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Monday Morning Meeting on “India and the Geopolitics of Antarctica”

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  • July 24, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Mr. Bipandeep Sharma, Research Analyst, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), spoke on “India and the Geopolitics of Antarctic” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 24 July 2023. The meeting was moderated by Capt. Anurag Bisen (IN), Research Fellow, MP-IDSA. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, the Director General of MP-IDSA, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), the Deputy Director General of MP-IDSA and scholars of the Institute were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    The Antarctic region holds significant importance for scientific research, resource exploration, and geopolitical interests. It serves as a natural laboratory for various fields of study and is home to vast untapped resources, including potential hydrocarbon reserves and fisheries. India's role in the Antarctic has grown steadily, with multiple research expeditions and operational bases focused on climate change and related scientific research. As global events and territorial claims shape the future of Antarctica, India must proactively prepare from potential emerging challenges and opportunities from the region.

    Detailed Report

    The discussion was opened by Capt. Anurag Bisen, who highlighted the significance of the Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961 and was signed by India in 1983. Currently, the Treaty has 56 member states. The differences between the Arctic, Antarctic, and Antarctica were outlined by him. Despite maintaining peace in the region for the last 60 years, he highlighted that differences are slowly arising between states as a result of geopolitical event occurring in the other parts of the world.

    Mr. Bipandeep Sharma started his presentation by giving a brief overview of the region. He clarified the main difference between the two commonly used interchangeable terms; ‘Antarctic’ and ‘Antarctica’. Mr. Sharma also briefly familiarised the audience with the term ‘Antarctic convergence’. In his presentation Mr. Sharma highlighted that the Antarctic region remains primarily important for three reasons.  Firstly, it is a natural laboratory for research on astronomy, glaciology, geophysics, oceanography, and other scientific disciplines. Around 111 research stations are operational in the region, with India having two operational bases in Antarctica. Secondly, the importance of resources is crucial; however, the Madrid Protocol prohibits all activities related to the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources, except for scientific research. Nonetheless, various assessments estimate Antarctica to contain 19 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 106 trillion cubic feet of gas. The region is also home to fisheries, which are regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

    Finally, the region is gaining prominence as a result of geopolitical complexities emerging between states that could have implications for the future governance in the region.  Mr. Sharma highlighted that seven sovereign states - Argentina, the U.K, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, and Norway - have made their territorial claims in Antarctica. Many of these claims overlap, but according to Article 4 of the Antarctic Treaty, all these claims remain frozen. He further talked about the scientific bases and highlighted the dual use infrastructures at the bases of States like China which currently has four operational bases in Antarctica, and is in the process of constructing the fifth. These bases support China's BeiDou satellite navigation system and also facilitate intelligence collection. Mr. Sharma also highlighted that China's Great Wall station strategically oversees the Drake Passage, a key sea line of communication between the South Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans.

    In the second part of his presentation, Mr. Sharma talked about the governance mechanism in Antarctica. He mentioned that it mainly comprises of five international mechanisms that include the Antarctic Treaty, Madrid Protocol, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972), CCAMLR, and Annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM). The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 and now joined by 56 countries, emphasises freedom of scientific investigation and peaceful purposes while prohibiting military establishments, weapon testing, nuclear explosions, and radioactive waste disposal. Mr. Sharma clarified that the Antarctic Treaty does not have any expiry date, but as per article 25 of the Madrid Protocol, there is a provision that after the first fifty years from the protocol`s entry into force (1998), it can only be modified through unanimous agreement of all consultative parties.

    In the final part of his presentation, Mr. Sharma talked about India's presence in Antarctica. He mentioned that India sent its first expedition to Antarctica in 1981, and signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1983. After the initial base i.e. Dakshin Gangotri was abandoned due to submersion, India's current bases are ‘Bharati’ and ‘Maitri’. To date, 42 expeditions to Antarctica have been conducted by India, with the latest one scheduled for October-November 2023. India's Antarctic program primarily focuses on climate change research. Currently, Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is collaborating with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on an important NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission for Antarctic which is expected to be launched in January 2024. NISIR will observe sea ice characteristics over the seas surrounding India’s Antarctic polar stations. It could further detect the marine oil spill and disseminate the spill location during accidental oil seepage for preventive measures. Mr. Sharma also talked about The Indian Antarctic Act, 2022, that is an important instrument to protect the Antarctic environment and associated ecosystems, and grants jurisdiction to Indian courts for disputes or crimes committed in parts of Antarctica.

    In the concluding part of his presentation Mr. Sharma emphasised on the future complexities of Antarctic governance and highlighted various challenges as a result of geopolitical events occurring in other parts of the world. He mentioned that China's presence in the region has already garnered attention among other countries. Mr. Sharma highlighted that India should consider acquiring or constructing its independent polar research vessel with advanced icebreaking capabilities at a fast pace. He mentioned that the country needs to prioritise its scientific research in certain areas that could enable India a strategic edge in Polar Regions. He suggested that R&D in Antarctic Bioprospecting could be one such area that can offer immense opportunities for India’s Pharmaceutical Industry. Lastly, he called for the need to promote Indian investments in Antarctic Fishing Industry and training Indian seafarers for Polar Waters.


    Questions and Comments

    Capt. Anurag Bisen (IN) highlighted that India is also part of COMNAP [Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs] & SCAR [Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research]. He reiterated that it's already been 9 years since the Cabinet Committee on Security sanctioned the polar research vessel, which is still in the design phase.

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy applauded the presentation and asked questions regarding the possible scenario in terms of the balance of power in the Antarctic region by 2048, how it is decided that a country will have how many stations, and China's engagement in IUU (Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated) fishing & dual-use infrastructure. Bipandeep answered - it is important to do scenario-building in different conditions. Additionally, according to the Antarctic Treaty, decisions are taken by consensus in the annual ATCM, and permission to set up research stations is granted based on the kind of research a state is undertaking. As for military use, he mentioned that as per Antarctic treaty, any kind of military activity is banned in the Antarctic, but there may be dual-use of military equipment such as antennas and communication systems by countries in the realm of space exploration.

    Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd) discussed the inhospitable conditions of Antarctica and also highlighted that India provides fewer seafarers in comparison to our population. To which Bipandeep answered – we can definitely increase our seafarers, as we are growing in terms of commercial shipping and expeditions.

    Capt. Bisen highlighted the DG's question on IUU, mentioning that China occasionally engages in IUU fishing in the garb of research, violating fishing norms throughout the world, and doing it in a very organized way. He noted that China has the highest subsidies on distant water fishing in the world.

    Mr. Arvind Khare asked about many IT firms putting their data centers in the region, to which Bipandeep replied that those data centers are in the Arctic, not Antarctic.

    Dr. Gulbin Sultana had a question on certain unclaimed areas shown on the map of Antarctica, asking who governs them? Bipandeep explained that those are the areas that haven't been claimed by any of the seven states that have made claims on other parts of the continent.

    Ms. Yukti Panwar asked a question regarding the clash of jurisdiction of the area of the High Seas Treaty with that of the Antarctic Treaty to which Capt. Bisen gave a detailed explanation.

    -The report has been prepared by Mr Anit Kumar, Research Intern, Internal Security Centre, MP-IDSA, New Delhi.

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