top of page

Antarctica – A Geopolitical Success Story?

By Joseph Dwyer

International Affairs Analyst

Port Lockroy, Antarctica | Credit Shimmy Berkley, Wikimedia Commons

In December 1959, Washington D.C., a remarkable agreement was signed by 12 nations to preserve an entire continent for peace and scientific enquiry. With a selection of follow-up agreements throughout the twentieth century, that continent is now off-limits to all military activity, mineral extraction, nuclear waste disposal, and even claims of sovereignty. It is, of course, Antarctica. Since these treaties and agreements were signed, the geopolitical state of the world has changed. The mineral resources are better understood these days, and they are a more attractive prospect to some countries. It is a largely unexploited strategic outpost from a surveillance perspective. The seas are bountiful and uncontested, making them appealing to commercial fishermen. It is also becoming an increasingly affordable destination for tourists, with large jets now able to land there, whilst the effects of climate change manifest themselves most clearly at the poles. A clause in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1998) states that after 50 years, in 2048, any party can call for a review of the Protocol; we are now over halfway to that point, and the future looks uncertain. What lies in store for Antarctica? Can governments come together to keep it the geopolitical success story that it has been thus far?



‘Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.’

Art. 1, Antarctic Treaty


The Antarctic Treaty was signed at the conclusion of an eighteen-month initiative called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). This was a global cooperative effort to repair relations between the scientific communities of the East and West. Timed to coincide with prime solar conditions, the project aimed to study various atmospheric phenomena and focus on the emerging fields of oceanography, seismology, and precision mapping. It involved the first successful launch of a satellite in Sputnik 1 and helped to confirm the theory of plate tectonics. The political legacy of the IGY is the Antarctic Treaty. Much of the scientific activity took place in Antarctica. 55 research bases were set up by just 12 countries: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the US, and the UK. These became the original signatories of the Treaty. In the spirit of international cooperation and a reflection on that period of time, the main provisions were for each nation operating in Antarctica to share their research with one another and that a country may only operate there if they agree to do so for peaceful purposes.


There are very few recorded incidents of military activity in the Antarctic throughout history, but in most, Argentina was the belligerent. Since the Treaty was signed, there have been no recorded breaches of the peace. Yet in recent years, there has been speculation that some of the new Chinese research stations contain equipment with surveillance capabilities - indeed, Chinese media have even boasted of that capability. Personnel from the People’s Liberation Army have also been involved in work on their bases, which is legal as long as it is reported. Since the first Chinese Antarctic expedition in 1984, they have regularly misfiled reports to hide the presence of military assistance.


China is one of the main causes for concern among the more established Antarctic nations. Their rapid rise in the last 40 years now sees them with the largest budget and producing the most scientific articles. As the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) are largely focused on what should be done in the name of scientific progress, the nations with the largest and highest quality research outputs will wield the most influence. Chinese research quality is low, but they have put a lot of money into improving infrastructure and establishing a Polar Affairs campus in Shanghai. A new heavyweight is in the ascendancy. Before the review in 2048, Chinese scientists will be among the most elite operating on the continent and the emerging Antarctic nations will start to back them. The original Treaty also allows the US and Russia to maintain a ‘basis of claim’ to the territory – as a new global superpower, China may assert that it also has that right and seek a redraft of the original terms. That would be a major political change and would lay the foundations for rewriting other rules and for lodging their own claim to a portion of land.


During the annual ATCM in 2022, the Russian delegate got up to speak and began to offer a defence of his country’s invasion of Ukraine, something that hadn’t happened at an ATCM before. A group of delegates from other countries stood up and left the meeting room. Whenever two countries at war with one another have been present together at an ATCM in the past, officials have made it plain that it is not the forum to air their differences if they don’t relate to Antarctic affairs. Notably, the meeting in 1982 managed to pass with barely a mention, let alone a furore, over the Falklands War. Last year’s events were quite exceptional and a total break from convention, and if they were made a habit, it would become difficult for these meetings to accomplish much. It was also a sign that the parties were not willing to work together due to other political events. As the global geopolitical future seems to destabilise by the month, this does not bode well for future cooperation.


‘Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.’

Art. 7, Protocol on Environmental Protection


1991 saw another important component of the System, the aforementioned Protocol on Environmental Protection. Following the example of the IGY, subsequent expeditions inland vastly improved our understanding of Antarctica, and by the 1980s, geologists had discovered and made predictions about its natural resources. The Transantarctic Mountains contain vast quantities of coal, and likewise for iron in the Prince Charles Mountains. But it is the Pensacola Mountains that are most intriguing to prospectors due to the geological similarities with the economically fruitful gold and platinum-group-metal-bearing Bushveld Complex of South Africa. Offshore, too, there are large hydrocarbon reservoirs that would be significantly easier to extract than anything on the mainland, though still a harder undertaking than anything yet attempted elsewhere. Currently, these resources would be too expense to extract, but during those years of discovery, the Antarctic Treaty saw the greatest growth in its membership, with many new signatories hopeful that they might reap some of those goods. By the end of the decade, negotiations had begun to put in place an agreement to prevent mineral extraction. The Protocol was signed in Madrid in 1991 and came into force in 1998. As part of the stress exerted on all parties to exercise caution and be mindful of the impact on the environment in any activity, the Protocol bans all mineral extraction, except for the purposes of scientific research.


Part of the reason that international cooperation over Antarctica has been comparatively plain sailing is the lack of a native population to consider. Populations put pressure on their governments to put regulations on environmentally unfriendly practices, such as mineral extraction. Wealthy countries are quite content to buy their minerals from poorer countries if they don’t have to open a dirty, ugly new mine at home. The average person gives little thought to where mines should or shouldn’t be, as long as they aren’t on their own doorstep, which is why highly polluting extraction goes on in remote places like the Athabasca tar sands in Canada. As nations get wealthier and the economic empowerment of the people increases, it will become more likely for nations to look for uninhabited places to obtain their minerals. Antarctica could be that place. Nations that have been the most vociferous in their support for conserving the Antarctic, like Australia, France and the UK would continue to oppose any extraction, along with climate and nature activists, causing a great schism with those who are in favour.




‘The objective of this convention is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources.’

Art. 2, CCAMLR


Of all the facets of Antarctic policy covered by the Antarctic Treaty System, the weakest regulations apply to the seas. The original Treaty defined the region known as ‘Antarctica’ as everything to the south of 60°S except the seas, which were to be governed by the articles of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established in 1980 when concerns were raised about the environmental effects of the colossal catches of krill and other marine life. The terms of the Commission aim to strike a balance between sustainability and environmental protection and ‘rational use (harvesting)’ of the seas. Many parties believe that the terms do not favour its duties of conservation heavily enough, though there have been efforts in the last two decades to establish Marine Protection Areas (MPAs). The first to be implemented covers 94,000 km2 around the South Orkney Islands and is a designated no-take zone. Illegal fishing has been eliminated within that zone. There are other MPAs in the pipeline, but progress is slow, and it is mostly the UK making headway on the issue, predominantly in zones where overfishing is not a large problem. The other proposers are the more environmentally conscious nations – those who have large fishing interests have been reluctant to assent to the plans, or to suggest their own.





Tourists began arriving in Antarctica in the 1950s, with just a few hundred visitors to start with. The most recent statistics show 105,331 (IAATO) visitors for last year, with 71,258 of those stepping foot on land. That increase shows no signs of abating. In November, a Boeing 787 landed on an icy runway, making it the largest jet to accomplish such a feat. On that occasion, it was carrying scientists and cargo, but it could become a more cost-effective way for tourists to arrive, with places on a cruise ship costing in the region of £10,000 per berth. Because the cost is prohibitive for many, most of the visitors come from wealthy, northern countries such as the US and Europe. They arrive in South America, the Antipodes, or South Africa by plane and embark on a ship from there. Taken whole, having an Antarctic holiday has been calculated to have a greater carbon footprint than the average person produces annually.


It is easy to imagine that at some point in the near future, a signatory will table a motion on whether there should be a cap on visitor numbers. Tour operators are subject to guidelines to ensure that their customers behave considerately towards the environment, and they are asked to submit a post-visit site report to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, but neither of these is binding. Unfortunately, there are many examples of human behaviour that contravene the stipulations of the Treaty: non-native species are currently few, but certainly on the rise; delicate flora and fauna are often trampled under the heavily-traveled walking routes; penguins have noticeably changed their breeding and social habits. If ice continues to melt as it is predicted to, wider fringes of land will become easier to visit, rather than tourists clustering in the Antarctic Peninsula and these problems will spread.



The Future


The Antarctic Treaty has thus far proved itself a success, with the parties able to agree further terms to navigate the challenges left open-ended in the initial terms. It was conceived in a period of utmost tension between the US and the USSR, and endured a hot war on the doorstep in 1982 and a scramble for natural resources in the eighties. After a few decades of going untested, new difficulties are emerging, and the time when those terms are safe from review is running down. The Treaty can expect more consultative-status applicants in the coming years if the mood music at the ATCMs begins to gear towards future resource exploitation. In a time when the global superpowers are flexing their military muscles and speaking in propaganda, others may follow the Chinese example and install and flaunt the surveillance capabilities of their research base equipment. But if all signatories can ensure that the walk-out at the 2022 meeting was only a blip on a record of otherwise stellar diplomacy, the Antarctic Treaty will have a future yet. The nations would do well to remember Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words on the day that the treaty was signed:


‘The spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding … should be an inspiring example of what can be accomplished by international cooperation in the field of science and in the pursuit of peace.’


bottom of page