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Antarctica: Where Realpolitik and Science Meet

A frozen continent. Another potential frontier for conflict and competition. Antarctica is a part of the world were realpolitician meets scientist; the desire for finding exploitable resources meets environmental expectations and fears. Countries have vied for their little slice of ice, sometimes citing reasons of scientific collaboration, and often national self-interest. Much of this culminated in the establishment of the Antarctic Treaty System, comprising four major international agreements beginning with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and ending with the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

During the Cold War, it became an area of exceptional interest. The United States and other partners eyed off the Soviet Union, which they wished to exclude from any regulatory regime. In 1950, the Soviet government made it clear that such opposition would be futile; it would be part of any such negotiations.

Riding the wave of scientific research as part of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), an initiative of numerous international organisations, the Soviets established the Mirny laboratory on February 13, 1956. This immediately caused discomfort to various participants, particularly the Australians, who had asserted a claim – unrecognised in international law – to a good deal of East Antarctica in 1933.

Editorials and opinions of warning proliferated A piece in Sydney’s The Sun Herald wondered whether the Russians would “abandon Mirny to the penguins after 1959” or stay. The Advertiser saw the Soviet mission as “a potential threat to the security of Australia.”

Fears also circulated about the possible establishment of missile and submarine bases. This was despite the conclusion by an Australian Defence Committee in August 1955 that, “if Russia had any intention of attacking Australia it is unlikely that she would do so from the Antarctic.” In 1957, the External Affairs Minister Richard Casey expressed Canberra’s prevailing angst: “[W]e do not want the Russians to mount installations in the Antarctic from which they could drop missiles on Sydney or Melbourne.”

Scientists, as they tend to in such endeavours, nurse mixed feelings. Strong personal relationships were forged between nationalities, including the Australians and Soviets. The scientific explorer and physicist Keith Mather, after a visit to the Mirny Station, recalled a standard, boozy gathering between colleagues. “They have a most appropriate expression in Russian which means ‘I’ll meet you under the table’. That’s where we made our best friends.”

The eventual answer to Soviet intentions, and a rationale since used by other powers interested in the South Pole, was given by the Soviet delegate Boris Dzerdzeyevsky at the third Special Committee for Antarctic Research: “[a]s long as there is a need for scientific investigation, the Soviet expedition will be in Antarctica.”

For Australia’s political establishment, the continent is a vast problem and singular opportunity, even if Canberra has exaggerated its own contributions. The announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a boost in funding to the Antarctic effort came with much fanfare. In a government media release, the government promised to “send a clear international signal of Australia’s world-leading Antarctic leadership with an $804.4 million investment over the next ten years to strengthen our strategic and scientific capabilities in the region.”

Lapsing into the usual voice of the failed advertising executive, Morrison suggested that the package would aid things never before done. “The money we are investing in drone fleets, helicopters and other vehicles will enable us to explore areas of East Antarctica’s inland that no country has never been able to reach before.”

There would be continued support for “our world class scientists and expeditioners […] because their research on the frozen continent and Southern Ocean is critically important to Australia’s future.” But there would also be – and here, the electoral incentives ring true – benefits for Tasmania, which Foreign Minister Marise Payne described as “an international science hub.”

Scientists can certainly look forward to receiving some of the funding, even if it is conspicuously alloyed with politics. A new krill aquarium will be established in Hobart. The ice-breaking RSV Nuyina can look forward to “additional shipping support” to aid its “focus on extended science voyages.” But the stress upon observational capacity and transport is unmistakable, including $136.6 million for inland traverse capability, charting activities and “mobile stations” and $109 million “to increase aerial and inland capability.”

Environment Minister Sussan Ley gave a better sense about the broader political motivations in this funding increase. Ever lurking in the fine print is the threat posed by other powers. “We need to ensure that the Antarctic remains a place of science and conservation, one that is free from conflict and which is protected from exploitation.” By investing in science, Ley stated, Australia was showing a “commitment to our sovereignty in the Australian Antarctic Territory and its leading voice in the region.”

To journalists, Morrison was more explicit about those other nations, foremost among them China, seeking to assert control over a continent Australia had some obligatory undertaking to protect. “Well, we are a treaty nation when it comes to Antarctica, and we take those responsibilities very incredibly seriously. Now, not everybody respects those obligations and those stewardship responsibilities.” It was for such reasons that Canberra needed “to keep eyes on Antarctica.”

If only such keen eyes could be better focused on environmental concerns such as the exploitation of fish stocks and other conservation measures. No mention is made by the Morrison government of China and Russia in the context of frustrating various initiatives such as the creation of vast maritime protected areas or overfishing the keystone krill species. Given that the Morrison government has proven itself an environmental and ecological vandal in other areas, this can hardly puzzle South Pole watchers.


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  1. randalstella

    The fascist mass-murdering Putin is a hostage of his own pathetic, psychopathic excuses, the most transparent claims about how he is in the right, to free the Ukraine from fascism. If you don’t count the claims of Leftoids – the fake Left, the extreme Right, in our very own democracy.
    Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Jewish President stands fast in Kiev against overwhelming odds. Will he also be murdered? He was democratically elected – so he has to be a special dangerous target for fascist murderers.
    Putin’s excuses are much like those of his supporters – who do not have to live in Russia. Shot of any integrity and even plausibility. But will it stop them? Will this complete exposure of their devices give them pause? Let’s see.
    For example those ideologues who speak blithely of ‘Russia’ as defending its territory, as if this is the Russian people. It is not. It is the fascist elite in power, who have stolen Russia and its assets. This is the basic invasion. The murderous invasion and dictatorship against Russia and Russians before all the others.
    Before Chechnya, Georgia and now the Ukraine. The other mass murders did not give the Leftoids any pause. The serial murder, one after the other, of Russian journalists and opposition figures, and many jailings have not bothered the Leftoids at all. Could this one do it? This invasion is being watched, while all the others were not.
    Well, it is not just up to Leftoids. There is no sign at all that they could ever mend their ways. This could be no realistic aim. Their sick excuse is always – America. As if opposing Putin’s mass murder is to support America’s.
    But they don’t matter. Their browbeating and assumption of the ruthless pulpit does. Their bluffing does. They take every opportunity to bad mouth democracy – for its frailty to tyranny. Thus they support total tyranny.
    The Leftoids do not have magical prerogative. It is up to others who give the Leftoids prominence. It is up to others who shy away from Leftoid pieces, to stand up to them, discuss them, debate them.
    Could this be discussed on this site? What could stop it being discussed?

  2. randalstella

    Like a lot of you, I’m sure, I have enormous respect and admiration for the Ukrainian people. Such enormous courage. There is integrity for you, if you need a guide. Would that we were capable of such bravery resisting anti-democratic forces and persuasions.
    How very fond I am of the Russian people. Such courage. But this is nothing new with them. They have been resisting and fighting this tyranny for over a generation. The protesters know what they are in for, from the fascist thugs of Putin’s cops. But they do it anyway.
    It makes shying away from commenting on Leftoid propaganda look needlessly timid. Some people might call you names, and obsessively target you? So what? Do it anyway.
    Both Russian and Ukrainian people are now fighting the same fascism, with its massive forces of brutality and death-dealing. They both deserve equal support against this monstrous evil.
    The Leftoids who support Putin, no matter what, are joined by the fascist monster Trump. Quite aptly. They share the same politics and interest: to oppose and spoil democratic process and install a corporate oligarchy. It is not the first time that Trump and the Leftoids have sung in unison. And it won’t be the last.
    And is Australia immune from this disease?

  3. randalstella

    The protesters being mugged by fascist cops in Russian cities, for protesting against this evil war, are a very bad look for Leftoids.
    Some might even have the caution to hide away in exotic locales for topics until this atrocity blows over. That’s going to look a bit awkward though.
    They, this time, must not be allowed to forget this.
    To those who have no regard for life, sneer at those with basic decency, and call it politics – get yourself another hobby.

  4. corvusboreus

    The recent incarceration of thousands of Russian peaceful anti-war protesters by Putin’s internal security forces has passed without any remark or rebuke.

    Your expressions of contempt are justified.

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