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Melting ice has caused icebergs to break off and pose a risk to navigation, but in Antarctica, geopolitics is partially frozen.

Rising temperatures are opening up the Arctic to trade routes and to competition between countries for future control of its subsoil riches. In Antarctica, with lower temperatures and slower melting, what lies beneath the white mantle is not an ocean, but a continent far from shipping lanes and the direct interests of major powers. There are reasons why major international actors prefer to keep any claims about the South Pole on the fridge.

ARTICLE / Alona Sainetska [English version].

Antarctica is a continent with mountain ranges and lakes, surrounded by an ocean and with a total area of 14 million square kilometres. Because of its location at opposite poles, Antarctica is often compared to the ice mass of the Arctic Ocean, which is instead a sea ice surrounded by land. In those northern parts of Eurasia and America, north of the Arctic Circle parallel, about 4 million people live. In contrast, Antarctica, with its average temperature of -49°C, is absolutely uninhabitable and is today considered a natural sanctuary that attracts the attention of many countries in the international community.

Despite not presenting, at first sight, significant elements of conflict in the global system as a whole, the sovereignty of its territory has never been free of disputes and territorial claims by countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, France, Argentina and Chile. Although later left at Fail, the claims of these countries did not interfere with each other, except in the case of Argentina and Chile, whose claims were over land with higher concentrations of Antarctic shrimp or krill and which had already been claimed in whole or in part by England.

The interests of the aforementioned countries and also those of the non-claimant superpowers, such as the United States and the USSR, which showed little desire to turn both the continent and the maritime space into an object of political-military confrontation, coincided in a transcendental way on this issue. This fact greatly facilitated negotiations on the future legal status of "the frozen continent".

The first attempt to establish a special legal regime for Antarctica was made by the United States in 1948. However, this idea failed when confronted with the civil service examination of countries wishing to extend their sovereignty to Antarctic territories. It was only two years later that the continent again aroused the interest of the major powers when the USSR announced that it would not accept any agreement on Antarctica in which it was not represented.

Faced with the need to reach a consensus, and as a result of the enormous efforts of the world's academic community , a climate of cooperation and international dialogue on Antarctica was born, which allowed free access to the continent for scientists of any nationality, as well as the exchange of the results of their research. This new context led to the Antarctic Treaty (AT), which entered into force on 23 June 1961, signature on 1 December 1959. Any possible modification, by majority vote, was postponed until a lecture planned for 30 years after its entry into force; when 1991 arrived, not only were no changes implemented, but safeguards were added.

In the AT, the countries involved undertook to recognise a special legal regime for Antarctica, giving it the status of "terra nullius". It also provided for the demilitarisation of the Antarctic continent, which reserved the frozen space exclusively for peaceful purposes and prohibited the establishment of instructions military.

On the other hand, it proclaimed the freezing of all claims to territorial sovereignty over Antarctica, and during the period of validity of the treaty no new claims could be made or those previously made extended.

It also established the right to appoint observers to ensure compliance with the objectives of the treaty and provided for periodic meetings of the original signatory states to the AT, plus other states granted consultative status for carrying out important scientific missions in Antarctica.

Scientific and economic potential

In 1991, a further step was taken in the conservation of the frozen giant. goal With the aim of responding to issues such as climate change and the need to protect the special ecosystem that the continent represented, the so-called protocol "complementary" to the AT on environmental protection was signed in Madrid. The condition for its entrance entry into force was that it be ratified by all the consultative members of the Antarctic Treaty. It prohibited any subject exploitation of mineral resources other than for scientific purposes. This ban could only be lifted by a unanimous agreement and it kept the continent away from possible plundering of its vast natural resources. Antarctica thus became a unique place in the world for the coexistence of man and nature.

However, recent decades have introduced many strategic changes that have given rise to serious doubts and concerns about the effectiveness of the AT. Its scientific and economic potential, together with its enormous biodiversity and wealth of natural resources, have greatly increased Antarctica's importance. The increased interaction and interdependence of the different national, international and transnational actors that make up the global community has also multiplied the desire to influence and participate, in different ways, in the pursuit of particular interests in this part of the world.

Thus, alongside projects to guarantee environmental conditions, such as the discussion on the creation of a large natural preservation area in the Ross Sea, controversial initiatives are sometimes launched to make use of Antarctic resources, such as the one suggested by the United Arab Emirates to tow icebergs that break off the Antarctic ice mass to the Middle East in order to combat drought and meet the needs of its population (Antarctica contains 80% of the planet's freshwater reserves).

Such icebergs, on the other hand, can pose a threat to shipping and trade, especially if they are large, as may be the case with the Larsen C ice shelf, which is increasingly close to collapse, leaving a huge 5,800 square kilometre iceberg adrift.

Countries with different weights

Although a possible exploitation of Antarctica is not envisaged in the short or medium term deadline and remains hypothetical for the time being, thanks to the disadvantages resulting from the continent's remoteness and its harsh and unfavourable conditions, there is a risk of a future deployment of economic activity in the Antarctic region on a global scale. The latter will depend on international alignments that may emerge.

The alignments in relation to Antarctica take their cue from the management structure imposed by the Treaty, which includes three categories of membership:

  • The original signatories (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States) which participate as of right in the consultative meetings of the TA where decisions are taken ( plenary session of the Executive Council ).

  • Those States wishing to join and which, having developed significant scientific activities, obtain consent to participate in the Consultative Meetings (e.g. Poland, Germany, India, Brazil, China and Uruguay).

  • States that join, but which, because they do not carry out significant scientific activity, cannot participate in decision-making (Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Hungary, Bulgaria, Peru, Italy, New Guinea, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania and Finland).  

status A similar collision of interests on the part of international actors is taking place at the opposite pole of the Earth, the Arctic. Its climatic conditions are much warmer, allowing its sensitive ice sheet to thaw. Thus, global warming-induced thawing makes the Arctic's energy wealth increasingly accessible (it is estimated to hold 13 per cent of the world's remaining oil and 30 per cent of its remaining natural gas) and thus intensifies the battle for the rights to exploit it by countries such as Denmark, Canada, the United States, Norway and Russia. On the other side is China, for whom the thaw has multiple positive consequences, such as the opening of a new, much shorter inter-oceanic shipping route between northern Europe and Shanghai, or easy access to mining in areas such as Greenland.  

The abundance of key minerals in technology, the opening of new shipping routes, and the fact that the land around the Arctic Circle is habitable, with benevolent conditions and increasingly easy access, make it highly likely that the Arctic will be integrated into the global economic structure sooner than the Antarctic.

Categories Global Affairs: Energy, resources and sustainability Articles Arctic and Antarctica

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