(4) Antartic

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Claiming and negotiating the Antarctic

When looking at a globe, typically, the political boundaries dividing the world into 190-odd nation states will be clearly marked. There will be areas of uncertainty such as the Indo-Pakistani borderline, the status of Palestine, and/or the ownership of the Falklands/Malvinas. Looking further south, the Antarctic continent is frequently represented on globes as untroubled by political boundaries. Such a position, on the face of it, would be eminently appropriate for the only territorial region in the world without an indigenous human population. Whether by intention or omission, such globes and their representations of the political geography of the Earth are misleading. Large parts of the Antarctic are claimed by seven states - Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The most substantial claim to the polar continent is the Australian claim to Australian Antarctic Territory - some 2.2 million square miles in size – with a small, transient population.

Uniquely, there is a portion of the Antarctic that is not claimed by any state and which is termed the ‘unclaimed Pacific Ocean sector’. The vast majority of the international community do not accept these claims to the Antarctic. While countries such as Australia, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom have recognized their mutual claims, the Argentine, British, and Chilean claims overlap with one another, and the three parties remain at loggerheads. The ownership of the Antarctic remains unresolved and, just as some states believe that their claim is legitimate, other members of the international community state that this space should be considered a common property – and thus belong to all the members of the United Nations. The term ‘global common’ would be an appropriate description of the Antarctic. Over the last hundred years, three distinct phases help to explain how the Antarctic has been claimed and colonized. This chapter tackles the claiming phase (in the main 1908–40, and epitomized by the ‘Antarctic Problem’); the negotiating phase (1940s–1950s, including the International Geophysical Year and the Antarctic Treaty negotiations); and the post-colonial phase (1960s onwards). Initially, this region was immersed in colonial and anti-colonial rivalries, encompassing regional states such as Argentina, imperial states such as Britain and France, and expressly anti-colonial states such as them; text-indent: 0.01em; ed6fie United States and the Soviet Union. Thereafter, on the back of major initiatives such as the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958) and a US-led scientific diplomacy campaign, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty emerged after some fierce negotiations over territorial claims, nuclear testing, and the role of non-claimant states.

As a consequence of the above, the story of the Antarctic Treaty is a celebratory one. Surrounded by a series of creation myths, a vision is offered up of far-sighted men (and they are all men in this story) using science and peace to construct said landmark agreement, designed to save the Antarctic from the grubby Cold War and colonial geopolitics. Intrinsic to this rendering of events, without the complication of an indigenous population, is a benign interpretation of the immediate decades leading up to the Antarctic Treaty. It ignores the manner in which the Antarctic was colonized and administered. The role of the United States is seminal, especially in the way that it negotiated open and unfettered access to the Antarctic. Without the need for territorial colonization, the Antarctic Treaty helped to secure US dominance and Soviet interests.

Claiming phase

Notwithstanding a lack of an indigenous human population, the Antarctic was colonized by a variety of imperial powers and post-colonial states over a period of some 500 years. The Columbian encounter with the so-called New World initiated this colonizing process. Under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) and an earlier Bull Inter-Caetera (1493), Spain claimed title to all territory west of a line extending from the Arctic to the Antarctic. On the eve of their respective independence, Argentina and Chile believed that they inherited those territorial rights to the same areas of the Spanish Empire. As with their continental territories, a major question confronting these newly created post-colonial states was where their mutual boundary might lie stretching from the northern Andes to the South Pole.

Argentine and Chilean national histories are taken up with the demarcation of an international boundary and the resolution of disputed territories in the Andean borderlands. Both states extend their national territories southwards, and in the case of Argentina, the so-called ‘Conquest of the Desert’ in the 1880s decimated indigenous peoples. By the turn of the 19th century, negotiations were ongoing over the extreme south such as Tierra del Fuego and the Beagle Channel into Drake’s Passage, where the mutual boundary was fuzzy but it would extend to the South Pole. These claims to a southerly frontier were open-ended, vaguely defined, and implicit but not insignificant. Argentina was the first country in the world to maintain a permanent presence in the Argentine Antarctic sector.

Audaciously, at least to South Americans, the UK issued a defined claim to the Antarctic in 1908 via Letters Patent. Revised again in 1917, the British claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies (FID) extended the South Atlantic Empire southwards following the annexation of the Falkland Islands in the 1830s. Spurred on by whaling and further acts of discovery and exploration, the British established a series of legal, political, and scientific mechanisms and procedures designed to consolidate imperial control. Leopold Amery, who served as Colonial Secretary from 1924 to 1929 and advocated British imperial authority throughout his long career, was at the forefront of endeavours to extend British control over the whole of the Antarctic, even if it was only partially mapped and explored. Invoking ‘environmental authority’, British officials opined that the UK was uniquely blessed with scientific and administrative skills necessary to manage a challenging.

Pursuing this ‘selfless’ policy, British officials encouraged New Zealand to assume administration of the Ross Dependency in 1923, and Australia to lay claim to an enormous sector called the Australian Antarctic Territory. South Africa was approached as well, but declined to actively help the Antarctic turn pink on British imperial maps. In response to British imperial manoeuvrings, France announced that it would claim another part of the Antarctic, on the basis of past acts of exploration and discovery, especially by the 19th-century explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville. In 1924, the French territory of Adélie Land was established, and extended sector-like towards the South Pole. Significantly, the French claim was later recognized by Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. Amery’s master plan for total imperial control was thwarted, though dreams of almost-complete British control persisted. Britain really did not want any neighbours in the Antarctic.

In the same year of the French claim, the United States, under its Secretary of State Charles Hughes, emphasized an ‘open-door’ policy for the Antarctic, unrestricted by the territorial claiming by others. Significantly, this declaration brought to the fore two competing visions for the Antarctic. On the one hand, claimant states were eager to delineate their national/imperial spheres, while claiming to be acting on behalf of ‘mankind’. On the other, the US represented a different vision, one less motivated by territorial claiming (at least publicly) and more by open access. Up and until the late 1930s, territorial claiming prevailed. Norway, in advance of a feared territorial claim by the German Antarctic (Neu-Schwabenland) Expedition, announced that they would be laying claim to a sector of the Antarctic between the Falkland Islands Dependencies and the Australian Antarctic Territory. Termed ‘Dronning Maud Land’, the Norwegian claim was based on previous whaling expeditions in the region, and was formally announced on 14 January 1939. At the same time, however, German aluminium markers embossed with swastika lay abandoned over the ice-bound coast, in what the German (rather than any Norwegian) expedition leaders termed ‘Neuschwabenland’. Germany’s defeat in 1945 ended hopes of a German Antarctic sector, but did not dampen speculation that some Nazis still dreamed of resurrecting a Fourth Reich there. Japan, too, forfeited any claim, despite earlier involvement in exploration and whaling.

Argentina (claim made in 1940) and Chile (claim made in 1943) were late starters by European standards. Unlike the others, they were convinced that their southerly territories were part of an imperial inheritance and integral to national territories. The only issue to be resolved was the declaration of a mutual boundary between two South American neighbours. In that sense, there was no Argentine or Chilean claim. Argentina and Chile copied the behaviour of Britain, mindful of international legal precedents regarding remote and thinly occupied spaces. In mimicking the behaviour of an imperial state, Argentine and Chilean parties participated in their own ceremonies of possession, usually involving planting flags, reading solemn declarations, mapping territory, assessing resources, and naming places after independence heroes such as Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín.

Britain hoped vainly that the US might claim the hitherto unwanted Pacific Ocean sector and join the claimant club – not unreasonably given that US Antarctic expeditions in the 1930s and 1940s carried out ‘sovereignty performances’ such as dropping flags out of aero plane windows. Furthermore, Richard Byrd reported back to major initiative" about evidence of mineral wealth of the polar continent in a blatant attempt to stimulate further interest. Later, he even posited the idea of setting off nuclear explosions to melt the ice and reveal all those would-be minerals – a form of nuclear engineering. However, US reluctance to make a claim was critical in shaping the future politics of the Antarctic, and for the intervening years added extra uncertainty for the claimant club’s membership. Their reaction was to devise new roles and rules in order to fix, map, and record their presence – a new round of ‘sovereignty games’ was unleashed on the Antarctic.

Sovereignty games and the Antarctic Problem

In 1943-1944, in the midst of the Second World War, British troops and scientists were dispatched to the Antarctic, in a secret naval operation called Operation Tabarin. Named after a Parisian nightclub, and backed by Prime Minister Churchill, the aim was straightforward. British personnel were expected to strengthen Britain’s title to the territory in question, and this meant establishing a permanent foothold. Bases were created, flags were raised, plaques were secured, post offices established, theodolites were readied, and signposts embossed with ‘crown lands’ were planted. Britain was getting serious – pressing surveys into action and busily issuing postage stamps. It was going to be a policy of terra nostra rather than mare nostrum.

In 1951, a British civil servant, Bill Hunter Christie, published an insightful book called The Antarctic Problem. From his vantage point of the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, Hunter Christie was well placed to record the growing agitation surrounding the overlapping claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom. Coincidentally, this Antarctic agitation sat uneasily with a growing British dependence on Argentine meat supplies in a post-war period of rationing. UK economic interests in Argentina were also under scrutiny by nationalist governments in Argentina, especially under the leadership of Juan Domingo Perón.

All three countries were entrenching their Antarctic claims within public culture by commemorating, educating, drawing, and studying the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands. In Argentina and Chile, a new generation of citizens was weaned on new geography textbooks detailing how Antarctic territories were geographically and geologically connected to South America. Just as the 19th century witnessed patriotic forms of education in South America, post-war Argentines and Chileans were learning that their countries did not stop at the southern point of the South American continent. In contrast, a generation of British school children (as a special treat) got to see John Mills star as Robert Falcon Scott in Ealing Studios’ Scott of the Antarctic (1948) in the cinema. In their varying ways, children in three different countries were learning that the Antarctic was part of their national experience, either as integral territory or as a staging ground for national interests and values.

Frustrated by this continuing and expensive ‘Antarctic Problem’, the United Kingdom submitted an application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in May 1955 asking ‘the Court to recognise the validity of its titles to sovereignty and to declare that the pretentions of Argentina and Chile, as well as their encroachments in those territories, are contrary to international law’. The territories in this case referred to all British territories south of 50th parallel of south latitude. The application never attracted the involvement of the counter-claimants because both reject sea ice extenten Peninsulaed the need to have their ‘claims’ tested by an international court. If they had participated, then they would have been obliged to abide by any ICJ judgment. With no judgment, the ‘Antarctic Problem’ persisted, with all three countries devoting resources to the protection, and indeed enhancement, of their respective territories. Argentina, in particular, was a polar superpower dispatching icebreakers, planes, and personnel to the Antarctic Peninsula. Argentine officials took great pleasure in sending updated maps of the Argentine Antarctic Territory to British administrators which highlighted their surveying achievements. The ICJ application was only one element in the contested sovereignty of the Antarctic. The United States, having renewed its Antarctic commitments and interests in the late 1940s, assembled a decisive presence. On the back of a new generation of US Navy-led expeditions, State Department officials explored governance options with the polar G7 (the claimant states). Given the intra-gang rivalries, any proposal to alter the status quo was likely to encounter hostility at worst and indifference at best.

Mindful of the potential to make a substantial claim to the Antarctic, a proposal for a condominium was carefully considered by the claimants in 1948. Within such a condominium, the United States hoped to achieve three things. First, to ensure that its rights and interests were preserved across the entire polar continent as well as protecting navigation rights/rights of innocent passage around the Southern Ocean. Second, successive US governments were concerned about the unresolved tension between Britain, Argentina, and Chile. From the US perspective, three Cold War allies locked into an increasingly bitter dispute over ownership with no sign that any of those parties were willing to ‘pull out’ of the Antarctic made no sense. Finally, it was hoped that other parties, especially the Soviet Union, might be discouraged from playing a more prominent role in the Antarctic if affairs of state appeared benign. In other words, the US was prepared to deal with the seven claimants in the hope that they could shut down the Antarctic politically. This proposed management strategy failed. It assumed that the Soviet Union was preoccupied with its vast Arctic region. The return of whaling fleets coupled with the promotion work of Soviet geographers scuppered the plan. Sensing growing Soviet interest, the American and British media foretold of a new ‘scramble for Antarctica’. By 1950, Soviet officials asserted their historic and geographical interest in the Antarctic, and publicly refuted the validity of any territorial claims to the Antarctic. As with the United States, the USSR adopted a non-recognition policy while reserving the right to press a claim in the future. The subsequent investment in scientific initiatives fitted a broader pattern of both countries being avowedly anti-imperial, while at the same time supporting proposals that ensured that their influence (and mobility in the case of the Antarctic) was at best enhanced and, at very worst, untouched.

Indirectly, perhaps, a proposal put forward in 1950 by a group of geophysicists for a new international polar year (the International Geophysical Year, IGY) was a timely intervention. Polar science offered a powerful platform for geopolitical advantage, and just as the British utilized it in the 1920s and 1930s, claims could be made to be advancing ‘environmental authority’ and material interests simultaneously. Big science provided opportunities for both colonization/sovereignty games, and paradoxically perhaps, shared ownership.


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