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Many regions in the world have suffered war for a very long period. As a result, treaties between countries or areas are created to ensure peace and cohesion among them. The Antarctic Treaty is an example of one of the most remarkable negotiations made to ensure warm cooperation. On December 1, 1959, the twelve nations participating in the IGY signed the Antarctic Treaty in Washington (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and USSR). The Treaty, which covers the territory south of 60 degrees south latitude, is unexpectedly brief yet highly effective. Over the years, the Treaty has proven to have good governance and continued peace in this region. The Antarctic Treaty celebrated its 60th Anniversary in June 2021 and has raised many questions if it can continue to be appropriate governance for Antarctica. With the growth in China sovereign power, it poses a challenge to this Treaty.

Governance Framework of the Antarctic Treaty

The governance framework has a precise specification of rules which has enabled peace and cohesion in the states. Military actions, such as establishing military bases or testing weaponry, are expressly prohibited, and Antarctica is to be used solely for peaceful purposes. Allows for the same level of freedom in doing scientific research, promotes international scientific cooperation, including the interchange of research programs and staff, and demands that research results be made publicly available. Sets aside the likelihood of sovereignty disputes between Treaty parties by stating that no activities will strengthen or weaken previously claimed positions concerning territorial claims, that no new or enlarged claims can be made, and that no new or enlarged claims will be made; prohibits nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste; provides for inspection by observers, and makes a declaration of intent to inspect. Parties must notify each other in advance of any expeditions, and parties must meet regularly to discuss how to achieve the Treaty’s aims. This is the summary of the 1959 negotiations in the Antarctic Treaty (Hanessian, 1960).

The seven claimant states’ continuous interest and motivations over the land of Antarctica raise questions over the governance framework in Antarctica. The world, in general, is getting to realize the natural resources they can benefit from this. It being isolated becomes a magnet for secret military activities and continued nuclear research. Countries such as Iran, Turkey, and India have shown great interest in getting involved with Antarctica. With many more countries claiming Antarctica, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty may not effectively offer governance fully to all those sovereign countries. With rules in the Treaty being secretly bent by the superpower countries in the Treaty increases the threat further on Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty has ended any territorial claims, but it hasn’t stopped people from breaking the rules (Hanessian, 1960). Acting as though you own the place is the best approach to acquire a toehold on what might be beneath. These challenges led to continued criticism of the Antarctic Treaty even as they celebrate their 60th Anniversary (Dodds, 2010).

The extraction of Antarctic oil is currently challenging and expensive. Still, it is impossible to predict how the world economy will look in many years when the agreement forbidding Antarctic prospecting expires. At that moment, a power-hungry world could be desperate. The US maintains a base at the South Pole that neatly spans all territorial claims. China has been one of the countries with sustained economic growth and one of the world’s leaders in high technology and extensive scientific research. The increasing number of bases in Antarctica puts the Antarctica Treaty’s capacity to control its actions in Antarctica in jeopardy.

Antarctica being a land endowed by minerals and a good field for research and fishing activities, no one is certain about the interests of China in Antarctica. In 2014 China built its fourth base in Antarctica. China ratified the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and was granted consultative status with voting rights at the Antarctic Treaty consultative parties meeting in 1985. The Chinese government is required by international law to support the Antarctic Treaty. China cannot just assert a claim without first withdrawing from the Antarctic Treaty. (Liu, 2019) As the world’s second-largest economy, China has genuine interests in practically every corner of the globe, including outer space, the deep ocean, the Arctic, and Antarctica. Science, resources (e.g., fisheries or bioprospecting), tourism, shipping, and national pride could all be combined as Chinese interests. Chinese initiatives in Antarctica, in particular, appear to be aimed to ensure that China is not left out of any future opportunities in Antarctica. China is paying attention to Antarctic krill, the planet’s only new marine life resource. (Liu, 2019) The Chinese catch in Antarctic waters is currently relatively low.

On the other hand, China sees the potential of krill fisheries under the current supervision of the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources and wishes to expand its krill fishing in the Southern Ocean. China has a great eye for economic growth and can quickly spot areas beneficial places. It has been rated one of the superpower countries with the best military power, fishing, technology, and participating in NASA missions to the moon. All this in mind makes China unstoppable, and a question arises whether it will disregard international law in Antarctica as it did in the South China Sea. Its activities in Antarctica remain primarily unknown. That is a mistake because China’s Antarctic goals are just as dangerous as its North Pole ambitions. Furthermore, they are exacerbated by the reality that the US and its closest allies near Antarctica, New Zealand and Australia, still have a limited understanding of what Beijing is doing on the ground.

Meanwhile, China’s military ambitions on the Southern Continent are serious and expanding. China’s development of a permanent Antarctic airfield in 2018, its expanding fleet of icebreakers, and an infusion of People’s Liberation Army soldiers at Beijing’s research outposts are just a few examples of Beijing’s military goals. Expertise assisted in constructing a radar facility at Zhongshan Station, which experts believe could interfere with US polar satellites (Brady, 2010).

China failed to report any of these activities to its fellow Antarctic Treaty signatories in breach of the Antarctic Treaty. China’s exploitative economic goals have now spread to the Antarctic, which is concerning. Contrary to international law, a sizable number of Chinese specialists believe that the Madrid Protocol and the associated restriction on mining in the Antarctic will expire in 2048. As a result, Chinese officials have begun to openly speculate about the Southern Continent as a potential source of rare earth elements, oil and gas, and other resources. Fishing, which is strictly regulated in the Southern Ocean under the Protocol, and China has a well-deserved global reputation for unlawful and unethical activities, would become free for all (Brady, 2010). Those concerned about China’s rising presence in the region regard Kunlun Station as significant because it implies the Chinese are now operating at the highest point on the Antarctic ice sheet. According to the Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, there is also a vast telescope on this facility suspected of having military applications. This is yet to be confirmed. The Chinese embassy did not return requests for comment.

Analysts are concerned that as tensions rise between China and its Western allies in the South China Sea and the western Pacific, Antarctica may be the next region to see increasing posturing and gamesmanship. New Zealand’s 2018 defence policy declaration emphasizes the importance of ensuring security. Meanwhile, the US has had three bases inspected in the last five years, either formally or informally. The Treaty does not specify how frequently inspections should occur, but countries are required to allow inspections of their facilities to verify that its terms are followed.

Many governments are unable to examine Antarctic bases due to logistical challenges and a lack of adequate transportation. This raises questions whether countries are preparing for military technology, breach of Antarctica and possible environmental damage.

Chile and Argentina, for example, both have permanent army presences on the Antarctic continent, and there is concern that some governments are either not reporting military deployments or recruiting civilian security contractors for essentially military operations. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent on the planet, with the most significant average elevation of any continent. Scientific research drives people into this land as they try to know what lies underneath it. It is estimated that the amount of oil in Antarctica could be 200 billion barrels more than that in the Middle East.

All 68 outposts in Antarctica claim to be peaceful research stations founded for scientific objectives; however, the militarization ban is regularly disregarded. Chile and Argentina, for example, both have permanent army presences on the Antarctic continent, and there is concern that some governments are either not reporting military deployments or recruiting civilian security contractors for essentially military operations.

Antarctic skies are extraordinarily pure and devoid of radio interference, making them perfect for deep-space research and satellite tracking. They’re also great for setting up clandestine surveillance networks and controlling offensive weapons systems from afar. Despite the continent’s formal designation as a land of peace and science, Australian scholars have warned of the perils of militarizing Antarctic stations for the first time. Satellite systems at polar bases could be used to control offensive weapons, and little could be done to prevent it due to the lax nature of Antarctic Treaty rules.

The Australian government recently declared China’s newest outpost a danger, citing the possibility for spying. “Antarctic sites are increasingly being exploited for ‘dual-use’ scientific research that is helpful for military goals,” the report added. Many other countries, such as Iran, are interested in building in Antarctica in the name of scientific cooperation with may not be the case. Unexpected news shows that Somalia, Yemen and Oman could make their claims. Iran intends to increase its naval presence in international waters to strengthen its military and reach as far south as Antarctica.

There is an emphasis on a Chinese station inland in Australia’s Antarctic Territory for its satellite information collecting capabilities and Iran’s new interest in establishing a polar presence. Misuse of the Treaty’s severe limitations on any use of military personnel is alleged to have already occurred, with numerous countries failing to declare their usage in Antarctica. In contrast, Australia fails to utilize defence assets there. Faced with escalating competition for limited natural resources and new intelligence-gathering opportunities, all this leads to the question if the Treaty is capable of continuing to be an appropriate governance framework for Antarctica. With many countries in the Treaty and those not part of it realizing the benefits they can reap off Antarctica, significant risk is at large.

Antarctica’s environmental preservation was one of the major frameworks of the Antarctic Treaty to ensure the protection of tourism sites and the endangered species of fish found in this place (Florens, 2012). An increase in climate change because of the use of icebreakers and also scientific research causing significant effects on the land and species in that place.

Climate change, as well as increased fishing and tourism, are threatening its fantastic biodiversity. The geopolitical pressures on Antarctic natural resources are growing, as are new interests. As the world’s fisheries become exhausted, there is an increasing desire to increase fishing efforts throughout the region. Some Antarctic animal species have been driven to extinction for commercial reasons (Newson et al., 2009). Others have been killed inadvertently or accidentally, soils have been poisoned, untreated sewage has been released into the sea, and garbage that will not degrade or break down for hundreds of years has been left behind in even the most isolated areas. Climate change resulting in sea-level rise and the loss of sea ice and land-based ice is the region’s most long-term severe hazard. Some ice shelves have already disintegrated, and glaciers and ice slopes have receded.

Ocean acidification (due to excess dissolved carbon dioxide) is already causing the extinction of several marine snails that play an essential role in the oceanic carbon cycle. The breeding populations and habitats of some penguin species have been affected. The world’s oceans are overfished; if expenditures in the types of boats and fishing equipment required for Antarctica are made, it would likely receive the same treatment. Krill fishing could be essential because they are at the bottom of many Antarctic food systems. There are already illicit fishing boats operating in violation of present regulations. Species that are not native to Antarctica are being transported there in various ways, including on ships and as seeds attached to boots and clothing; some of these can now thrive there as a result of climate change (Florens, 2012). Rats, in particular, pose a possible threat to Antarctica’s many species of ground-nesting birds on sub-Antarctic islands, where they are especially vulnerable due to a lack of local ground-based predators against whom they have little experience defending themselves (MacKay, 2014).

With the increased encroachment in Antarctica, grounds pollution levels have increased (Dodds, 2010). As people grow to enjoy the serene environment, infrastructure such as roads and tourists’ hotels continue to affect the natural flow of the area: increased waste disposal and emission of gases by the ice breakers, which are always in Antarctica.

Antarctica is a good place for laboratory research in the world. It is genuinely being exploited, and dangerous research projects that affect the species in this area are carried out. With this in mind, we are very sure that the resources in Antarctica will have been exhausted by the power-thirsty countries in decades to come. Most of the penguins are at significant risk of extinction due to climate change. This brings doubt to the Antarctic Treaty. Surprisingly, the countries understand the effects of melting ice in Antarctica and its impact on the global rise of sea level. These effects bring about the increased number of floods around the world and also dramatic weather changes (Dodds, 2010). The ambiguities in the environmental governance framework give loopholes for exploiting the resources and bending the speculated rules. As more states worldwide continue to show interest in Antarctica, more questions are raised about whether the Antarctica Treaty will be in a position to offer governance and ensure clear regulations.

The New Zealand government provided evidence of illegal fishing to the Commission. Unfortunately, the Commission, which includes Russian representation, could not agree on adding the vessel to their list of illicit, unregulated, and unreported vessels. Instead, the ship will be able to fish for the rest of the season without penalty. While CCAMLR is widely regarded as a leader in combating illegal fishing near Antarctica, the absence of sanctions for Russia’s F/V Palmer came as a big surprise to many environmentalists. This shows clearly that the Antarctica Treaty might not have complete control over some of these countries, endangering Antarctica species. The six prohibited vessels had been fishing illegally for the fragile Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish in the shadowlands of Antarctica, outside the reach of ordinary enforcement agencies, for almost ten years (Florens, 2012). Even though the situation was handled and the ships destroyed, more secret incidences being conducted by some countries are undergoing but have not being brought to light? This can be a result of its sovereignty control in the international world.

In conclusion, all these arising issues in the international on the Antarctic raises doubt on the capability of the Antarctica Treaty to offer a governance framework on the activities carried out in Antarctica. Scholars raise the question of whether there should be a need for revisiting and revising the Treaty again. An increase in environmental pollution and an increase of interest by different countries bring criticism of the Treaty. Therefore, there is a need to look keenly in the governance framework to respect international law.


Brady, Anne-Marie, “China’s Rise in Antarctica?” (2010) 50 Asian Survey 759

Dodds, Klaus, “Governing Antarctica: Contemporary Challenges and the Enduring Legacy of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty” (2010) 1 Global Policy 108

Florens, FB, “Going to Bat for an Endangered Species” (2012) 336 Science 1102

Hanessian, J. (1960). The Antarctic Treaty 1959. International & Comparative Law Quarterly, 9(3), 436-480.

Liu, Nengye, “Rising China and ANTARCTIC Futures in the Anthropocene” [2019] Charting Environmental Law Futures in the Anthropocene 121

MacKay, Richard, “The Atlas of Endangered Species” (2014)

Newson, SE et al, “Indicators of the Impact of Climate Change on Migratory Species” (2009) 7 Endangered Species Research 101

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