Relations between the two nations have hit crisis levels, not least due to Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, but also its increasing aggression in the South China Seas and the imposition of a new security law in Hong Kong. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that conflict between the two was now possible and has called for an alliance of Indo-Pacific nations to combat the rising threat. Beijing imposed heavy sanctions on Australian goods and, in response, Canberra has promised to boost defence spending by 40 percent over the next 10 years.
But more than 5,000 miles away, in the scientific haven of Antarctica, experts warn there is a new kind of Cold War brewing.
As the pandemic ripped across the globe, forcing governments to provide bailout programmes for their citizens, Antarctica research stalled.
And as a new kind of world is carved out following the pandemic, Australia, Britain and the US have all said they will likely be forced to reduce research in Antarctica.
Not only could the cutbacks delay important research on rising sea levels and the effects of climate change, but they also leave the door open for a great power struggle.
Scott Morrison issued a warning to China
Australia has ramped up its defence plans
While the West has been busy focussing its attention on problems on its doorstep, Russia and China have maintained a continued presence on the continent and are reportedly pushing their luck for more access to fishing, oil reserves, and mining.
Even before that pandemic, experts warned that the two states were using scientific research to further their claims on the continent, but now they fear the two superpowers have used COVID-19 to their advantage.
Donald Rothwell, an international-law professor at the Australian National University College of Law, said he believes China and Russia “will probably seek to maintain and even increase their Antarctic activities, especially if traditional Antarctic states begin to scale back their activities on the continent”.
The US has already been jostling with Russia and China in the Arctic for decades.
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Countries study Antarctica under a global treaty
General Charles Q Brown Jr, the commander of Pacific Air Forces, said he thinks that Antarctic competition will soon resemble the United States’ rivalry with China and Russia in the North Pole.
The US, he said, has to ask what “everybody’s motive” is when “they come down to Antarctica”.
General Brown added that more equipment, such as polar icebreakers – which help boats navigate safely through the water and visually signal that a country is present in the polar region – is needed for the US to combat China’s and Russia’s expanding military footprint in both regions.
Currently, Russia possesses more icebreakers than the US, and China is building more.
He added: “When I look at the competition, and the melting ice in the Arctic, and the competition with both Russia and China, we’ve got to pay attention to that.”
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China is ramping up production of icebreakers
Xi Jinping says research is at the heart of China’s plans
Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The Atlantic: “China’s interest in Antarctica is not limited to the short term or shaped by scientists.”
Instead, he fears the country may be laying claim on the continent for resource and military advantages, unlike most of the continent’s other members.
The key to the potential future bust-up lies in the Antarctic Treaty System.
The global pact, signed in 1959, is dedicated to preserving and protecting the continent for scientific research and provides a safeguard against nuclear proliferation.
But in practice, with no technical ruling government or permanent human colonies beyond scientists and support staff, sovereignty on the continent is murky.
Territorial claims in Antarctica
The treaty is up for renewal in 30 years time and it is thought that some countries are already preparing themselves for mining to be a key talking point in the future agreement.
Chinese company ‘Shanghai Change Marine Industry’ has ordered the largest Antarctic krill-fishing boat in the world to be completed by 2023.
Klaus Dodds, a geopolitics professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, said: “Fishing is a proxy for minerals.”
Despite this, Chinese President Xi Jinping previously said the country is focused solely on scientific research.
He said his country’s guiding principles for polar activity should be to “understand, protect, and use”