Australia is likely to use advanced satellite surveillance systems to monitor its sprawling territories in Antarctica, as strategic buildups by China and Russia send a cold war chill across the last undeveloped continent.

Recent Chinese and Russian investments in ground communications, airports, icebreakers and barracks at Antarctica-based research stations have fueled concerns of an increased military focus and possible exploitation of the region’s rich natural resources in defiance of an international embargo.

Some of this activity is occurring in areas claimed by Australia, which is beefing up its own presence in Antarctica after years of neglect. The Australian Antarctic Division’s 20-year plan pledges to “maintain Antarctica’s freedom from strategic and/or political confrontation.”

Russia and China will soon unveil new sophisticated ground receiving stations that would potentially have both civilian and military uses. While their primary function will be to connect scientific research sites, security experts say the stations would also potentially allow precision tracking and targeting of missiles.

China already has four other ground stations and Russia has one — as do the US, Japan, Norway and Germany. Antarctica is ideally suited to space communications because it has a low electromagnetic radiation field, and can more easily intercept signals.

Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, arrives at China’s Zhongshan Station in Antarctica, December 2, 2018. Photo: Twitter

Though this offers obvious intelligence benefits, there is no evidence any stations are used for military purposes. China and Russia’s upgrades, however, mark an uptick in expenditure in Antarctica over the past decade that has security analysts worried they may be about to take a more assertive stance in the region.

In January 2018, Beijing declared its ambition to establish a “polar silk road” that will extend its mandate beyond research activities. Beijing has reportedly already given Chinese names to over 350 sites on the icy continent, most in areas that Australia claims. It will unveil a fifth year-round research station in 2022 with the capacity to accommodate 80 people in the summer and 30 in the winter.

Chinese defense chiefs have stressed the strategic importance of the continent, which is on shipping routes between Asia, Europe and the Americas. Realizing the region’s strategic potential, German submarines and warships used Antarctica as a base to attack allied merchant ships during World War II.

Geological tests have found the continent has vast oil and gas reserves and probably contains minerals like uranium and copper. The Southern Ocean also has valuable stocks of fish, krill and other marine resources.

There is speculation among analysts that China already has undeclared military assets at its three full-time bases and two field camps (the latter only operate in summer months) and spends more money in Antarctica than any other country. It has three airfields and will soon add another all-weather strip.

Most Russian bases were closed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it has recently embarked on a rapid expansion that encompasses four permanent bases and five summer camps (one of which is run jointly with Poland). There are fears Moscow could replicate its Arctic buildup, where there is a big military base capable of housing warplanes and 150 troops.

A map showing the locations of China’s research stations in Antarctica. Image: Facebook

Russia’s ten-year Antarctic Strategy announces a desire to “strengthen the economic capacity of Russia… through complex investigations of the Antarctic mineral, hydrocarbon, and other natural resources.”

Australia’s willingness to respond to the Antarctic expansions is already being tested, as Russia has two bases in territory it claims and China one. Others are operated by India and Italy and France (a joint research site).

One of the initial 12 signatories to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, Australia declared sovereignty over 42% of the continent, a bigger area than any other country at a whopping 5.9 million square kilometers. New Zealand, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Chile, Norway and France also made territorial claims, which in some cases are overlapping.

China, which did not join until 1983, has not made any claims of its own and does not recognize the territories claimed by other countries. Most other signatories, including the United States and Russia, have taken the same position. The US maintains six stations in Antarctica.

Several nations maintain research stations in Antarctica, including the United States. Photo: US Antarctic Program

The treaty prohibits “any measures of a military nature” but not “the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purpose.” However, there is no verification or compliance system for such activities, nor for enforcing a ban on the exploitation of natural resources.

Russia and China will likely try to lift the development embargo when the treaty’s environment protocol comes up for renewal in 2048; a 2017 white paper by China supported the “sustainable development of Antarctica.”

The paper, published by China’s Ministry of Natural Resources, describes Antarctica as a “new space of global environment and resources that is of great significance to the process of human development.”

Claims have technically been set aside in the interests of conciliation, but Australia insists in the 20-year plan it will aim to preserve “sovereignty” over its territory. Given the tyranny of distance, it will be a heavy burden.

A 25,500 ton icebreaker, the RSV Nuyina, which comes into service in 2020 at a cost of A$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) over its 30 years of service, is likely to perform an observation role in addition to scientific research. The vessel can carry four helicopters, landing craft and amphibious vehicles.

Australia‘s Asrv Nuyina icebreaker in Antarctica in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Airstrips are also being upgraded at Australia’s three permanent bases of Mawson, Casey and Davis as part of a package announced in late February that will cost A$450 million (US$318 million) over 10 years.

Money was earlier set aside for a sub-Antarctic research station at Macquarie Island.

However, much of the focus is on satellite surveillance systems, with Royal Australian Air Force chief Air Marshal Leo Davies revealing the service would made a “significant investment” in space technologies by 2030.

“As we look at what we are able to do, that would include increased satellite launches, increased sophistication about what’s onboard the satellite,” he said. “I think in the future size is not going to be the real definition here, it’s going to be ‘what does it do for us?’”

Davies declined to confirm speculation that the RAAF plans to launch a large military satellite that analysts say could be trained on Antarctica, but the Australian Space Agency has recently signed a rash of deals aimed at improving the country’s technical capability.

The latest is with Lockheed Martin Space of the US, which produces a range of sophisticated observation satellites that have direct military applications. But while Australia bids to strengthen its claim, strategic rivalry is clearly heating up on the frozen continent.