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Strategic Options in Antarctica: An Alternative View on Chile-China Rapprochement

The Antarctic Treaty turned Antarctica into the first Nuclear-Weapon-Free Area. Back in 1959, even before Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine (MAD) was conceived, avoiding nuclear deployment of its opponent, whether it was in outer space or underwater, seemed to be the main interest for both Americans and Soviets. But the Cold War is certainly over and the combination of a changing global order and melting poles, makes other aspects of this treaty relevant in the years ahead.

Ever since the Antarctic Treaty entered into force, all sovereignty claims are suspended according to its Article IV. The COVID-19-free continent became a land of cooperation with scientific bases of a myriad of nationalities deployed all over it. Nevertheless, despite accomplishing so far all the rules emanating from the Antarctic Treaty System and not being claimant to any portion of territory, the notorious Chinese investment during the past decade raised questions about the intentions behind it, in a land of undiscovered resources beneath the ice. Why should all these concerns sound far-fetched anyway when the U.S. is currently planning mining on the Moon?

Australia, New Zealand, France and Norway claim different parts of Antarctica. There is even one portion of its territory —Marie Byrd land— which may be considered as terra nullius. But what about U.K., Chile and Argentina? Their territorial claims overlap and a closer look at this unique love triangle could shed a light on Chile’s behavior towards the White Continent.

In 1982, the South Atlantic Conflict was seen as an opportunity by Pinochet after a long-standing dispute —centered on the three small islands of Picton, Nueva and Lennox— almost led to war with Argentina in the late-1970s. While officially neutral, Chile provided its military facilities as well as naval intel to the U.K., and even allowed deployment of SBS and SAS troops on its soil during the war. In return to its valuable aid, U.K. lifted an arms restrictions on Chile and offered a cut-price deal on the purchase of military aircraft and vessels. With its actions, the Chilean junta also helped weaken Argentinean forces without shooting a single bullet, also prompting destabilization of a competing de facto regime.

Chile’s return to democracy has not changed the core of its approach to international relations. Decades after Pinochet left the presidency and even after cooperating on a yearly basis with Argentina in the “Combined Antarctic Naval Patrol”, Chile continued to welcome vessels deployed in the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and carried out naval maneuvers with the Royal Navy; while other countries such as Brazil denied entry into port to U.K. ships from/to those Argentina’s claimed territories.

Chile-U.K. relations can be traced back to the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), but things have dramatically changed for the U.K. ever since. Even though it is still a nuclear-weapon state (NWS) as well as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, today U.K. has twice as many nuclear submarines in storage as it does in service. In July 2019, a decimated Royal Navy failed to deter Iranian vessels which seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Its nearest ship was at least an hour’s sailing time away from being able to intervene. After that, when asked about the role of the U.S., Pompeo said “the responsibility falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships”. More recently, Republican senators pushed not to deploy two U.S. squadrons of F-35A Lightning II aircraft amid tensions over Huawei’s involvement in the building of the 5G mobile network in the U.K., when efforts made by the Secretary of State to avoid it were ignored by Boris Johnson. A diluted “special relationship” combined with U.K.’s self- imposed exile from the European Union could gradually (and seriously) damage its international status, something that makes U.K. certainly less attractive to countries such as Chile in terms of foreign policy.

The Chinese “Great Wall” permanent station in Antarctica —the first one installed by China— is in a territory where Argentinean and Chilean sovereign claims overlap. Also, China has the biggest authorized fleet for krill fishery in Antarctica and is the second-largest tourist force in the continent. Regarding tourism, and because of their immediate vicinity of Antarctica, the traditional starting points are Ushuaia (Argentina) and Punta Arenas (Chile), 1,100 km and 1,371 km from the closest point in the White Continent respectively. Considering all this, in September 2019 Chile and Argentina —both China’s strategic partners— separately held talks with the Asian giant to enhance the possibilities offered by their cities, with the intention to turn them into logistic hubs; following the Australian example which, since 2014, sees Chinese vessels being resupplied with food and fuel in Hobart (Tasmania) before heading to Antarctica.

Argentina’s armed forces are the only ones who traditionally have considered Antarctica from a strategic point of view but, over time, this has not found its correlate in the Argentinean political sphere, rather characterized by short-termism. At glance, Chile is in a better position to further develop such projects with China because, when it comes to business, Argentina doesn’t seem to be a reliable partner due to its unmanageable bureaucracy and a bizarre habit of changing the rules of the game every time a new president takes office.

Due to the anarchic nature of the international system —a feature more visible than ever in the context of COVID-19— where states cannot depend on others for their security and consider themselves vulnerable and alone because of the potential threat posed by other states; Chile aims to guarantee its own survival through its pragmatic foreign policy. As viewed from a realist lens, Mearsheimer considers alliances only as “temporary marriages of convenience”, where today’s alliance partner might be tomorrow’s enemy, and today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s alliance partner.

Behind the shared immediate goal of making money, Chile could be thinking of a time when the Antarctic Treaty System cease to exist and its rivals resume territorial claims. Chile shouldn’t take Chinese support to its claim for granted in that scenario, but having a continental logistic hub and China depending on it could at least deter this country from acting against Chile’s interests; and that could eventually mean having a NWS on its side when ultima ratio may be the only alternative left to protect them from other states in the absence of a global authority. Until then, by becoming one of China’s main starting points to Antarctica, in the mid-term Chile could take advantage of a Chinese investment in its port facilities as well as a unique opportunity to gather valuable intel of Chinese activities related to Antarctica while strengthening economic ties.

Chile should be fully aware it could be dangerously naïve to expect an interrupted presence in the continent as reason enough to base its Antarctic territorial claims. In light of the future scenarios, the time is right to remember Chile’s motto: “Por la razón o la fuerza” (By Reason or Force).

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Federico Sarro

MA in Strategic Studies and International Security (Universidad de Granada). Freelance defense, military and foreign policy writer. Former Argentine Navy analyst. Deployed as UNFICYP Military Observer/Liaison Officer on both sides of the cease-fire line.

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