Diplomacy on Ice

The Fragile Geopolitics of Antartica

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Illustration by Kaela Chambers

Antarctica is home to more than emperor penguins and a few dozen humans with science citizenship barricaded in small hermetic bases. It is also host to an estimated 200 billion barrels of hydrocarbons, alongside large quantities of gold, silver, uranium, and many other rare metals underneath a pristine ice cap still virgin of commercial exploitation. Securing a territory with such a rich underground, in whole or in part, would bless any country with durable energy security and, thereby, increased political independence in the international arena. Hence, many governments around the globe have placed the South Pole among their top foreign policy priorities. This is nothing new. Even in the mid-1950s, the world community, frightened by the possibility of an East-West nuclear conflict, had engaged in multilateral talks about Antarctica’s fate in Cold War times. After fierce negotiations that got the better of the USSR’s imperialist policy, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) banned military deployments, nuclear tests, commercial mining, and territorial claims in Antarctica.

As early as between 1982 and 1988, though, several industrialized powers – most prominently the United States, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand – pushed in favor of the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA), which would have created an ad hoc international legal framework allowing the exploitation of Antarctica’s underground under strict conditions. It was only in response to those efforts that French Prime Minister Michel Rocard began pushing to preserve the status quo in Antarctica. Eventually signed in 1991 and instituted in 1998, the Madrid Protocol reinforced Antarctica’s special status by declaring it a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science for at least fifty years.” In other words, the Protocol prevents technologically capable countries from tapping into Antarctica’s underground before 2048.

Ostensibly, then, 2048 is a crucial year; the Madrid Protocol will finally be up for review, and drilling possibilities will be open again in Antarctica. Any amendment to the Protocol would need an unlikely 75 percent majority to pass – that is, the agreement of 24 out of the 32 signatory states. Unfortunately for emperor penguins, though, the Madrid Protocol is not a legally binding agreement attached to a supranational authority such as the United Nations, so nobody is actually obliged to go by the book. In other words, a determined country could start mining much sooner than 2048 by simply withdrawing from the Protocol.

Therefore, the question at the heart of the Antarctic issue is not whether we allow drilling in 2048, but “who will drill first, whether in 2048 or sooner?” Given Antarctica’s tremendous resources, the tables of international, political, and economic order may turn drastically within just the next few decades (depending on who drills first). No nation will take the risk to unilaterally exploit Antarctica before building the necessary diplomatic, economic, and military capacity to face the vast consequences of such a bold policy in the international arena. The first nation determined enough to go southward will be sure to do so with other countries, provoking a reshuffling of the existing alliances.

As of 2011, some states have already considered withdrawing from the Madrid Protocol to earn the “right” to disrespect the ban on exploration. They have invested or will invest billions of dollars in the development of new inland bases and Antarctica-specific heavy equipments. Based on these recent developments in Antarctica, the world faces the possibility of the race to Antarctica’s underground, leading to a major frontal confrontation.

Contrary to what many analysts believe, acknowledging this possibility is neither overly pessimistic nor overly speculative. Economic hardships, new uncertainties, unsustainable public debts, and the need for energy security in a so-called “oil-peaking world” have already cumulatively led to major geopolitical changes in the last 10 years. The greater the threats to energy security that policy makers perceive, the further they willing to go to secure new supplies around the world, even if it means trekking as far as the Antarctic for resources.

In this regard, many environmental analysts argue that, by 2048, Antarctic hydrocarbons will no longer be of interest for oil-consuming powers since affordable, renewable energies will have been developed and democratized. Such a desirable outcome requires carbon-based economies, like Germany and Iceland, to turn their national industrial strategies toward green technologies and sustainable development. The democratization of renewable energies is not a trend shared by all advanced economies, as many strive to build or sustain strong carbon-based post-industrial economies backed by a projectable defensive and offensive military power. In particular, the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, see international environmental legislation as development-limiters; the Kyoto and Copenhagen summits’ limited successes prove this. Be that as it may, almost all developed nations are built on hydrocarbons and uranium. Moreover, should one of them move to a green economy — an estimated 30-year process — they would need hydrocarbons, not wind turbines and solar panels, to make the transition.

Some commodities analysts argue that oil and gas prices will not be high enough to fuel an interest in pricey Antarctic resources. In the past five years, however, new deep-sea seismic exploration algorithms, secure drilling, and ice-removal technologies have rendered Antarctica potentially profitable. Before these developments, it was technically impossible to extract resources from Antarctica’s mainland or from the Weddell and Ross Sea areas, which comprise almost all of the continent’s endowment of hydrocarbons. The emergence of these new technologies – as well as global warming, which allows ice-breaker tankers to reach Antarctica more easily than ever – has contributed to dropping the estimated cost per barrel of Ross Sea crude oil by some 50 percent. American, Chinese, and Russian experts now estimate the marginal profitable price to be around $100-$120. The crude barrel peaked at $145 in June of 2008, and now fluctuates between $90 and $110. Goldman Sachs, Gazprom (Russia), and Aramco (Saudi Arabia), however, all anticipate that the price could to rise to $200 or $300 in the event of a global crisis or conflict in the 2010 decade. Therefore, oil prices tend to be high enough to fuel an interest in Antarctic oil, as production costs have decreased with great improvements in offshore drilling technologies.

Furthermore, the price of oil will keep decreasing as offshore drilling technology improves. Still, some analysts argue that, no matter the ecological costs, the exploitation of shale oil and tar sands will eventually be declared a matter of national security to prevent ecologists from interfering in US government strategy. Indeed, exploiting these in-house resources seems to be more attractive than Antarctic oil in a short-term perspective. However, even if tar sands and shale oil now have primacy over polar oil for the United States and Canada, other global players do not have the ability to tap into their domestic resources. Either because of political issues, such as the power of the green lobbies in Europe and Australia; because of pure hegemonic grand strategies, as in Moscow and Beijing; or because of a simple lack of both conventional and unconventional oil resources, particularly in New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan, these countries are looking for outside ways to be more energy-independent. From these countries’ perspective, the Weddell and Ross Sea areas’ reserves – which, estimated at up to 200 billion barrels (200 Bbl), make Antarctica host to the world’s third-largest oil reserves, after those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – are seen as critical to the sustainability of their economies.

Finally, historians and diplomatic advisors may also counter pessimistic claims regarding the fate of Antarctica by mentioning that all nations have a greater interest in maintaining even a fragile peace than engaging in destabilizing illegal campaigns overseas to get more natural resources. No theoretician has yet predicted, though, how far nations could go to bolster their energy supply, considering that energy security is particularly critical to economic security in times of great economic hardship. And given that most powers already see Antarctica’s oil and biotechnological research possibilities as an El Dorado, the question of “how far would they go” gains utmost importance. Several states have already decided not to wait until the expiration of the Madrid Protocol in 2048 to begin planning their exploitation of the continent, and the real underlying problem is that nothing can prevent these countries from turning their intentions into reality if they decide to withdraw from the Madrid Protocol. Therefore, the status quo relies solely on the State Parties’ goodwill rather than on any kind of enforceable law. Ironically enough, it is Russia – and not China – that has publicly announced intentions to start exploring Antarctica’s underground in the next few years, despite China’s known interest in the region. Last June, for the first time since the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, Moscow outspokenly tested Washington’s willingness to prevent Russia from projecting power outside of its regular sphere of influence. Washington’s response was unsurprisingly weak.

In the last decade, President Vladimir Putin developed Russia’s new power projection capacity and theorized the fundamental axioms of Russia’s new grand strategy, known as the “Putin Doctrine.” As he outlined in several speeches – and most particularly at the 2007 Munich Conference – Russia finds that “the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world [because] it was the huge strategic potential of two superpowers that ensured global security.” In other words, the world ought to feature a bipolar power structure, rather than an “American hegemony,” to ensure its continued development. Moreover, Putin emphasized, “Russia will regain its past influence thanks to its energy resources” – the country that maximizes its profits from hydrocarbon exports will become the world’s counterweight to the United States, and Russia ought to be that superpower. Furthermore, far from accepting a spectator seat at the West vs. China battle, Putin has launched remilitarization programs in the Arctic and the Kuril Islands. Developing since 2008, this program was very publicly unveiled at the 2011 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) in Buenos Aires last June. This new program, to which more than $1.5 billion have been allocated, is key to the outcome of the Antarctic issue; it is a dramatic evolution in the race for polar underground resources. No country has ever poured that much money into a governmental polar program, and if others such as the United States want to save their share, they will most likely have to match Russia’s expenditures.

Available on the Secretariat of the Atlantic Treaty’s website, the report’s aim is clear from its title: “Strategy for the development of the Russian Federation activities in the Antarctic for the period until 2020 and longer-term perspective.” At every ATCM, consultative parties publish this kind of document in which they detail their current activities on the continent as well as their goals for the future. Even if Russia is not the only country eager to bypass the rules of the treaty to begin exploration and extraction of natural resources, only Russia has dared thus far to make its intentions public. According to the document, “Russian objectives in Antarctica for 2014-2020 [are to] strengthen the economic capacity of Russia through the use of marine biological resources available in the Southern Ocean, and complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon and other natural resources, [and] enhance the international prestige of the Russian Federation through large-scale political, social, scientific and environmental measures related to the activities of Russia in the Antarctic.”

By investing $1.5 billion to build or refurbish eight inland stations with ice runways, five ice-breaking tankers, ski planes, and a ski military cargo-jet, and to make GLONASS (the Russian GPS system) operative, Moscow has shown how serious it is about leaving its footprint in Antarctica. While the program is officially managed by the Russian Meteorology and Environmental Agency (Roshydromet) to remain within the terms of the Madrid Protocol, such a façade fools no one. Moreover, just last month, Putin proposed the creation of “a specific legal framework in Russian law to regulate underground exploitation activities in Antarctic in the following years.” Aiming at organizing the Russian industry around Lukoil and Gazprom, the leading two Russian oil and gas corporations, this law, when passed, will be the green light to carry exploration and eventually production programs in Antarctica.

On the other side of the Pacific, the United States has refrained from condemning Russia’s moves in order to avoid engaging in confrontation with Russia, or providing an opportunity for Putin’s “United Russia” to produce more nationalistic propaganda. In contrast to Moscow, Washington, given its current worldwide popularity, does not fancy being seen as breaking the treaty to grasp Antarctica’s underground – especially after its failed joint-CRAMRA to have a majority of ATS members agree on the allowance of exploration and mining under restricted conditions.

Since this failure in 1988, the US position has been clear: If we can’t get into Antarctica in a dominant and good-looking manner, no one will, especially not those who had a claimed territory prior to the 1959 Treaty. This politically prudent policy serves the United States’ need to — as Christopher Joyner, Director of the Institute for Law, Science, and Global Security at Georgetown University, puts it — “preclude the continent from becoming a region of international competition and conflict [in order to] preserve the ‘agree to disagree’ legal status of the claims to Antarctica.” Most of the natural resources in the territory are within the boundaries of the century-old claims frozen by the 1959 treaty, and the United States seeks to maintain the ATS regime in order to prevent the territorial claimants from exerting sovereignty on their old dependences through executive decrees or military annexation. Washington’s specific goal is to prevent Wellington from re-annexing the Ross Sea – which New Zealand controlled from 1923 until the signing of the treaty. If the Ross oil field were a country, it would have the tenth largest reserves in the world — far greater than that of Libya.

Washington’s other focus is the preservation of its ability to respond diplomatically or militarily to any unilateral mineral or hydrocarbon resource development program from Russia or China. This is why two US research vessels, one icebreaker “patrol” in the Great Southern Ocean, a couple of USAF Hercules LC-130, and several Basler BT-67 ski planes operate numerous Antarctic flights from Christchurch, New Zealand, or the British Antarctic Rothera base during the 6-month-long nightless summer season. In other words, as in many other parts of the world, America’s planned venture in Antarctica is in the form of a protector. In theory, the United States diplomatically protects the environment and international scientific research by acting as the guardians of international treaties. In reality, America has gradually militarized the continent of Antarctica with the economic motive of preventing it from foreign aggressive campaigns. Not only does America hope to earn a good international reputation, but it also hopes to become the most influential leader of the ATS, thereby decreasing the likelihood that other ATS members will challenge the Madrid Protocol.

An analysis of the predicted shift in the balance of power in the region between today and 2020 yields interesting results. According to the Russian news agency RIA – which proudly proclaimed the information eight months before the 2011 ACTM – Russia’s prospective deployment between 2014 and 2020 is quite substantial with its $1.5 billion program. Comparatively, the US Antarctic Program (USAP) will look substantially weaker with its $300 million budget, only three year-round stations, 270 USAF troops, two research vessels, and few ski planes during the summer. This is why, until US policy-makers decide on a re-equipment program – which will be difficult to pass in times of large budget cuts – the United States will stick to its short-term strategy of remaining silent. The ultimate American aim is to have Moscow reiterate its intentions at the 2012 ATCM in Hobart, Australia. Washington hopes that this restatement would provoke a diplomatic and media frenzy against Russia and Putin comparable to the media frenzy against NATO’s move to Iraq in 2003, and thereby brand Russia as an imperialist nation with little respect for international laws and environments.

The Antarctic case shows us that peace – even in an era in which the UN exists as an international arbiter – is always fragile, because geopolitics is subject to economic and technological evolutions. Moreover, the case shows that the enforcement of multilateral treaties and the power of global institutions are only defined by the member states’ wills to actually respect those international agreements. Topics of energy security or national prestige are too momentous to let goodwill and diplomatic gentlemen’s rules limit a country’s projection of power overseas, which inevitably leads to economic or military confrontations.

From this wide perspective, given that the main weakness of the Antarctic Treaty is that it is horizontally enforced at a multilateral level rather than by a supranational authority, it seems that an effective global authority is necessary to prevent major frontal oppositions from occurring. America’s work to sustain the ATS is more to avoid a military conflict, in which Washington would have much more to lose than just a piece of unclaimed land or an oil field. As Putin put it, “One nation alone does not have the infinite resources and moral legitimacy required to be the international arbiter.” But will the interested powers involved in the Antarctic dispute let their territorial and resource claims fall into the hands of a hypothetical international authority such as a reinforced UN? Or are they likely to take advantage of the erosion of the United States’ global power projection capacity to, in 2048 or before, get themselves to Antarctica?

In this sense, the main question behind the Antarctic issue is not really whether or not the development of mining programs will lead to a militarized conflict. Given that international law is somewhat powerless in this case – and that Antarctica effectively belongs to no one country – mining in Antarctica is critical to international security. For one nation to start, it would have to deploy its military not only in the mining area to secure its activities, but also in the surrounding oceans to secure its ability to transfer such valuable resources to its own territory. This escalating military deployment in Antarctica will not only contribute largely to the destruction of the environment; a new world order will slowly emerge, as new and unforeseeable alliances are formed in each country’s attempt to get a piece of the pie.

Twenty thousand leagues under the sea, deep at the core of this intriguing tale of contemporary geopolitics, there lies the next major change in international politics. What the global chase for the Sphinx underneath the ice fields may trigger is frightening. The United States should push ATS members to dramatically reinforce Antarctica’s current legal framework while Washington’s still retains its fragile hegemony. After this decade, it might be too late. As the Australian Government’s Antarctic Division published on its website last September, “Non-economic reasons, such as a major war or the desire to have secure emergency resources regardless of cost, could put pressure on all Antarctic resources but … there seems to be no justification for either approach at present.” At present, perhaps not; but in 2048 – or even in 2030 – won’t oil be even more precious and Antarctica’s ice even thinner? In such an environment, won’t nations find it economically or geostrategically attractive – if not vital – to exploit Antarctica’s underground?

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One Comment

  1. This is an excellent piece on one of the longest-standing conventions in international law, and you make a convincing point that the mutual agreement to maintain the Antarctic untouched may be weaker than its longevity would suggest. It’s a frightening thought that there could be a dangerous tipping point: once one country makes a move toward the Antarctic, would the rest of the world be able to resist the urge to follow? I would only call attention to the fact that China actually develops ‘green’ technologies at a much more significant rate than most developed countries; see for example http://nyti.ms/kXHIwp.

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