Geopolitics and New Zealand’s Antarctic Presence

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Geopolitics and New Zealand’s Antarctic Presence

New Zealand is increasingly mobilizing resources to secure a share of the Southern continent.

Geopolitics and New Zealand’s Antarctic Presence
Credit: Flickr/ New Zealand Defense Force

When New Zealand’s Defense Minister Ron Mark presented the new 2018 Strategic Defense Policy Statement at Victoria University of Wellington on July 6, he went off his prepared speech at one point and stressed the following: “It is often not known that our Defense Force’s biggest deployment is to Antarctica, consisting of up to 220 personnel and different airlift platforms. And it is not even an operation, but a science project.”

A look in the Policy Statement itself, which was signed off by all government ministries of the coalition government between NZ Labor and New Zealand First, makes clear that New Zealand’s Antarctic presence is – today more than ever – not just “a science project.” Science in Antarctica has always been political, and what was true during the last International Polar Year 2008 still holds true 10 years later: “Geopolitics has never gone away in Antarctica, and science has been a part of this.” In this context, the Policy Statement is a clear act of Antarctic securitization, understood as “the manner in which invocations of danger, threat, and risk are used to appeal to the need for political and financial resources.”

Already in the 2016 Defense White Paper of the previous National government, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean had featured prominently for the first time, a fact that also reflected public input, as Rob Ayson pointed out at that time. Moreover, Antarctica’s cross-party appeal is strong, as illustrated by a statement from MP Golriz Ghahraman, the defense spokesperson for the Green Party, which has a confidence and supply agreement with the Labor government. Speaking in a radio interview about the procurement of new maritime patrol aircraft, Ghahraman said, “We do this Antarctic stuff. Our defense force facilitates some incredible research that fights things like climate change.”

In the sections on Antarctica in the 2018 Strategic Defense Policy Statement, emphasis is laid on the challenges to the region and the responsibility New Zealand has for the “stability” of the Antarctic continent and the Southern Ocean. These responsibilities include Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Ross Sea and the monitoring and control of the Antarctic fishing industry. Explicitly mentioned are the New Zealand Defense Force’s responsibilities for the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) in the Ross Sea, which came into effect in December 2017 and was successfully established after a joint New Zealand-United States proposal within the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) of the Antarctic Treaty System.

Even though the Ross Sea marine park can certainly be regarded a great conservation achievement, it has to be noted that the MPA only runs for 35 years, after which it has to be renewed. Also, the final delineation of the Ross Sea MPA still allows for ongoing business by the New Zealand Antarctic toothfish industry and neatly fits into the area of New Zealand’s territorial claim, the Ross Dependency. For Klaus Dodds and Cassandra Brooks, MPAs in general raise questions about sovereignty and stewardship: “Who will have the incentive to bear the financial burden of enforcement, monitoring, and management? The implementation of an MPA in the Antarctic context is fraught with tensions over sovereignty and access to marine resources.”

With the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, none of the seven territorial claims by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom was recognized, with the United States and Russia reserving the right to make a claim at some point. Furthermore, the Treaty promotes international scientific cooperation making Antarctica a “continent for peace and science.” The consensus-based governance model proved to be remarkably successful during the Cold War and it made science the main political instrument for countries with an Antarctic presence. Nowadays, however, the Antarctic Treaty System is facing growing challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, and shifts in global power, with an increased interest in the continent and the Southern Ocean by especially Asian nations.

The Strategic Defense Policy Statement acknowledges this as well, but the framing is noteworthy. Increased interest in Antarctica is expected to “lead to congestion and crowding, as well as pressure on key elements of the Antarctic Treaty System, such as prohibition of mineral extraction.” It takes a lot for a continent nearly twice the size of Australia, with no native human population apart from several thousand, mostly seasonal, scientists and support personnel, to get crowded and congested. An area that is seeing increased activity, though, is the one claimed by New Zealand, the Ross Dependency. In 2014, South Korea built the Jang Bogo Station in Terra Nova Bay, where the Italian Antarctic program is also about to construct a new hard rock runway and China is building their fifth research station on Inexpressible Island.

Given their country’s limited resources, New Zealand scientists are generally open to new cooperation partners and their respective capabilities, such as the Korean and Chinese icebreakers, Araon and Xue Long, respectively. Others in the international media and the capitals of traditional Antarctic powers may be more skeptical about the interests and ambitions of these new players from Asia, especially with regard to mining and military interests. The Madrid Protocol of 1991, which prohibits “any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research,” will be up for review in 2048 and according to Klaus Dodds, “it would be naive to think that the current no-mining consensus might not change during this century.” Time will tell whether this challenge to the status quo is indeed coming from Asia or from nervous territorial claimant states, sometimes exhibiting what has been termed “polar orientialism.”

Further, the Strategic Defense Policy Statement points to weaknesses in the Antarctic Treaty with regard to “legal grey areas [that] could be exploited by states seeking to carry out a range of military and other-security related activities.” The context here is what Anne-Marie Brady pointed out to be the question over civil-military dual use of satellite technology in case of the Chinese BeiDou-system with polar ground receiving stations, similar to those systems of Norway, Japan, or the United States. The Russian GLONASS system comes to mind as well, as does the German O’Higgins German Antarctic Receiving Station (GARS), which is operated by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Whether these are indeed militarizing measures ultimately depends on the securitization of these issues by other Antarctic Treaty signatories, in this case the New Zealand government.

Finally, another aspect worth mentioning with regard to New Zealand’s Antarctic presence is the soft power or public diplomacy effort directed at domestic but also international audiences alike. A standout example for this is the most recent safety video produced by Air New Zealand, the country’s national carrier. Here American Hollywood actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier can be seen touring Scott Base, Shackleton’s Hut, and the Dry Valleys in the Ross Dependency. In awe about the beauty of the “cool” place, Grenier is seen having adventurous fun with snow mobiles and also learning a little bit about the scientific value of ice core samples. Throughout the video, Grenier is connected to a group of New Zealand children in Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, a “gateway city” to Antarctica and a national hub for Antarctic logistics and science. At the end of the video, he turns to the cheering children via video link and asks: “So who wants to be an Antarctic explorer one day?” In Air NZ’s safety video Antarctica is equated to New Zealand’s presence in the Ross Dependency. The continent is represented as a sunny, interesting, and fun science playground populated by New Zealanders constituting “the locals.” There is little mention of the harsh living conditions and logistical challenges often experienced by the various national Antarctic programs active in the wider region.

As such, the video complements community outreach efforts by Antarctica New Zealand since the 2014-15 season to inspire people to connect with Antarctica and inform and influence their understanding of New Zealand’s science and operations in the Antarctic. In 2017, New Zealand celebrated 60 years of the uninterrupted occupation of Scott Base with a TEDxScott base event, livestreaming globally from the ice. Earlier in 2018, the New Zealand government has announced the first steps towards a Detailed Business case for a major redevelopment of the base, calling it “New Zealand’s coolest redevelopment.”

From all of this, one thing becomes very clear. New Zealand has strong scientific, economic, political and strategic interests in Antarctica and is increasingly mobilizing resources to securitize and advertise a share of the Southern continent as “theirs.”

Patrick Flamm is a Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He works on Antarctic politics, rising powers in global governance, especially South Korea, and identity in International Relations.