Great-Power Competition Comes to Antarctica

After decades of tranquility, the status quo in Antarctica is unraveling. Today, the continent is balancing on the edge of a meltdown—both literal and figurative. Not only is climate change irreversibly changing the continent’s physical environment, but the politics of Antarctica are also rapidly shifting as great-power competition and rising demand for resources have moved it up the global agenda.

China, Iran, and others are pushing the boundaries of what types of activities are sanctioned on the continent and are contemplating future territorial claims. Last fall, Shahram Irani, the commander of the Iranian navy, announced that Tehran had plans to build a permanent base in Antarctica, even going so far as to claim that Iran somehow had “property rights” in the South Pole. Then, in November, China’s largest ever Antarctic fleet arrived with some 460 personnel to build the country’s fifth research station on the continent. They completed their work in three months, and the station opened in February. Under the Antarctic Treaty, which governs activities on the continent, China’s expansion is entirely permissible. That the new station is legal doesn’t stop suspicion from brewing that China’s research stations could house activities with military utility, including for surveillance purposes. Research satellites might track ice shelf shifts on Monday and on Tuesday pivot to mapping force movements in Australia.

The arrival of great-power competition on Antarctic shores would mark a break from a long era in which the continent was a place of international cooperation. The Antarctic Treaty, which entered into force in 1961, prohibits using the continent for military purposes and instead champions scientific cooperation. A series of follow-on agreements, which have come to be known as the Antarctic Treaty System, has succeeded at keeping the continent a neutral international site. But the system is now under greater strain than ever.

Antarctica offers reach into the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. On and offshore, it boasts vast deposits of precious minerals, oil, and natural gas, as well as large krill fisheries. The continent is also central to global communications because it holds the clearest shot to space, as moisture in the air freezes, making Antarctic ground stations crucial for operating satellites.

The current absence of armed conflict in Antarctica has created a false sense of security. Policymakers from countries that support a neutral, peaceful Antarctica seem to assume that cooperation there is a given. In fact, the status quo is fragile. To keep competition for resources at bay, stakeholders must shine a light on Beijing’s destabilizing activities. Public agency and interest in Antarctica need to be strengthened, as this is a critical precondition to supporting the continuance of the rules-based order enshrined by the Antarctic Treaty. But states also need to enhance their footprint (whether through capabilities or funding) in Antarctica, where presence equals power.


Observers have often drawn parallels between Antarctica and the Arctic. The two regions are similar on the surface—extreme ends of the earth, frigid polar climates. They are the subject of interest from the same countries—namely, China, Russia, and the United States. But, crucially, the regions are administered differently: the Arctic does not have a treaty system, while the Antarctic does. Geographically, the Arctic is a maritime domain, whereas Antarctica is a continental landmass.

The Arctic is not part of the global commons; it is a region encircled by undisputed land territories of eight states. During both world wars and the Cold War, the Arctic was a key theater. Since 1996, Arctic governance has been facilitated by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that promotes communication and environmental partnerships. In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Arctic Council members decided to pause their work with the council while Russia served as its chair. The result was the effective disengagement of Russia from Arctic affairs. With the chair rotating to Norway in 2023, activities restarted but without Russia’s participation. In February, it was announced that there would be a gradual resumption of virtual working-group meetings, after some researchers raised alarm over the global implications of the continued absence of Russian Arctic climate data.

Antarctica has not had to weather the same setbacks, thanks to the Antarctic Treaty. It was initially designed to stop Cold War tensions from spilling over to the South Pole by designating Antarctica as a scientific reserve. Unless in the support of scientific ends, military activity and nuclear weapons testing are banned on the continent. Parties to the treaty are required to provide free and fair access to their research stations (and vessels), which are subject to inspection. The rules of the road are well established in the Antarctic, and for the most part, they have succeeded in keeping the continent insulated from geopolitical tensions.

The continent is balancing on the edge of a meltdown—both literal and figurative.

Today, 54 states are party to the Antarctic Treaty, which includes 29 consultative parties with voting rights to Antarctic affairs. Several additional agreements have expanded on the key tenets enshrined in the 1961 treaty: freedom of scientific investigation, research and cooperation, and peaceful use of the continent. A 1998 protocol, for example, officially designated Antarctica as a natural reserve for global peace and science and prohibited mining and other forms of resource extraction, except for scientific research.

The architects of the Antarctic Treaty designed it to continue in perpetuity: it has no expiration date. Should any party wish to amend the treaty, it must gain consensus to open a review conference. This avenue for change has been available since 1991 but never used, suggesting that countries would rather uphold the Antarctic status quo than gamble their stake.

Part of the success of the Antarctic Treaty System is that it skirts the question of sovereignty, effectively allowing parties to agree to disagree. Seven countries have made territorial claimsArgentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom—but all debate over and discussion of their merits was set aside when they signed the Antarctic Treaty. The wording of the treaty creates a unique and artfully crafted holding pattern.


Although the Antarctic Treaty System has kept the region stable for decades, the return of great-power competition is bringing new instability to the South Pole as some countries try to subvert the system. China, for example, built its new research station without submitting the necessary environmental evaluations to treaty members, as required. Russian fishing vessels have spoofed their location in the Southern Ocean in attempts to hide illegal fishing activities in protected waters. These examples of failing to follow various obligations illustrate how states are testing how much they can get away with.

It does not help that there are no enforcement mechanisms that have any teeth to respond to or deter dubious activities. Although the international inspection protocol is supposed to serve this function, the reality is that there are various loopholes in the treaty’s wording that allow states to skirt inspections if they’re required. For example, Russia is known to have made station runways inaccessible and to have switched off station radios to block parties landing to conduct internal inspections. The treaty allows for inspections to be undertaken aerially, as well, which means inspection teams can technically inspect Russian Antarctic stations without stepping inside them.

Gray-zone tactics—activities that occur between peace, cooperation, and conflict or war—take advantage of the ambiguity of the Antarctic Treaty System itself. This ambiguity fostered cooperation during the Cold War, allowing the United States and the Soviet Union to agree to disagree on matters of territorial sovereignty and still expand their footprints on the continent. After the Cold War, the absence of great-power competition placed the Antarctic question on the back burner of global affairs. The United States entered its unipolar moment and Russia was busy rebuilding after the collapse of its empire. But during this period, great-power competition was merely dormant in Antarctica, not put to rest, and today, it is back with a vengeance.

This time, the players are different, with China quickly becoming a capable actor on the continent. China’s ability to construct its own icebreakers – with a rumored nuclear-powered icebreaker set to debut in a few years – sets Beijing apart from the United States and Australia when it comes to Antarctic capability and therefore, power. The United States has two icebreakers – Healy and the Polar Star – which take turns catching fire and are consistently pushed well beyond their expected operational life. Australia, holding the largest sovereign claim to Antarctica, has a single icebreaker, which, although brand new, is unable to currently refuel efficiently at its homeport. Both the United States and Australia find themselves renting icebreakers to prop up their national Antarctic activities.

The return of great-power competition is bringing new instability to the South Pole.

As the lines between scientific research and military activity blur, activities that live in this gray zone are beginning to chip away at the peaceful status quo that has been in place for so long. Vast resources such as fisheries, energy, and fresh water belong to no one country, so countries looking to improve their long game are establishing footholds in permissible scientific research across these sectors so that they are in prime position (having extensively mapped resources on the continent) in the event the system falls apart.

Consider krill fisheries. Some parts of Antarctica’s waters are protected by a convention within the Antarctic Treaty System that sets up protected marine zones. In recent years, China has deployed fleets of so-called super trawlers, large boats that stay at sea for several weeks, to enhance its fishing capacity, and it has used the treaty system to exploit krill fisheries in the name of science. China sees a strategic interest in cornering the global fisheries market, positioning itself to be able to control the flow of global food chains and secure such critical resources for its population. The resource-rich waters of the Southern Ocean that surround Antarctica are certainly ripe for exploitation–and Beijing has put its distant-water fisheries strategy on steroids, increasing its presence in the region.

At a 2021 meeting, China and Russia vetoed the establishment of new marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, with Beijing calling for “further scientific research” to identify the need for such zones. China’s move could be viewed as an effort to frustrate progress in the marine protection sphere, but more likely it is strategic: Beijing would like to know exactly how bountiful in fish these zones are—and continue fishing for so-called research purposes.


Part of the reason Antarctica is vulnerable to strategic competition is that countries already have a scientific presence there that could easily be transformed into a military presence. The United States’ strategic science hub—Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station—straddles all seven frozen territorial claims to the continent. The base hosts up to 150 U.S. personnel to conduct and support scientific research. Further south, in summer, as many as 1,500 U.S. personnel operate at McMurdo Station. A third American station, Palmer, accommodates about 40 U.S personnel. Together, these stations send a strong signal of the United States’ presence on the continent. China also has a history of blending scientific research work with military activity, an approach it has now enshrined in law. Dubbed by the Chinese government “civil-military fusion,” all civilian research activities are now required to have military application or utility for China. This extends to China’s Antarctic footprint.

Although the Antarctic Treaty bans militarization or military deployment south of 60 degrees latitude—covering the whole continent—military personnel and hardware are allowed if they support scientific research objectives. Many countries rely on their militaries to operate in Antarctica. Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States all deploy military assets and personnel on Antarctic research expeditions. China’s and Russia’s militaries also provide logistical support for some national Antarctic missions.

This practice operates entirely within the bounds of the Antarctic Treaty System, but its ambiguity creates clear security implications. Whether personnel are conducting civilian or military operations is difficult to determine. The system operates on trust, presenting a ripe opportunity for abuse. Satellites are a clear example. Systems such as the United States’ GPS, China’s BeiDou, the European Union’s Galileo, and Russia’s GLONASS all rely on Antarctic ground receivers to function. Although these systems are central to scientific research in Antarctica, they have clear military-security applications, too.

China has sought to use Antarctic Treaty System rules to advance its own interests. Consider its approach to Dome Argus, the highest point on the Antarctic continent. The ice dome provides the clearest (and shortest) shot to space, making it the ideal place from which to receive satellite activity. China is free to conduct research on the dome as it does via a research station in the area, but in 2019 it went further, attempting to assert de facto control over the dome. It proposed establishing an Antarctic Specially Managed Area—a zone provided for by the treaty system where a country can restrict and dictate access to (or over) an area. A country is only allowed to establish such a zone if it can prove that subsequent research activities in the same area are undermining its scientific research agenda. China claimed that this was the case, but its request was rejected given that Beijing was the only country carrying out research activities at that time in the area.


The crux of the challenge with Antarctica is enforcement: what is stopping countries from engaging in subversive activities? Although China’s cunning plans for Dome Argus were blocked, the issue will likely come up again. Dome Argus falls in the territory claimed by Australia. Given Canberra’s vital interest in the area, Australia must invest in adequate in-land capabilities to reach the isolated area—including by ski, tractor, and helicopter. Presence is power in the barren wasteland that is Antarctica.

Consensus among all 29 parties—what is needed to open a review conference into the Antarctic Treaty—would be practically impossible. In theory, the review conference mechanism, available to parties since 1991, yet never utilized, could be used to build in enforcement mechanisms, such as fines and bans. But for the foreseeable future, it is hard to imagine the United States and its allies achieving consensus with China and Russia to agree to discuss revisions to the treaty.

That said, there are policies the West can implement on its own to keep more corrosive activities in check. A good place to start would be to hold China to account by highlighting its activities in Antarctica. States should also audit their polar research sectors to ascertain whether they are funding or supporting Chinese state research endeavors. As per the military-civil fusion law, the Chinese government deems any research activity to have military-strategic application potential. Just how much of Beijing’s Antarctic endeavor are Western states naively underwriting? International inspections should be ramped up. Too few inspections occur under the treaty auspices, largely because of a lack of capabilities. States should therefore pool their funding more purposefully and much more regularly to ensure China’s stations are well monitored.

In summer, as many as 1,500 U.S. personnel operate at McMurdo Station.

Where cooperation is working, the United States and others should lean into it. The parts of the Antarctic Treaty System that work well include scientific data sharing among parties and emergency-response collaboration. In 2020, despite Australian-Chinese tensions, the crew of a Chinese icebreaker in Antarctica rescued a sick Australian expeditioner. Indeed, the recent uptick in Antarctic tourism presents opportunities for bolstering cooperation, as states must grapple with the vast environmental effect polar tourism is having. Some 100,000 tourists are expected to converge on the continent this summer, a devastating toll for a fragile ecosystem. Treaty stakeholders came together at the 2023 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and found consensus, despite the war in Ukraine, to develop a framework for Antarctic tourism.

Efforts to subvert the Antarctic Treaty System won’t cause it to implode, but they will cause it to erode. At some point, it could become damaged beyond repair. China, Russia, and the United States should acknowledge they have a common Antarctic threat: a failed treaty system. Today, the treaties in place are facilitating strategic competition in Antarctica by allowing states to execute broad agendas on the continent with little real constraint. China has positioned itself to take advantage of today’s status quo, ready to pounce if the treaty system fails. The rest of the world cannot afford to fall further behind.


You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *