is now on the agenda. There is no doubt that policymakers will focus on the dismal state of our defense capabilities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Without the means (we rely on the French to carry out a large part of our search and rescue responsibilities in the Southern Ocean) or adequate sustainment plans, it would be a short battle.
Immediate political work should focus on normalizing Australia’s national interests in the region. Geographically, policy makers have made this task even more difficult; last year’s defense white papers and strategic defense update prioritize the north east asian sector of our region. Our Indo-Pacific strategy also appears to miss the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, although this is a link between the two theaters and a key part of the US Indo-Pacific Command’s strategic command. We must also communicate our national strategic interests in Antarctica and clearly explain how the maintenance and functionality of ATS responds to those interests.
While the 2016 Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20-Year Action Plan underlines our interest in supporting a strong ATS and in maintaining the absence of strategic and political confrontation while preserving sovereignty over Australian Antarctic territory, it does not establish a clear strategy. The policy defines our ideal course of action and defines our interests. But the strategy is more about deliberate actions that use all political, military, diplomatic and economic tools to advance national interests. A good strategy will be effectively shaped by the international system to respond to changes when they occur, whether tomorrow or in 2081.
For now, Australia’s Antarctic policy appears to be stuck in the Romantic Era of Conquest. In contrast, the strategy of another enthusiastic Antarctic player, Russia, is above all to ensure national security, facilitate economic development and strengthen Russian identity. Of course, it should be noted that these ends for Moscow can be achieved by delaying the ATS, without undermining it.
The absence of conflict does not mean the absence of coercive strategies in Antarctica. The absence of the elements of coercion and the conception of cooperation as a static concept puts stakeholders at risk of strategic appeasement. Supporting ATS serves collective national interests, but these are not necessarily conciliatory.
It is not all pessimistic; ATS could still celebrate its 60th anniversary. But to get to 2081, the treaty and self-proclaimed ruling states like Australia must accept that maintaining the ATS will embolden gray zone activity. Whether these activities serve to undermine the system this year or 2048 or 2081, at the very least we must recognize that ATS is a low-cost and very cost-effective solution that allows and legitimizes the access and presence of China and Russia on one of the most strategic continents in the world.
Antarctica can be both the home of a functioning ATS and a high-powered political sphere in which gray zone activities proliferate. Australia needs a real strategy to be competitive. Maybe then we’ll celebrate another 60 years.