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US Eyeing Militarization of Antarctic as Well as Arctic

Treaty that "has been the cornerstone of governance" for most southerly continent could soon be torn up

View of China's military base in the King George island, in Antarctica, on March 13, 2014.

View of China's military base in the King George island, in Antarctica, on March 13, 2014. (Photo: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

A top U.S. military general said Tuesday that the country will be looking at militarizing the Antarctic just as it has the Arctic.

Air Force general Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Force, made the remarks in an address at The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

Brown pointed to moves already made by Russia and China, a self-declared "near-Arctic state," and noted both nations "have a presence in the Antarctic right now" as well as the Arctic.

At several points, Brown mentioned 2048, which is set to be a key moment for the Antarctic—a region "within increasingly convenient reach"—because it's when the Antarctic Treaty can go under review.

Brown called the Arctic "kind of a precursor to the way I look at the Antarctic." He continued, "The capabilities we have in the Arctic are the same capabilities we probably want to have in the Antarctic."

He added that icebreakers were a lacking capability—"Russia has much more than we do." And, because the U.S. military will still need the few it has to operate in the Arctic, "we may need more" to bring them to Antarctica.

As geopolitics professor Klaus Dodds wrote at The Conversation last year, the looming review plunges "the future of the continent into uncertainty."

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For six decades, the treaty has been the cornerstone of governance for our most southerly, harshest and most pristine continent. It has fostered scientific research, promoted international cooperation, ensured non-militarization, suspended territorial claims and strengthened environmental protections. Its guardians are the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs)—chief among them the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Norway, Germany, Chile, and Argentina. [...]

At present ACTPs are focusing on improving cold weather technology and gaining confidence in Antarctic conditions, but it might not be long until they have the capability and incentive to do more. China is already using underwater vehicles to search for gas hydrates and metallic nodules in the South China Sea. Ominously, underwater mining and deep-sea energy prospecting seem set to be growth industries over the coming decades. [...]

After 2048, Antarctica could be carved up between nations like every other land mass and surrounding ocean, and slowly relieved of its resources.

The Pentagon is already mapping out moves on the Earth's northernmost region, announcing (pdf) this year that it is looking at "enhancing Arctic operations."

"From the security standpoint and the militarizing of the Arctic," U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz said earlier this month, "that is probably the future place for a contentious situation."

Air Force chief scientist Richard Joseph, who this month led a team to visit military installations in Alaska, echoed that message.

"The Arctic region," Joseph said in a statement, "is becoming increasingly important and central to defense of our homeland."

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