Great power competition in the Arctic region could eventually spread to Antarctica, a top U.S. military officer is warning.
The decades-old Antarctic Treaty was designed to de-militarize the continent and promote scientific research and other peaceful activities. More than 50 nations are consultative or non-consultative parties, including the United States and its great power adversaries China and Russia. However, the agreement is set to expire in 2048, noted Gen. Charles Brown, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
“The treaty … is going to be expiring and up for review, and both China and Russia have a presence in the Antarctic,” he said July 30 during an event in Arlington, Virginia, hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Brown pointed to growing tensions in the Arctic — where a number of nations are increasing their presence and pursuing their interests as melting sea ice opens up new shipping routes and access to economic resources — as a potential precursor to great power rivalry in the other Polar region.
The Pentagon released a new Arctic Strategy in June which focuses on threats in the far north. It notes that Russia views itself as a “polar great power.” Since the creation of Russia’s Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command in 2014, Moscow has ramped up its presence in the region with refurbished airfields, new military bases and a network of air- defense systems, according to the document.
Although China currently has no territorial claims in the region, it has signaled its interest in the area by declaring itself a “near Arctic state.” The United States does not recognize this status, according to the strategy.
“When I look at the competition … both with Russia and China … I have got to pay attention now” to what could eventually happen in Antarctica, Brown said. “Right now, we want to keep it free and open for research,” he added.
Pacific Air Forces is a component of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Part of Antarctica is within INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility.
Brown noted that Russia’s icebreaker fleet far surpasses that of the United States. The U.S. Coast Guard — which operates the nation’s fleet of icebreakers — currently has just one heavy vessel, the Polar Star, and one medium vessel, the Healy, which is primarily used for research.
“Russia has a number icebreakers, much more than we do,” Brown said. “China has an icebreaker. And so part of the aspect is, how do we think about the capability we require for the Arctic and Antarctic?”
The United States aims to acquire six new icebreakers, known as polar security cutters. Brown noted that although icebreakers are a Coast Guard capability, he feels the need to advocate for the ships.