Antarctic Monitoring Tools in Action

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China opened its fifth station in Antarctica on February 7, 2024. The new Qinling station, located on Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea, joins the existing Great Wall (Antarctic Peninsula), Zhongshan (eastern Antarctica), Taishan (eastern Antarctic highlands), and Kunlun (Dome A) stations. China, with five, now has the fourth most stations in Antarctica behind Argentina, Chile, and Russia, and has the fastest-growing presence in Antarctica, having opened three stations since 2009.

Chinese president Xi Jinping declared in 2014 that the country intends to be a “polar power,” and its growth in Antarctica is consistent with achieving that goal in the southern hemisphere. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said upon the opening of Qinling that the station “will contribute to humanity’s scientific understanding of the Antarctic, provide a platform for joint scientific exploration and cooperation between China and other countries, and help advance peace and sustainable development in the region.”

So, what is China doing in Antarctica? And do its intentions, capabilities, and actions in that remote region threaten the national security of the United States and its allies? In 2023, CSIS published two publications on Antarctica that started to address these questions: “Great Power Competition Comes for the South Pole” and “Frozen Frontiers: China’s Great Power Ambitions in the Polar Regions.”

Other than a few such articles, there is generally little focus in the United States on Antarctic geopolitics or their potential to affect U.S. and allied national security interests. The quiet in the United States is in stark contrast to the regular discussions on the topic in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. However, this does not mean that no one in the United States is paying attention or that U.S. officials have no tools for learning what other countries are doing in Antarctica.

Specifically, the Antarctic Treaty permits certain countries to conduct unannounced, in-person inspections in the region and requires countries operating there to provide advance notification of their activities, equipment, and personnel. In the United States, the responsibility to use these tools to monitor other countries’ capabilities in Antarctica falls to the Department of State. For example, as a State Department official, the author led the U.S. team that conducted a 2020 inspection of the Chinese station being built at Inexpressible Island, the same station that just opened. So while some commentators may have been caught unawares by the construction, which started in 2017, U.S. officials have already conducted a surprise inspection of the Qinling station in 2020.

Given the rapidly growing Chinese presence in Antarctica—as well as concerns about how the Chinese stations might employ dual-use technology—now is a good time to review the tools the Antarctic Treaty provides for monitoring the presence, activities, and equipment of all countries operating in the region. In addition to knowing these tools exist, policymakers should be aware of the opportunities and limits of these tools so they can best use and strengthen them.

Key Non-armament and Monitoring Provisions in the Antarctic Treaty

In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, which sought to prevent the use of Antarctica for military purposes while providing for freedom of scientific investigation and freedom of access. This decision headed off the growing possibility of violence between Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom over their overlapping sovereignty claims; locked in the cooperation demonstrated during the successful 1957–58 International Geophysical Year; and prevented Cold War competition from spreading to the coldest continent. Signatories to the document—the first Cold War non-armament and arms control treaty—agreed to significantly restrict military action (Article I), prohibit nuclear explosive devices and their waste (Article V), and establish a strong monitoring system (Article VII). Per the treaty, “Antarctica” is defined as everything below 60 degrees south latitude, regardless of whether it is land, any category of ice, or water. Any country can join the treaty, although only ones that conduct substantial scientific research in Antarctica can participate in the consensus-based decisionmaking process.

Restricting Military and Nuclear Uses

Limiting the risk that Antarctica could be used as a launchpad for conventional military forces, dumping ground for nuclear waste, or nuclear weapons testing site was particularly important to the countries closest to the continent. Article I addressed this by establishing that the region “shall be used for peaceful purposes only” and prohibiting, “inter alia, any measures of a military nature, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, as well as the testing of any type of weapons.” This provision is remarkably broad, presumably so it can cover non-peaceful uses of the region comprehensively. It provides one example of what is prohibited—“any measures of a military nature”—and three examples of what could be considered as such. Given the structure of the provision, it would be normal, but incorrect, to conclude that these three examples are the main determinants of what needs to be prohibited to reserve Antarctica for peaceful use. However, focusing on only three examples would be insufficiently narrow. The correct reading is that “any measures of a military nature” is but one way that Antarctica cannot be used for non-peaceful purposes. In recognition of the importance of military logistical capabilities in particular, Article I does not prohibit the presence of military forces in Antarctica so long as their activities there are for scientific research or other peaceful purposes. Similarly, while Article V prohibits nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste in Antarctica, it does not prohibit the peaceful use of nuclear energy to fuel stations or vessels.

Articles I and V were vital for the 12 countries that negotiated the treaty since Article IV holds in abeyance all sovereignty claims. There are seven countries that claim sovereignty over specific portions of Antarctica (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom) plus two countries that maintain a basis to make claims in Antarctica (Russia and the United States). So long as the treaty remains in force, Article IV prevents new claimants from coming forward, freezes the current claims, and prevents any country from enforcing or applying its claim. Article IV therefore prompted the seven claimants to insist on Articles I and V due to their reasonable desire to prevent their national homelands from being threatened from territory they claim but cannot administer in Antarctica.

The Two-Tier Monitoring Program in Action

Understanding that restrictions without monitoring are just dreams, negotiators went beyond just having words on paper and established a two-tier monitoring program to verify compliance with the Antarctic Treaty. These mechanisms—an inspections regime and a requirement for advance notification of activities in Antarctica—are found in Article VII. As a result, the 12 countries that negotiated the treaty and the 47 other countries that have signed onto its provisions (as of March 1, 2024) significantly reduced the possibility of Antarctica being used to threaten others.

Understanding that restrictions without monitoring are just dreams, negotiators went beyond just having words on paper and established a two-tier monitoring program to verify compliance with the Antarctic Treaty.

The Inspection Regime

Of the two monitoring tools established by the treaty, the inspections regime has received more attention. This tool permits certain countries operating in Antarctica to conduct unannounced inspections. Per the treaty, the inspectors have complete freedom of access to all areas in Antarctica, including any station, installation, ship, aircraft, or equipment. 

This remarkably open provision was intended to advance both U.S. foreign policy goals and protect Antarctica. Per Ambassador Herman Phleger, the lead U.S. negotiator for the treaty, the United States’ intent was to use Antarctica to facilitate potential future treaties with the Soviet Union on “such vitally important matters as nuclear testing, surprise attack, and general disarmament”—agreements Moscow had been unwilling to accept at the time. According to Phleger’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the inspection provisions “will not only serve to protect the parties against any violation of the treaty, but should also prove a valuable source of practical experience in the detailed processes of international inspection.”

If obtaining agreement to this broad inspection regime was the first step, the second step was to use this right. The first inspection was completed in 1963 by New Zealand of two U.S. stations (McMurdo and South Pole) followed by the U.S. inspection in 1964 of a number of facilities, including two Soviet ones. When planning for the first U.S. inspection, one of the norms important to U.S. officials was that the unannounced visits to Soviet and other stations “should not disrupt the very harmony and international cooperation which it is the primary purpose of the Treaty to preserve.” Consistent with this goal, Secretary of State Dean Rusk instructed the U.S. inspection team, “While performing inspections, you should bear constantly in mind that all states active in Antarctica have been both friendly and cooperative with the United States in matters relating to the continent, and it is the policy of the United States to preserve and enhance this situation.” The United States and other countries also made public the inspection findings rather than burying them in government bureaucracies under heavy classification restrictions.

By promptly using the inspection provisions, publicizing the results, and making it clear that the inspections were not hostile or indicative of any specific treaty or national security concern, the United States and its allies reinforced that Antarctica was a place of cooperation and transparency reserved for peaceful scientific research. That they did so via surprise inspections indicated they did not believe in Antarctic exceptionalism or that the treaty’s words alone were sufficient to uphold it. This posture was also shaped by the desire to create favorable conditions for future arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union by demonstrating that in-person inspections would not necessarily be hostile.

According to the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, there have been 60 inspections since the treaty entered into force in 1961. The most recent—by the United States to certain Ross Sea sites and Australia to various stations throughout the continent—concluded in February 2020. The United States has conducted the most inspections overall (17), with Australia conducting the most during the twenty-first century (6).

There are significant differences between earlier and more recent inspections. Only 12 countries conducted inspections during the first three decades, while 22 did during the second three decades. This trend reinforces that the inspection regime is neither just a U.S. interest nor merely a Cold War tool, but that it is important for many countries active in Antarctica, including those that have no territorial claim or are not leading participants in great power competition.

The increasing number of inspecting countries and inspected sites is vital since the number of stations has grown over the decades. Having a wider range of states monitoring treaty compliance is particularly important since the seven claimant countries generally focus their inspections on the area they claim, likely due to having logistical capability and familiarity with that region as well as to learn the details of the activities of other countries in “their” area. For example, the United Kingdom has conducted eight inspections, only two of which were outside its territorial claim while both Argentina and Chile have conducted all of their six inspections in their claimed areas. Australia is the main exception to this observation, having sent officials to the Ross Sea and Peninsula regions, both of which are outside of its Antarctic claim.

The rise in joint or multilateral inspections reflects their potential benefits, including the sharing of costs (political and logistical) and rewards (both practical and what was found). However, there is no treaty requirement for joint or multilateral inspections or provisions for neutral monitoring teams. This is because during the treaty negotiations, the United States insisted on the right to organize unilateral inspections due to challenges learned from attempting to conduct inspections with multiple countries during the Korean War.

Overall, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have consistently been the most active countries in using the inspection tools. After conducting only one inspection in the first 20 years of the treaty, Australia has increased the pace of its inspections. Although the United Kingdom has conducted eight inspections it has inspected 138 sites—the most by far. It is also the leader in joint inspections, having undertaken seven joint inspections with different countries, followed by Argentina and Chile (which have conducted three joint inspections with each other in the past decade), France, Germany, and the United States. The pace of U.S. inspections has slowed significantly since the Cold War: The United States conducted eight of the 13 inspections prior to 1985 but has conducted only two inspections since 2013, only one of which included national security officials.

The Soviet Union’s global stance against inspections likely reduced its willingness to use the treaty inspection regime despite its interest in monitoring its Cold War competitors. However, Russia did conduct two joint inspections with the United States in January and December 2012 during the “reset” period of U.S.-Russian relations. In addition, since China became a consultative party to the Antarctic Treaty in 1985, it has conducted two inspections, one in 2015 and one in 1990.

Advance Notification in Practice

Per Article VII, the second monitoring tool requires a country to give advance notice regarding “all expeditions to and within Antarctica, on the part of its ships or nationals, and all expeditions to Antarctica organized in or proceeding from its territory,” all its stations, and “any military personnel or equipment intended to be introduced by it into Antarctica.” This provides transparency about upcoming activities, which benefits both national security interests and scientific collaboration. Since traveling to the region is remarkably expensive and challenging, this process gives more countries greater insight into a wider area of Antarctica than could be achieved via in-person inspections. In addition, Article III requires parties to share plans for future and results from previous scientific programs “to the greatest extent feasible and practicable.”

The advance notification process has evolved but is currently failing. For many years, parties met these obligations via diplomatic notes. However, this was inefficient, so representatives at the 2012 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) decided they would use the web-based Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) maintained by the treaty’s secretariat. On top of the information required by the treaty—most notably on expeditions and military personnel and equipment—parties agreed to provide additional information on areas such as the use of research rockets.

Three troubling trends were salient at the 2023 ATCM. First, only 10 of the 29 consultative parties submitted their annual report for each of the past 10 years. Second, during this time, there was a 20 percent decrease in the number of parties that submitted their information. Third, when a party files its annual report, the document usually does not cover all topics, including treaty-required information.

Of the major actors in Antarctica, China is the most significant party that has not consistently  submitted information to the EIES, notably not filing any reports between 2017–2022 and recently filing the reports for the last two seasons. China’s failure to regularly report on its annual expeditions, station construction, and operations contributes to an information void that calls into question Chinese motives and capabilities. But as the secretariat has indicated, some topics are almost never reported on by any party, including the obligatory information on forward plans for scientific research and military personnel and equipment. This widespread failure by parties to meet agreed-upon transparency requirements amplifies stress on the Antarctic Treaty system even as concerns mount about its health.

This widespread failure by parties to meet agreed-upon transparency requirements amplifies stress on the Antarctic Treaty system even as concerns mount about its health.

U.S. Inspections in 2020

In 2020, the U.S. interagency team inspected five sites at three stations—Jang Bogo (South Korea), Mario Zucchelli (Italy), and the station later dubbed Qinling under construction on Inexpressible Island (China)—as well as Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) 161 and the runway under construction near Mario Zucchelli Station. The United States chose to inspect these five sites due to operational, scientific, and environmental reasons, in addition to national security ones.

The composition of the team was consistent with the goal of inspection and included national security experts from the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Coast Guard, as well as experts in Antarctic scientific operations and environmental topics from the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All inspectors had the responsibility and ability to collect information on any of the priority issues up for inspection and were not restricted to a particular topic. Additionally, all inspectors used the EIES and other publicly available information to research the sites before arrival. As noted above, the EIES process is designed to satisfy not only the advance notification requirements of the Antarctic Treaty but also, as parties agreed to in 2012, provide additional information on other topics.

Per the terms of the treaty and as subsequently illuminated by treaty meetings, the United States informed other parties of the names and affiliated U.S. government agency of the inspection team members in December 2019 but provided no information about the destinations or goals of the inspection. The United States informed the three selected stations of the team’s impending arrival roughly 36 hours before they reached the first site, the South Korean Jang Bogo station. Providing short-term advance notification is a customary courtesy, given how receptive all countries have been to these inspections, to reduce disruptions to scientific and operational activities and reduce risk of a transportation emergency.

The United States was interested in the operational aspects of the chosen sites in the Ross Sea region largely due to the new infrastructure that had been (and was being) constructed there since the previous U.S. inspection in 2012: the Jang Bogo Station was opened in 2014, Italy was building a new runway, and China was building a new year-round station on Inexpressible Island. The Italian runway was of particular interest since it could serve as an alternative landing point for intercontinental flights to the U.S. McMurdo Station—a major transit and logistical hub 200 miles away—that would otherwise need to return to their departure point if weather at McMurdo was inhospitable. Having an alternative landing site in Antarctica could prevent “boomerang” flights that return to New Zealand, for example, thereby saving time, fuel, and money. Additionally, since the United States has the largest presence in the region, U.S. officials wanted to be prepared in case McMurdo personnel are called on to respond to an emergency. Decreasing the possibility that the finite U.S. resources at the station would be diverted from planned scientific or operational activity to provide emergency assistance to the Chinese, Italian, or South Korean stations along the Ross Sea was the main concern in the report, which therefore encouraged the then-unnamed Chinese station to increase communication with its Italian and South Korean neighbors.

In addition to having the largest presence in Antarctica, the United States conducts the most scientific research on the continent. U.S. officials are always interested in learning about new activities and new approaches being pursued there, including ongoing Italian maritime research, new South Korean preparations for an inland traverse, and potential Chinese contributions to understanding the variation of the climate, cryosphere, and ocean in the Ross Sea region. At the time, these three parties were collaborating to designate a new ASPA to assist in monitoring one of the oldest Adélie penguin colonies and a breeding site of south polar skua, as well as serve as a reference point for sea-ice dynamics; ASPA 178 was approved at the 2021 ATCM in Paris. The United States also uses inspections to learn how parties are engaging with the environment, including but not limited to how a station is implementing the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection, a complementary agreement that entered into force in 1998. Notably, the inspectors “strongly encouraged” China to submit a final comprehensive environmental evaluation for its station, a requirement China subsequently completed in October 2021.

None of the countries whose stations were inspected have made or can make territorial claims so long as the treaty is in force, so Article IV sovereignty considerations were of the less priority for the inspectors. However, New Zealand maintains a territorial claim over the Ross Sea area where the stations are located, so having U.S. officials travel there without informing New Zealand underscored that no country’s claim can impede an unannounced inspection. Inspection officials, who were warmly welcomed at all visited sites, focused on reviewing compliance with Article I and other treaty provisions and, as the report concluded, “found no violations of Treaty provisions reserving Antarctica solely for peaceful purposes.” Rather, “each of the stations was well-managed and impressive in terms of their general facilities and professional character.”

However, the U.S. team very much considered Articles I and V and other provisions. Each station allowed the inspectors access to all parts of the station. Inspectors found no weapons, military equipment, or explosives at any of them; however, both Italy’s Mario Zucchelli station and Korea’s Jang Bogo station had military personnel present.

In addition to the stations, the United States chose to inspect ASPA 161, which reinforced the point that giving an area protected status does not exempt it from the broader monitoring regime. Other countries had inspected protected areas, including Australia in 2016 and New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States in 2005. Doing so also demonstrated how to conduct an inspection without harming the ecology of the area.

Finally, the U.S. inspectors chose to highlight the importance of transparency. For example, the report encouraged countries to “maintain or increase the information they share” and noted the “significant disparity in the use of the [EIES],” as noted above, China has been particularly derelict at using this mandated transparency tool. By contrast, as has been the norm since the treaty was signed, the United States released its report not only to the Antarctic Treaty parties but also to the public.


Given that the Antarctic Treaty does not resolve differences over Antarctica but addresses them by agreeing to disagree on key topics such as sovereignty and by curtailing military interests and activities, there is justifiable concern about how increased geopolitical rivalry may affect the future of the treaty. In particular, strategic rivalries may increase suspicion that certain countries are not complying with key provisions such as the obligation to use Antarctica for peaceful purposes only.

However, existing tools do provide some solutions to these challenges and worries, and there is much the United States can do to ensure its own situational awareness of what is happening in Antarctica. Specifically, the United States should do the following:

  • Increase the frequency of in-person, unannounced inspections. Although the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted and continues to affect Antarctic operations, and weather will always be the biggest challenge to any sort of movement, conducting only one full inspection during the past decade demonstrates a lack of commitment by the United States to monitoring the capabilities and activities of other countries in Antarctica in person. Every three to five years, the United States should aim to undertake inspections that cover an appropriate array of sites and use U.S.-flagged operated transportation.
  • Increase collaboration with like-minded countries on inspections. Inspections are time-consuming and expensive. To mitigate these practical challenges, the United States should consider collaborating with other like-minded countries, such as by conducting joint inspections or sharing detailed information afterward.
  • Promote the idea that inspections can in turn reinforce collaboration. The United States should consider conducting in-person inspections with other countries to achieve specific goals. For example, a joint inspection of Antarctic Peninsula sites with Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom—the three countries laying claim to the region—could send a powerful signal of cooperation. Like the U.S.-Russian inspections in 2012, a joint inspection by the United States and China could also provide a practical and discrete way for the two countries to demonstrate their collaboration in Antarctica and commitment to the treaty.
  • Encourage compliance with advance notification requirements. The United States should continue to push all countries to supply the information they agreed to provide to the EIES. It should encourage work by neutral knowledgeable authorities, such as the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, to report on EIES compliance annually. In addition to reviewing the submissions of other countries, the United States should set a positive example of compliance with the EIES reporting requirements. It should make sure its own submissions are timely and complete.
  • Increase attention paid to dual-use equipment. The United States should analyze the information already collected during previous inspections and submitted to the EIES regarding telescopes, telecommunications equipment such as submarine cables if and when they are built, and satellite infrastructure such as the U.S. Global Positioning System, Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System, China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, and the EU Galileo system. If Washington feels the existing requirements to report on military equipment are not sufficient to supply the information it needs, it should also consider proposing to add additional fields to the EIES. Countries should also prioritize in-person inspections of key sites to verify the information submitted is consistent with what is on the ground. Knowing what equipment is in Antarctica is the first step to determining related risks and mitigation actions.

William Muntean III is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This report was made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.