A GROUP of top Australian researchers have warned cuts in scientific funding mean the country is at risk of being squeezed out by foreign powers in the political games and strategic jockeying taking place in Antarctica.
The dire warning came from the Australian Academy of Science in its submission to a parliamentary inquiry currently being conducted into Australia’s Antarctic Territory.
The Academy, which is comprised of more than 500 of the nation’s leading scientists, said
Australia’s infrastructure assets and capability in Antarctica “have traditionally been outstanding” but warned rising powers are eager to displace us.
“Australian leadership in Antarctic science is receding, which is impacting Australia’s influence in the region,” the Academy wrote. “Most significantly, scientific activity and output have declined substantially.
“With respect both to infrastructure assets and scientific capability, Australia is falling behind other nations that are taking an increasingly high interest in the Australian Antarctic Territory, particularly China, Russia and India.”
With the rise of these powers, “Australia is losing its capability to lead science, and is instead becoming a follower in many areas, dependent on agendas set by other nations and serving their interests foremost,” the submission said.
Australia has by far the largest claim in the polar region of any nation with the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) covering 42 per cent of the continent. It was claimed by the United Kingdom and placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1933. However only the UK, New Zealand, France and Norway recognise Australia’s claim over the territory.
Antarctica is essentially governed by a system of treaties and agreements that to date have prohibited any militarisation or mining on the icy continent.
But in recent years there have been a number of warnings that countries like China, Russia and India are positioning themselves for a change and some fear it could lead to a heated showdown over access to mineral resources, fishing and shipping routes.
Russia has been building up its influence in recent years and countries like Iran and Turkey have also voiced their interest to have a physical presence in the region.
Antarctica is a mineral-rich continent and underpinning the suspicion is the fact that China is seen as a resource-hungry nation in need of fossil fuels and minerals to feed its growing economy.
The country recently began work on its fifth Antarctic research facility — a move that has prompted strategic and defence think tanks in both the US and Australia to raise concerns about China’s clear desire to exert greater control over the continent, potentially at Australia’s expense.
In its submission, the Australian Academy of Science pointed to a recent meeting of nations to discuss the Antarctic Treaty which for the first time was hosted by China as an example of the country’s continued efforts to acquire soft power, calling it a “notable exercise of this new influence”.
Professor Donald Rothwell from the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law has summed up the Australian response to China’s Antarctic ambitions “as needing to be alert but not alarmed”.
“I say alert because obviously any potential presence of another state within the Australian claimed territory could lead, at some future point in time, to a challenge to Australian sovereignty,” he told www.yya1n.com.cn in October.
But for the time being there is no reason to be alarmed “if only because as things currently stand all of the activities that are being undertaken by China are regulated within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty”.
In May 2017, China released its white paper on Antarctic affairs which committed to the Antarctic Treaty System, promoted environmental protection and scientific research.
In 2016, the Australian federal government reaffirmed its commitment to Antarctica in a 20-year action plan which included $2.2 billion in investment. But a number of submissions made to the inquiry called for the need to ensure all current levels of science funding are renewed.
According to the Department of the Environment and Energy, Australia’s more than 3300 infrastructure assets on the icy continent are worth nearly a billion dollars but many are nearing the end of their life.
GREATER COLLABORATION IS KEY
In an earlier submission, researchers from UNSW — Dr Stuart Pearson and Maozeng Jiang — highlighted the importance of scientific collaboration with other nations, particularly China.
“Australia should increase the joint scientific effort with other nations, including China, to ensure mutual development of the scientific opportunities and maintenance of the Antarctic Treaty System obligations,” they wrote.
Many in the scientific community see scientific collaboration as “the best diplomatic tool” and say it is essential for the maintenance of the continent as a scientific hub.
“With China’s rising capabilities, some will seek to stretch the ‘China threat theory’ into the Antarctic areas. China’s activities in Antarctica should not be regarded as threats to Australia’s national interests,” the UNSW researchers said.
Meanwhile the Tasmanian Polar Network — a group of businesses and scientific organisations based in Tasmania — said “it is critical that the Australian Government develop a sustainable science funding model for the future”.
Following a period of under-investment, the group said ensuring ongoing science funding in the region “will assist with confirming Australia’s role as a leading nation in Antarctica, and provide economic as well as diplomatic benefits”.
The inquiry is expected to produce a report later this year.