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Eyes wide open: Managing the Australia–China Antarctic relationship
Antarctica is strategically important to Australia. As a claimant state to 42% of the Antarctic continent, we have vital national interests in the Antarctic and critical relationships with other countries active in the region. Under the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica can be used only for peaceful purposes. Because of its unique international status and legal framework, Antarctica often sits aside from many of the geopolitical tensions unfolding in the rest of the world.
China is a rising power in Antarctic affairs, and Australia has a long relationship with China in the Antarctic. In recent years, a level of distrust has developed in that relationship, and that’s now affecting decision-making in the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS).
For some analysts, the aim of cultivating a closer Australian relationship with China on Antarctic affairs is laudable, even during periods when the two sides differ sharply over other important issues. That’s because a well-constructed relationship can improve the chances that Australia and China will be able to cooperate in a part of the world that’s remained free from military conflict, and where Australia can influence China’s evolving interests in the ATS.
Others see that the expansion of ties with China in Antarctica may come at the cost of our traditional role as a leader in Antarctic affairs. Given recent broader tensions in the China–Australia relationship, China’s global ambitions, lack of progress on key Antarctic policy initiatives and the potential for significant geopolitical consequences for the future of Antarctica and for Australia’s strategic interests, it’s important that Australian policymakers reconsider our long-term Antarctic policy settings. In doing so, they should critically assess the relationships we have with China and other Antarctic players.