Is Australia in for a Spratly-style showdown in Antarctica?

By on 21 August, 2017

The Aurora Australis is Australia’s Antarctic flagship. Image credit: Sandra Zicus.


China’s activity within the Australian Antarctica Territory (AAT) has the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) seething. The ASPI has issued a report on the activities and what they believe to be the future direction China intends to take in the Antarctic. These activities, they say, are at odds with Australia’s strategic interests, and possible in breach of international law.

The Australian claim to Antarctic territory dates back to the 1930s when Douglas Mawson formally took possession of the territory for the British crown in 1930. The territory was later transferred to Australia in 1933.

Australia currently maintains and operates three permanent, year-round research stations on Antarctica and one on Macquarie Island. The Mawson station was established in 1954 and is the longest continuously operating station in Antarctica.

China’s questionable behaviour within Antarctica, according to ASPI, includes undeclared military activities and mineral exploration. The ASPI report, which you can download here, referred to several Chinese documents quantifying Antarctica’s mineral and fossil fuel resources, clearly indicating China holds a significant body of research on the topic. While military presence is forbidden by the Antarctica treaty, and mineral exploitation by the Madrid protocol, exploration and scientific research is not, regardless of the objective. The concern is that the exploitation ban could be overturned in 2048 and China would be ready to pounce. Irreverent, perhaps, but not illegal.

China seeks Australian Antarctic Territory

Australia’s territorial claim to Antarctica is the largest in the world and includes almost 6 million square kilometres.


China has been exploring Antarctica since the 1980s and currently has three stations, three airfields and two field camps. They are rapidly expanding their presence in a triangle-shaped area within the AAT that they call the ‘East Antarctic Sector’, and have stated in policy documents that China reserves the right to make a claim in Antarctica.

Does China have a valid claim to territory?

The treaty, of which China is a signatory, stipulates that new claims can’t be made based on activities that have occurred since the treaty was originally put into place. This, however, does not stop counties from making claims, including Australia.

Australia’s Antarctic territorial claims are the largest of any country, totalling nearly 6 million km2, which they have tried to expand to include the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) defined in the 1982 United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Because this claim to the EEZ came after the Antarctic treaty, some countries have chosen to ignore it (e.g., Japan).

Antarctic analysts are saying that Australia’s lack of investment and ambivalent attitude towards their Antarctica program, coupled with the continent’s classification by most legal academics as terra nullius, entities like China have a valid pathway to secure their own legal claim to the world’s second largest island continent. And China is no stranger to claiming islands.


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