Why Antarctica is of Strategic Significance to the ‘Great Powers’ 

Intrepid traveller Akhil Bakshi writes about geopolitics in the white continent, after a visit to Antarctica. 

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Helicopters delivering fuel to Chile’s González Videla Base on Antarctic Peninsula.
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The Antarctic Treaty, first signed in 1959, now has 53 signatories who have agreed to suspend territorial claims and disputes, to forgo all military and mining activity, to protect the Antarctic environment and to preserve the continent as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and to science”.

Soon after it was signed, under the pretext of conducting scientific research, nations began to eclipse each other in building bases on various parts of the continent, establishing a toehold that would allow them to exploit natural resources that may be discovered in the future.

Rough estimates place total Antarctic oil reserves between 50 billion to 203 billion barrels, while natural gas reserves are projected at 106 trillion cubic feet. Thirty-two resource-hungry countries are now operating 75 permanent research stations and around 30 temporary ones in Antarctica.

Growing Chinese Presence in Antarctica: A Spot of Bother for the West

In November and December of 2018, I peeked at several of these scientific stations on board Aquiles, an ageing Chilean naval vessel, in South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula. Entering Fildes Bay, we sailed past South Korea’s expansive King Sejong Station, that purports to undertake experiments on the origins and evolution of solar winds and conduct geological and biological research. Not a soul was in sight. We anchored opposite the Chinese Great Wall Station and Russia’s Bellingshausen Station. Though they strive to find answers to climate change, both stations seemed to be deserted.

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Nevertheless, China has a growing presence in Antarctica that worries the west. China’s Arctic and Antarctic administration’s five-year plan seeks to enhance the country’s status and influence and protect its ‘polar rights”. China will soon have five stations in Antarctica, only one less than USA.

It has given Chinese names to over 350 sites. Though the Protocol on Environmental Protection bans mining until 2048, the Chinese are unambiguous about their aim to acquire the unknown resources of Antarctica once the ban is reviewed. China’s White Paper on Antarctic Activities, published in May 2017 by the Ministry of Natural Resources describes Antarctica as “a new space of global environment and resources that is of great significance to the process of human development.”

Author Akhil Bakshi on an icefield in Antarctic Peninsula
Author Akhil Bakshi on an icefield in Antarctic Peninsula
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)

Chinese Ambitions in the White Continent

In November 2018, China, Russia, Ukraine and Norway ganged up to block the creation of a marine reserve four times the size of Germany that would have prohibited fishing in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. China has announced that it will increase its harvest of krill from the Antarctic Ocean to two million tonnes a year and has begun building ships required for the carnage.

China’s Great Wall Station on King George Island, Antarctica 
China’s Great Wall Station on King George Island, Antarctica 
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)
Soon, factory-sized vessels will be sailing in to vacuum up the krills on which the Antarctic penguins, whales and seals depend for sustenance.

China has commissioned the construction of a prodigious nuclear-powered icebreaker to be deployed in the Arctic – as the Antarctic Treaty forbids nuclear ships in the region. This will enable it to release two other ice breakers – Xue Long 1 and Xue Long 2 – for dedicated Antarctic duty. China is also building a 4,900-foot all-weather runway 17 miles from its Zhongshan Station.

Antarctica’s Strategic Significance for the Big Powers

Lately, the Russians have been asserting themselves in the Antarctic. They have sent in their navy after thirty years under the pretext of conducting hydrographic surveys for improving the mapping of the sea. It so happens that hydrographic surveying is also conducted for exploring offshore oil.

In its 2010-2020 Antarctic Strategy, Russia has blatantly stated its intent to “strengthen the economic capacity of Russia… through complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon, and other natural resources”. The Russians are constructing more runways to provide year-round logistical support to their stations. Two new ice-breakers and planes designed for the Antarctic weather are also on the drawing board.

Russian Orthodox Church in Bellingshausen Station
Russian Orthodox Church in Bellingshausen Station
(Photo: Akhil Bakshi)
Suspecting a long-term Russian and Chinese strategy for controlling the Antarctic resources, USA has responded by announcing a USD 2 billion plan for new ice-breakers that will strengthen their military infrastructure in the region. The interest of the big powers is not limited to the possible resources obtainable, but also the continent’s strategic significance. 

Having a ground station near the South Pole can increase the accuracy of global satellite navigation systems – and the precision of their missiles hitting the target. Slowly, but surely, Antarctica is being militarised under the guise of scientific research.

Commendable Scientific Research Continues Amid Geopolitical Games

Despite the geopolitical games being played on the white continent, some worthy scientific research is going on too. Our ship had two dozen young and anxious scientists on board who had to be dropped off at various Chilean bases to collect samples and conduct studies.

The foreign scientists – from Norway, USA, Germany and South Africa - were guests of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH) that seeks to “strengthen and increase the influence of Chile in the Antarctic Treaty System, thus promoting its interests as an Antarctic country”.

INACH has scientific cooperation agreements and MOUs with several countries and is an integral element of Chile’s foreign policy and Antarctic strategy. Their efforts to promote international cooperation in scientific research and to advance Chile’s broader national interests merit respect.

Military Support to Scientists in Antarctica

At the Chilean army base ‘General Bernardo O'Higgins’ on the Antarctic Peninsula, where nature was bulldozing sheets of ice into the ocean, Adélie penguins share space with soldiers and scientists. The penguins had warmly greeted the humans when they first arrived – just as the Red Indians had welcomed the migrating Europeans. But now, as more of their habitat is being taken away for constructing “scientific research stations”, they view humans with considerably less affection.

Chile’s base General Bernardo O’Higgins on Antarctic Peninsula
Chile’s base General Bernardo O’Higgins on Antarctic Peninsula
(Photo Courtesy: Akhil Bakshi)
The military backs up the scientists, makes their life as comfortable as possible – thus ensuring a constant flow of researchers to their territory, deepening their country’s roots.

Indian Scientific Research in Antarctica

India has two research stations – Maitri and Bharati. Indian research in Antarctic focuses on prediction of monsoon and cyclones, and on environment monitoring. The melting of Antarctica due to global warming – and the consequent rise in sea levels – will adversely affect all countries with a coastline.

A one-metre rise in sea levels will result in 20 percent of Bangladesh being inundated and 30 million people displaced.

The mass migration of people from the coast and submerged islands across the world will lead to fresh social and political problems.

As of now, politics is heating up Antarctica more than climate change.

(Akhil Bakshi is the author of Arctic to Antarctic: A Journey Across the Americas. This is This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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