Australia’s plans for a $2 billion airstrip in the Antarctic is environmental vandalism

Feb 25, 2021

While Australia criticises other countries for their supposed expansionist policies, Australia is the most brazen of any country in asserting ownership of territory that doesn’t belong to it. And while Australia claims to be staunchly committed to the environmental protection of the Antarctic, its actions belie such a claim, with its proposal to build a $2 billion concrete aerodrome at its Davis base.

Credit – Unsplash

Australia bluntly states that it has sovereignty – not just a claim – over 5.9 million square kilometres of Antarctica plus a 2 million square kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone offshore. Undeterred by its treaty obligations, Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper stated without equivocation, “We have sovereignty over 42 per cent of the continent, including sovereign rights over adjacent offshore areas.”

At the time, I assumed this was an inadvertent error. However, when I recently asked the Department of Foreign Affairs, it said Australia’s sovereignty “was established in 1936 following a transfer of the territory from Britain”. In the absence of widespread international recognition, this meant nothing. The claim was rendered irrelevant when Australia signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 and ratified it in 1961. The treaty does not recognise any country as having sovereignty over any part of the Antarctic.

Furthermore, although the White Paper said Australia is “staunchly committed” to environmental protection in the Antarctic, this is hard to reconcile with its current proposal to build a 2.7 kilometre concrete aerodrome at its Davis base – one of three bases it uses on a narrow ice-free strip on the edge of the continent to perform scientific research.

Only 19 people are at Davis in winter when the weather is often atrocious for flying. Yet the concrete aerodrome is estimated to cost more than $2 billion so that a year-round service can be provided. Contrary to Australia’s professed commitment to protecting the environment, the 10-year effort to transport construction materials for the aerodrome and level the rocky site will seriously harm plants and wildlife colonies near the base and interrupt research in summer or winter.

Tasmanian researchers Shaun Brooks and Julia Jabour cite authoritative data showing the aerodrome and associated construction is estimated to increase Australia’s “disturbance” footprint from 6 per cent to 35 per cent of the total. This is the largest of the 29 countries operating 70 research stations in the Antarctic.  The US’ footprint is 24 per cent, Russia’s 13 per cent, Japan’s 6 per cent and China’s 5 per cent. The figure for France and many others is only 2 per cent.

President Dwight Eisenhower and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev were instrumental in establishing the Antarctic Treaty as one of the great diplomatic accomplishments of the 20th century. US support for the treaty was a sharp departure from its stance in 1957 when archival documents show its joint military chiefs ordered staff to draw up plans for the “establishment now of US claims to those portions of the Antarctic, including those claimed by allies, to which we have a basis for valid claims”.

The treaty entrenches non-militarisation of the continent and promotes international scientific cooperation and environmental protection. The continent is administered with a light touch by 29 countries conducting research there. As well as refusing to recognise that any country has sovereignty, the treaty explicitly states that no new claims, or enlargement of existing claims, are allowed.

Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand Norway and the UK maintain the claims they asserted before 1959. Apart from Australia’s fanciful insistence that it owns 42 per cent of the continent, the other six countries claim 38 per cent while 20 per cent remains unclaimed. No other countries accept these claims.

Subject to strict conditions, countries can claim Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) extending 200 nautical miles offshore. In 1984 the Hawke government took the bold step of claiming an offshore EEZ in Antarctica. In response, the US sent a formal note pointing out:

“It is a well-established principle that the sovereign rights over an EEZ derive from the sovereignty of the coastal state over adjacent land territory. The US must reiterate its long-standing position that it does not recognise any claim to territories in Antarctica.”

The US position is unchanged ­­— ­­and correct.

Yet Australia continues to criticise other countries supposedly usurping territory illegally, such as China, in the much smaller South China Sea, where conflicting claims of the littoral states to resources such as fish or oil this sea attract intense global publicity.

The resource rights at issue in the South China Sea are based on claims to sovereignty over uninhabited islets, reefs and rocks called “features” that supposedly generate Exclusive Economic Zones.

A leading scholar on the Law of the Sea, a former Australian naval captain, the late Sam Bateman, explained that these claims differ from those to sovereignty over onshore land or to territorial sea that extends a maximum of 12 nautical miles from the coastline.

In 2016 the Philippines won a Law of the Sea Tribunal case that rejected an EEZ  based on historic claims made by China to geographical “features”. Although unlikely at this stage, it would be better if China used the Antarctic treaty as a template to persuade all the littoral states to put their claims on indefinite hold and demilitarise the South China Sea.

While China has fallen foul in international tribunals, so too has Australia and the UK. Australia lost a court case in The Hague after it used the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to help it prevent the impoverished new nation of East Timor achieving a fair distribution of resource boundaries between East Timor and Australia.

Similarly, despite Britain being 13,000 kilometres from the Falkland Islands, it rejected a 2016 UN Commission finding that Argentina’s maritime boundary should include the Falklands. Britain is also on the losing end of legal cases that bolster Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

Britain severed this archipelago from Mauritius colony in 1965, promising to give it back after independence. Instead, it removed the inhabitants from one of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia, and leased it to the US for use as a massive military base. The International Court of Justice in 2019 found that Britain should end its administration of the Chagos archipelago because it had not been legally separated from Mauritius. Britain refuses.

If Australia wants to be regarded as a good international citizen, it should abandon its absurd claim to have sovereign ownership of 42 per cent of Antarctica. Australia should also scrap the proposal for the aerodrome. Planes able to land on snow should continue to be used if necessary.

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