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Research Questions

  1. How might growing strategic competition manifest in the lead-up to potential review of elements of the ATS?
  2. What might this mean for the broader treaty system, particularly as it pertains to sovereignty and ungoverned spaces?
  3. How might these trends in the Antarctic affect great-power competition globally?

The Antarctic is becoming a zone of contested governance. Leveraging open-source literature and a tabletop exercise (TTX), the authors examine the possible implications that geostrategic manoeuvring and competition in the Antarctic in the coming decades might have on the longevity and resilience of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), a governance regime that seems increasingly ill-fitted to modern strategic dynamics.

The authors develop a portrait of the Antarctic as a potential point of geostrategic tension by conducting a review of the history of the ATS, highlighting existing challenges with governance, and setting the stage for possible friction points between nations. The authors explore the interested parties, the nature of their interests and their existing positions as reflected in their policies and activities. This analysis was used to design and develop a TTX that challenged, tested and stretched thinking and identified potential geostrategic friction points for the Antarctic.

The authors provide empirically driven projections of future dynamics to expose uncertainty, expand understanding and provide a stronger basis for policy and decisionmaking for the region.

Key Findings

  • Without an agreed-upon and effective enforcement mechanism, the ATS will be rendered redundant if, and when, some interested parties seek to challenge it to further their own interests.
  • The territorial distribution of the Antarctic region might be unsustainable because it is reflective of the power dynamics of the post–World War II era. The premise underpinning the ATS will be called into question if other claimants actively challenge the territorial distribution.
  • States are very likely to exploit resources, both on land and in the seas around the Antarctic, to undermine the ATS.
  • The Antarctic has several characteristics that are not typically present for land-based conflict, which makes it more difficult to understand how and why conflict could occur: It is resource-rich but supply-poor, it is extremely remote, its natural environment is severe and inhospitable, and it has no permanent population.
  • In seeking to position themselves advantageously ahead of the potential ATS renegotiations, interested parties might wish to establish claims that they do not intend to exploit immediately. Rather, their actions might reflect a hedging strategy to ensure future access for themselves when such exploitation activities become economically viable.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was made possible by the independent research and development provisions of the RAND Corporation's contracts for the operation of its U.S. Department of Defense federally funded research and development centers. The research was conducted by RAND Australia.

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