Putin eye-ing up Antarctica as ‘strategic frontier’ as Russia and China spark ‘concerns’

Antarctica: Scientists set up station on the Whillans Ice Stream

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Activities on the southernmost continent are subject to the Antarctic Treaty System, which has been in force since June 23, 1961. This international agreement — initially signed by 12 nations including the UK, but now including a total of 54 parties — covers the entire area south of 60°S latitude. The treaty’s goals are to maintain Antarctica as a demilitarised space, ensure it remains free of nuclear testing and waste, to promote scientific cooperation and set aside all disputes over territorial sovereignty.

Each year, the parties to the treaty meet at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which is being held this year in Berlin from May 23 to June 2.

At present, 28 nations — including the UK — have consultative status.

Since the treaty was first signed, the consultative states have adopted more than 300 recommendations for the management of Antarctica, alongside a number of separated international agreements, of which three are still in use.

These three concern the conservation of Antarctic seals, the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, and a protocol on environmental protection in the region.

As part of the treaty system as it presently stands, mining is prohibited in Antarctica under article seven of the protocol on environmental protection.

According to the British Antarctic Survey, this “voluntary moratorium” on the exploration and exploitation of Antarctic minerals was introduced because “unregulated exploration and mining would have caused serious environmental and political problems”.

What is allowed, however, is the undertaking of geological research on the Antarctic landmass — an activity that has the potential to double up as resource prospecting.

Geopolitics experts Professor Klaus Dodds of Royal Holloway, University of London told Express.co.uk that “Russia has shown a sort of willingness to engage in geological prospecting all around the Antarctic.

“That sits really awkwardly with the current mining ban in Antarctica.”

Prof Dodds continued: “European and North American parties are kind of concerned about why Russia is carrying out this kind of research.

“Does this hint at a longer-term view of the Antarctic as a place that should be mined and exploited in the future?”

At present, Prof Dodds noted, there is no evidence to suggest that Russia has gone beyond prospecting into large-scale mining.

However, he said, “I couldn’t comment on what kind of activity has occurred at a smaller scale”.

The expert continued: “It’s very clear that there is a permanent ban on mining in the Antarctic region, and I don’t think there’s a suggestion that that has been violated to any significant extent.

“But I think it is a source of concern, nonetheless, that both Russia and China I think quite explicitly view the Antarctic as a strategic resource frontier.”

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Another concern for Europe and North America, Prof Dodds said, lies in the risk that Russia and China — perhaps joined by India — might choose to walk away from the Antarctic Treaty System, a worry heightened by tensions in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

In such a scenario, one might end up seeing rival treaty systems put into effect for Antarctica — or even a total breakdown of governance.

Prof Dodds said: “There will always be a concern that if governance fractures, then we [could] have this sort-of resource free-for-all.

“Worse still, we might yet see mining become prevalent in the Antarctic.”

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