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Antarctica: geopolitical and economic importance

This article was initially published in the Security and Land Power Journal
Vol. 2 N.° 2 (2023): April – June
DOI: https://doi.org/10.56221/spt.v2i2.25


Summary

In the international context, many governments demand recognition of the occupation of certain territorial spaces, within the framework of international law and agreements. For example, Argentina was the first country (1904) to claim sovereignty and establish a permanent base in Antarctica. However, the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, introduced a political governance regime that required the development of strategies and policies designed to ensure freedom of scientific research and international cooperation. The Antarctic region is important for geopolitical and economic reasons. Notable resources include the abundance of edible algae, more than 200 species of fish, and the discovery of iron and copper. Finally, its geographic location allows for air communications, via intercontinental transpolar routes.

Keywords: Antarctica, Sovereignty, Antarctic Treaty, Geopolitics, Natural Resources, Communication.

Introduction

Despite the new geopolitical dynamics and characteristics of the post-Cold War period and the rise of globalization, there are sovereign claims over specific territorial spaces where the State plays a leading role with respect to territorial possession and control. An example of this is the Antarctic region, as there are requests for sovereign recognition (some of them overlapping, as is the case of Argentina, Chile and Great Britain), all of which are frozen in their status quo, as a result of the Antarctic Treaty established in 1959, which has been in force since 1961.

On the other hand, its geopolitical and economic relevance is due to its natural and strategic resources for many world economies, access to cosmic space and global maritime communication networks, the contribution to the stewardship and promotion of the environment, as well as the advancement of scientific studies, among other aspects.

Antarctica and the Antarctic

The word Antarctica derives from the Greek terms anti (the opposite of) and arktos (the bear). South Africa, Australia and South America are located around it, and it is surrounded by the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans.[1]

On the other hand, the term Antarctic also includes the maritime regions, “whose external limit is found in the Antarctic Convergence, a circumpolar line of encounter between the polar waters, of lower temperature and higher density, and the less dense and more temperate waters of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans”, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of the Republic of Argentina. Likewise, Antarctica covers an area of nearly 14,000,000 km² and only 1% of this territory is ice-free. Therefore, it is considered the coldest and driest continent, with the largest reserve of fresh water in the world.[2]

In order to analyze the importance of this geographic space, the following division will be made; however, they function interconnectedly in practice:

Sovereign Claims and the Antarctic Treaty System. In the international context, state governments claim the recognition of possession over certain territorial spaces, within the framework of what is established by public international law and international agreements. In this sense, Argentina establishes its sovereignty over the so-called “Argentine Antarctic Sector”, determined by the 60º S parallel and the South Pole, and the 25th and 74th meridians of west longitude.

Argentina was the first country to establish a permanent base, declaring its sovereignty in 1904. In this way, the Orcadas base is configured, in the region, as the oldest Antarctic scientific station in operation.

This historical claim is joined by Chile, Great Britain (both countries dispute part, or all of the territory claimed by Argentina), France, Australia, New Zealand and Norway. The last four countries do not have overlapping claims in terms of area. This scenario can be seen in the following graph:

Klaus Dodds pointed out that, under the rules of international law, only if occupation was proven can sovereignty be claimed.[3] In addition, María Salazar Urrutia mentions that Chile and Argentina have all the historical, geographical and legal rights to claim sovereignty over the continent, according to the sources of international law. However, the Antarctic Treaty imposed on them a political regime of international governance that forced them to define strategies and policies in a double dimension: “as protectors of their sovereign rights on the continent and as promoters of cooperation, governance and multilateralism with other members of the system”, she added.[4]

It should be mentioned that 35 other countries have made claims, such as Germany, Brazil, China, the United States, India and Russia, among others, which have permanent bases on the white continent, in a space that has not been claimed so far. In this sense, the semi-open nature of the treaty established that the twelve signatory countries accepted the systematic participation of other non-state actors in the method of governance, which currently has 54 member states, as well as other non-governmental organizations.

The Antarctic Treaty System. To safeguard the freedom of scientific research and international cooperation, in 1959, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union signed the Antarctic Treaty. This document establishes other aspects such as:

  • No new claims to sovereignty in Antarctica shall be made while it is in force, nor shall existing claims be extended.
  • The treaty safeguards the position of the claimant states and establishes a link with the regions that maintain their claims.
  • Countries party to the treaty have the right to conduct inspections of other states’ Antarctic facilities (bases, equipment, ships, and aircraft).
  • The execution of nuclear tests and radioactive waste in Antarctica is prohibited, as well as the development of any military activity. The exception is the logistic support provided to scientific research works, among others, with peaceful objectives.
  • As can be seen, the Antarctic Treaty stopped the sovereign claims and disputes of the claimant countries in the framework of the Cold War and, in its place, built a set of legal and political norms that guarantee a global governance for peaceful and scientific purposes. Other conventions that form the Antarctic Treaty system are also added, such as:
  • Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty on Environmental Protection (Madrid, 1991).
  • Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (London, 1988).
  • Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (Canberra, 1980).

It is worth mentioning the thinking on globalization and the formation of political structures that establish worldwide links defined by Modelski, who argues that organization at the international level evolves over time, through global politics conceived as a learning process of a higher order composed of a long cycle.

Likewise, it is a process of globalization that creates political institutions of worldwide scope, which is why the aforementioned treaty and the new structure of political globalization provisionally (or perhaps not) came to overcome sovereign claims over the Antarctic continent.[5] For its part, Argentina -as part of the Antarctic Treaty- had a voice and vote in international agreements and in the conduct of scientific research.

Geoeconomic and Environmental Relevance. An important geographical detail is the strategic role played by the Antarctic Peninsula, since it is the only access option to the continent regardless of the climatic conditions that may arise. Consequently, this area acquires greater importance for the claimant countries and for those who -through alliances with them- intend to increase their presence, such as the Sino-Argentine agreement. At the same time, the proximity with the Southern Cone countries should be considered for issues related to logistics and infrastructure such as food supply, fuel, salvage, campaigns, just to mention a few.

Regarding the economic resources of the polar landmass and the waters of the “Southern Ocean”, [6] Jaime Sepúlveda Cox classified and analyzed them as follows:

Renewables

A wide variety of marine species coexist in the Southern Ocean. In this sense, algae are used for human consumption, mainly in countries such as Japan, Indonesia, China, Mexico and Chile. It is also used in agriculture as a fertilizer, not to mention its use for industrial purposes, as well as to obtain antibiotics.

As for fish, there are more than 200 species, 75% of which are cod. Statistically, its consumption is 15.5 million tons per year, an exploitation that is being regulated by the Convention for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (1982).

Similarly, krill consumption plays an important role in the ecological balance, but its commercial exploitation has been scarce, due to its low commercial value; however, in recent decades, its high nutritional value has catapulted it as an important resource. Thus, the countries that export it are: Australia, Germany, Bulgaria, South Korea, Chile, United States, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Taiwan and Poland.

Non-Renewable Natural Resources

Beyond the technical and technological limitations for their identification and extraction, there are resources such as hydrocarbons, gas, minerals and geothermal energy present in this continent. Iron and copper are the predominant minerals. In the latter case, international prices have increased during the last few months, worldwide.

The United States and Great Britain are developing scientific studies aimed at the search for hydrocarbons. The results, so far, reveal that there are few probabilities of existence in the Antarctic Peninsula.

It is important to point out that, in environmental matters, this white continent is considered a great natural reserve devoted to peace and science.

Strategic Access to Cosmic Space and Others. Following the line of research and reasoning of the Chilean Sepúlveda Cox, this dimension includes the following aspects:[7]

Antarctica’s geographical location allows air communications to be conducted through intercontinental transpolar routes, which minimizes the distance to be traveled. In addition, by bordering the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans, communications converge between Asia, Europe and the West.

Although the Antarctic Treaty prohibits all military activity, in the event of a war situation, the region could direct air strikes, control and disrupt communications, and become a strategic base of operations for combat aircraft.

On the other hand, its center has an immediate communication between the Earth and outer space, becoming relevant in the scientific and political field for countries such as the United States, Russia or China, which started a race for the conquest of space, its respective militarization and the consequent actions related to the defense of their interests.

It is important to emphasize that the current status quo – beyond economic and geopolitical research and estimates – is determined by an international cooperation that conditions many ambitions directly related to the above.

Agnew -analyzing Keohane- argues that “cooperation can take place between states without there being a dominant great power (…) Treaties, agreements and formal international institutions impose limits on the behavior of states because they accept restrictions when the benefits to be gained by doing so outweigh the costs”.[8]

This last concept is enlightening with respect to the regulations, interests and objectives of countries that see their behavior limited in the context of the Antarctic Treaty system and other complementary agreements (at least until the year 2041).

Conclusions

Sovereignty claims, beyond global governance policies between state and non-state actors, were defined with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty during the Cold War, as well as in various conventions that are still in force.

On the other hand, the characteristics and natural resources turn the Antarctic territory into a space of power dispute between large and medium-sized countries due to economic and geostrategic factors. In this context, regardless of the fact that the sixth continent is defined as a zone of peace and exclusively for scientific use, there are nations that have been developing a dual polar policy (internal and external), as is the case of Argentina.

Endnotes:

  1. Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio Internacional y Culto de la República Argentina, “Sobre La Antártida”, Cancilleria (2022), https://cancilleria.gob.ar/es/iniciativas/dna/divulgacion/sobre-la-antartida
  2. Ibid.
  3. Klaus Dodds, “La administración del continente polar: los orígenes geopolíticos del Tratado Antártico de 1959”, Istor (2009), 30, http://www.istor.cide.edu/archivos/num_39/dossier2.pdf,
  4. Miguel Ángel Salazar Urrutia, “La República Popular China en la Antártida y su acercamiento diplomático a Argentina y Chile. En Antártida: la mirada histórica latinoamericana y su proyección pedagógica integral”, Static (2021), 302-322, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5af237831aef1d2dc3807031/t/61bd009e3cfe09013e8c55d6/1639776460271/Ant%C3%A1rtida.+La+mirada+hist%C3%B3rica+latinoamericana.pdf
  5. George Modelski, “Long-Term Trends in World Politics”, Journal of World-Systems Research (2005), 196-198, https://doi.org/10.5195/jwsr.2005.387
  6. Jaime Sepúlveda Cox, “Importancia Geopolítica del Continente Antártico”, Revista Marina de Santiago de Chile (2008), 526-528, https://revistamarina.cl/revistas/2008/6/sepulveda.pdf
  7. Ibid.
  8. John Agnew, “Geopolítica. Una revisión de la política mundial” (Madrid: Temas, 2003).

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The ideas contained in this analysis are the sole responsibility of the author, without necessarily reflecting the thoughts of the CEEEP or the Peruvian Army.

Image: Unsplash

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