Great Power Competition Comes for the South Pole

On February 2, the Peoples’ Republic of China announced plans to construct new satellite ground stations around the Zongshan Antarctic research facility. Stated to improve China’s supposed remote sensing and data collection capabilities around the pole, the stations add to a growing network of Chinese space research bases now stretching from Antarctica up through South America—stations which could quickly be turned to a variety of military applications. The move also demonstrates Antarctica’s rising potential to become a theater for great power competition, and the need for a clear U.S. strategy to counter this trend.    

The South Pole has been absent from conversations about U.S. national security and grand strategy. In contrast to the Arctic, where rising militarization and competition over hydrocarbon resources has dominated the news cycle as of late, the Antarctic thus far has remained relatively stable. This can be credited in large part to the durability of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) which has governed the continent since treaty’s adoption in 1959. Negotiated under the Eisenhower administration, the treaty today seeks to manage existing territorial claims, prevent new ones, and prevent Antarctic mineral exploration. Over time the treaty system has also grown from a single document to include regular consultative meetings, added protocols on environmental issues, and, since 1982, a separate but closely related body to deal with Antarctic wildlife in the form of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). In the Cold War context, limiting great power competition from entering Antarctica and preventing military use of the Antarctic territory were key issues and in the mutual interest of both the United States and Soviet Union.

However, emerging technologies, sharpening competition between powers, and an increasingly multipolar world are now creating trends that may upset the decades-long consensus around the Antarctic. New icebreakers, proposals for all-weather airstrips, drones, and remote-sensing technologies promise to lower barriers to entry for many countries seeking to increase their presence. Meanwhile the mineral geology of the Antarctic, as well as its rich maritime ecosystem, offer attractive economic incentives for countries such as China to dispense with the environmental restrictions imposed by the treaty system. Finally, the explicit incorporation of the Antarctic into the national security strategies of competitors like Russia and China raise concerns for the future of a non-militarized Antarctic.

Fortunately, many of these challenges remain speculative for the time being. However, a number of scenarios could result in a deterioration of Antarctic relations, and in turn set of a cascade that may imperil the treaty system as a whole. The United States cannot afford to be caught flat-footed by these trends, and needs a new strategy to preserve the Antarctic as a realm of peaceful cooperation.

Breaking the Ice

U.S. interests in the Antarctic today remain largely unchanged from where they were 80 years ago—namely, preventing the militarization of the region and maintaining the continent as a region of primarily scientific exploration. Preventing militarization is a key interest both for ensuring the passage of ships and aircraft around the Drake Passage, as well as preventing the use of the continent for the deployment of monitoring stations and even potential weapons emplacement that could be used to attack the United States and its allies. Maintaining the Antarctic as a realm of primarily scientific exploration is a matter of both environmental and strategic concern, considering that a race to exploit mining and fishing resources would almost invariably sharpen competition for access to said resources.

What has changed dramatically however are the attendant geopolitical forces impacting the ATS. Technological developments in particular have lowered historically high barriers to access for many countries with Antarctic interests. For instance, following Australia’s decision to scrap the Davis aerodrome, which would have represented the first paved airstrip on the continent, China has moved forward with a similar plan to establish a permanent runway. Such a project would vastly augment China’s ability to move people, material, and supplies to and from the Antarctic. Modern icebreakers also facilitate access through maritime routes for a longer period each year. Finally, improved remote sensing via satellites and uncrewed vehicles makes surveying for natural resources and fishing stocks easier.

Accordingly, while the ATS has thus far proven resilient to challenges from revisionist powers, a number of scenarios could represent a breaking point for the system. One especially troubling scenario would be the discovery of significant proven natural resource deposits in the Antarctic. Based on the mineral geology of the continents and countries that previously surrounded Antarctica, the United States Geological Survey estimated as early as 1983 that Antarctica may have significant deposits of petroleum, natural gas, coal copper, iron, uranium, and likely many other minerals. However, the challenges to operating on the continent coupled with the normative and legal restrictions on economic exploitation of Antarctica has thus far been a sufficient deterrent to would-be challengers.

But advances in either mining technology or the discovery of a particularly lucrative deposit could lower the relative costs of circumventing or otherwise ignoring the ATS’ prohibition on exploitative industries. Such a development would in turn set off a chain reaction as other countries may begin a race to develop their own deposits. It would also reignite questions of territorial claims to the Antarctic. At the moment, seven countries exercise at times competing territorial claims under the ATS (the United States also maintains the right to claim territory, but has never sought this). Eroding the prohibition on mining would therefore open a host of competing territorial, economic, and even security issues, to say nothing of the environmental degradation a scramble for Antarctic resources would unleash.

While many have raised the specter of 2048—when the process to revise Article 7 of Antarctic Treaty’s environmental protocol, otherwise known as the mining ban, may be challenged—as the theoretical turning point, the above scenario could manifest in the span of a decade, if not less. Without a dedicated strategy for addressing efforts to illegally mine the Antarctic, the United States may be caught flat-footed by the pace of events, acting too late to prevent a dedicated effort at overturning the prohibition. In contrast to a dramatic discovery that kick-starts competition in the Antarctic, another scenario could be the more gradual corrosion of the treaty order ushered in by rising global tides of great power competition. If countries begin cheating or skirting the mining prohibitions, for instance, a grand scramble for Antarctica would not be necessary to eventually remove the legal and reputational penalties that have thus far prevailed in maintaining environmental protections on the continent.

Already there are worrying indicators that this consensus may be slipping. Russia has surveyed for hydrocarbons in Antarctic waters while China’s worrying track record on illegal fishing also suggests the potential for an erosion of environmental protections of marine life, a channel less dramatic than a mining rush given exploitation of marine resources is permissible and regulated under CCAMLR. It is nevertheless one which should be strenuously avoided. As rising powers seek to undercut U.S. influence in new areas, they may also come to view the Antarctic as a useful second front where Washington is underprepared to respond to disruptions. Under this scenario, 2048 may come and go without any major changes to the letter of the treaty, yet in practice the spirit of cooperation that has characterized Antarctic exploration may slowly disintegrate thanks to an increasingly fraught world order.

Mapping Rivals’ Interests in the Antarctic

Photo: iLab/CSIS

While the logistical difficulties inherent in any work on the Antarctic continent make operations there difficult for any country, the continent remains home to a wide range of interests and actors. Some 55 countries are party to the Antarctic Treaty, while 30 countries maintain a total of around 82 stations on the continent. The Antarctic is thus a matter of global import, with consequences that impact countries from the tip of the southern hemisphere to the edge of the far north and Arctic Circle. By far, the greatest challenges to the ATS and international consensus around the region today come from China and Russia.

Chinese Interests in the Antarctic

China began exploration of the Antarctic in 1983 in partnership with Australia. Today, China operates four Antarctic research stations, with two of these being operational year-round, and is in the process of constructing a fifth in the Ross Sea. The Antarctic is an area of interest for China as a source of national and scientific prestige, climate analysis, fishing stocks, and potential natural gas and mineral reserves.

Xi Jinping himself has stated that China seeks to become a “polar great power,” and every five-year plan since 2011 has characterized Antarctica as a “new strategic frontier.” Administratively, Chinese Antarctic affairs are governed by the State Oceanic Administration, and research conducted by the Polar Research Institute of China, though the latter organization’s remit has been expanded to cover “polar politics, economy, science & technology, as well as security.” Polar research is the source of substantial pride in state media, especially since the inauguration of its latest icebreaker the Xue Long 2, which, together with the original Xue Long, are commonly referred to as the “twin dragons.”

In terms of fishery stocks, China has been actively interested in the cultivation of Antarctic krill. Indeed, China has consistently worked together with Russia to block the designation of three new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) annual CCAMLR meetings. While current Chinese fishing activities near Antarctica remain marginal, the appearance of massive fishing armadas throughout South America provide a concerning indication of the potential for this presence to dramatically expand.

Growing Chinese engagement in the Antarctic also brings security concerns. Senior Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy officials for instance have insinuated that Antarctica’s “global commons” status ought to grant China the right to economic opportunities in the region. China has also installed dual-use BeiDou equipment in its Antarctic stations, supposedly to improve the accuracy of weather maps. Such technology can also improve the precision of ballistic missiles and parallels a growing trend of expanding Chinese sensor outposts in South America. Meanwhile, the voyage of the “twin dragons” in 2019 was met with concern that the icebreakers could be clandestinely crewed with military personnel.

Russian Interests in the Antarctic

While Russia’s Antarctic strategy has not been rendered as explicitly as China’s, Moscow has likewise remained invested in developing Antarctic natural resources, as well as implementing dual-use infrastructure in its stations on the continent. Russia’s 2021 Antarctic Action Plan emphasized strengthening maritime presence and research activity around the continent, and Russian policy overall expresses a high degree of suspicion towards other nations’ interests in the region. This suspicion at times smacks of hypocrisy, especially as Russia simultaneously opposes the expansion of MPAs and other environmental protections while denouncing it’s perceived “discrimination” over access to regional bioresources. Indeed, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s plans for increasing Russian fishing profits is explicitly connected this goal to greater cultivation of Antarctic fisheries.

Russia’s military activity in the Antarctic is also more pronounced than China’s with the Russian Navy conducting hydrographic research in the region, which could be utilized for submarine navigation. Russian stations in the area also conduct space research for the Russian state-owned corporation Roscosmos. Several satellite relays and ground-based Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) installations can be found in the Antarctic. These facilities could be used to track missiles and increase command and control capabilities. The recently reopened Russkaya Station in particular has drawn attention from analysts for its potential as a dual-use electronic and anti-satellite warfare site.

Russia possesses a total of 10 research stations in the Antarctic, with half of these being open year-round. However, current stations are in a state of disrepair and poor conditions. In 2020 an estimated 90 percent of the inland Vostok station’s infrastructure was worn out, while attempts to refurbish the station with new modules ran into extensive delays. Thus, while Russia has historically been more assertive than China in the Antarctic, Moscow may lack the technology and capability to proceed with these efforts, especially as its growing pariah status on the international stage imposes increasing resource constraints. However, just as Russian material capabilities may be declining as a result of the war in Ukraine, so too has the Kremlin sought to escalate in domains outside Europe, potentially opening the window to a more unpredictable and dangerous Russian Antarctic policy.

Toward an Antarctic Strategy

The transformation of Antarctica into a militarized and walled-off set of economic fiefdoms should be regarded by the United States as a worst-case scenario. To prevent such a development from coming to pass, the United States needs a plan for preserving and renewing the Eisenhower-era consensus even in the face of shifting global trends and emerging technologies. The following recommendations represent a starting point for the United States:

  • Increase engagement with gateway countries. Given the difficulties of accessing the Antarctic, the countries closest to the pole represent vital strategic gateways. Currently, five cities are identified as Antarctic gateways; Cape Town in South Africa, Christchurch in New Zealand, Hobart in Australia, Punta Arenas in Chile, and Ushuaia in Argentina. The United States should renew its commitment to partnership with these gateway countries on the basis of preserving the Antarctic for peaceful scientific exploration. In particular, the United States should increase investment in and consider jointly operating infrastructure in these cities. Special attention can be given to Chile and Argentina, which have both expressed interest in growing their Antarctic logistical capacity, while simultaneously playing host to growing Chinese investment and influence. Strengthening its partnership with these countries can help avoid granting China a footprint from which to launch far more opaque polar activities.
  • Convene stakeholders in the ATS for a discussion on dual-use infrastructure. The nature of dual-use technologies currently employed in the Antarctic renders questions or militarization inherently murky. In the case of GPS and satellite uplinks, it is near impossible to cleanly differentiate the types of technologies used for weather tracking and communication from those that may be used for missile guidance. Nevertheless, hosting an open conversation on these challenges can potentially generate new guidance and policy options while sending a signal that the United States remains firmly committed to ensuring the Antarctic remains free from military competition. The United States can augment its credibility at this meeting by acknowledging its own dual-use technologies and engaging in a good-faith consultation on how to decrease concerns of militarization.
  • Strengthen ties between national scientific academies and research services. Ensuring that scientific exploration remains the foremost goal of countries’ Antarctic policies requires a dedicated effort to build ties between international scientific communities. The United States should seek to increase the number of multinational research activities in the South Pole. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation can also serve as centers for excellence leading outreach to other nations’ Antarctic programs and bolstering the already tight-knit relations between Antarctic scientific communities. A clear commitment from the United States to continue leadership on polar science will reinforce messaging around the importance of the Antarctic for global scientific heritage.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, William A. Schreyer Chair, and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Henry Ziemer is the program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Americas Program.


Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development