SYDNEY: Australia on Tuesday announced plans to boost its presence and surveillance operations on Antarctica, unveiling a US$575 million package designed to match China’s growing interest in the pole.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the ten-year funding plan would give Australia “eyes on Antarctica” — by increasing the country’s ability to survey and monitor the frozen tundra and surrounding waters using drones, helicopters and autonomous vehicles.
Australia has territorial claims on 42% of Antarctica, the largest of any nation, but has lacked the capability to reach far-flung corners of the continent.
There has been concern in Canberra that the void could be exploited by Beijing or Moscow, both of which are becoming more active on the continent.
Nearly half of Australia’s new funding will be spent on capabilities to move around inland areas, map Antarctica’s remote east from the air using drones and purchase of four new medium-lift helicopters.
There are also a handful of environmental projects in the announcement, including US$5 million for research into climate change’s impact on Antarctic ice sheets and supporting Pacific nations in monitoring rising sea levels.
Morrison refused to be drawn on his specific concerns about China’s growing interest in Antarctica beyond saying, “They don’t share the same objectives as Australia does.”
China has built two year-round stations on Antarctica and its spending on Antarctic programmes has steadily increased.
But Beijing’s footprint is dwarfed by the US, which maintains the largest presence in Antarctica with about 1,400 personnel staffing its three all-year stations in summers before the pandemic.
The influential Australian Strategic Policy Institute recently warned in a report that Antarctica has become a venue for “geopolitical competition” and recommended steps to uphold a ban on military and mining activities.
Evan Bloom, the report’s author and a Polar expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, noted that while China and Russia are “heedless at times of calls to compromise” it was important for the US and Australia to “carefully manage relations with strategic competitors”.
He said when it comes to the management of Antarctica, co-operation remained vital.
“Excluding China from science cooperation has the danger of giving credence to those within the Chinese Government who wish to argue that the ATS [Antarctic Treaty System] doesn’t benefit it and doesn’t deserve a long-term commitment,” Bloom said.