Russia eyeing up ‘grey area’ of disputed UK territory sparking ‘fresh conflict concerns’

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Russia eyeing up ‘grey area’ of disputed UK territory sparking ‘fresh conflict concerns’

The icy continent is reserved for scientists from around-the-world to study the history of the Earth and the effects of climate change in a remote

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The icy continent is reserved for scientists from around-the-world to study the history of the Earth and the effects of climate change in a remote area unspoilt by human activity. But experts now fear Moscow and Beijing are turning their attention to the region, which has been protected by the Antarctic Treaty System for more than 60 years. The global pact sets aside the frozen desert as a scientific haven, bans military activity on the continent and suspends eight territorial claims – including Britain’s – to the region.

However, as the pandemic forces many western countries to provide bailout programmes for its scientists in Antarctica, China and Russia continue to push forward with research and investments. 

Speaking to Express.co.uk, Royal Holloway’s Professor Klaus Dodds said: “Most countries have been largely respectful of the Antarctic Treaty.

“The key thing to understand is that it operates on the basis of consensus, so one of the things right from the start is that it’s actually quite a democratic system as every member has a vote.

“That vote has equal weight and any agreement taken must be agreed by all parties, so that is quite an important feature of the system.

Russia has more icebreakers than the US

Russia has more icebreakers than the US (Image: GETTY)

Antarctica is a scientific haven

Antarctica is a scientific haven (Image: GETTY)

“The downside is, if everything is on the basis of consensus, it means that one country can block a measure or act as an obstacle.”

In recent months Australia, the UK and the US have all significantly reduced their presence on Antarctica, and it is unlikely to resume anytime soon.

Not only could the cutbacks delay important research on rising sea levels and the effects of global warming, but they also leave the door open for potential conflict.

Russian and Chinese researchers continue to work on the continent and are reportedly pushing their luck for more access to fisheries, oil reserves, and mining.

Prof Dodds added: “The biggest source of tension in recent years has been fishing.

READ MORE: Falklands warning: China and Russia ‘could push UK and Argentina into fresh dispute’

Much of the research has stopped on the continent

Much of the research has stopped on the continent (Image: GETTY)

“What we have, essentially, is two sides – on the one hand, you have China, Russia, Ukraine and Japan – all of whom want to exploit fish for commercial benefit.

“On the other hand, you have the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US who tend to focus more on environmental protection and conservation.

“What we are seeing in the Southern Ocean at the moment is a battle of wills over the balance between fishing and not fishing.

“We’ve seen it over the recent years with marine protected areas – areas of the ocean where you either try to severely restrict fishing for the sake of ecological biodiversity or you essentially establish ‘no-take zones’ – fishing is banned because you are worried about the vulnerability.”

Even before that pandemic, experts warned that the two states were using scientific research to further their claims on the continent.

In 2048, several elements of the Antarctic Treaty will come up for contention, but Prof Dodds warned China and Russia could spark disagreements before then.

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The disputed territory falls under the Antarctic Treaty

The disputed territory falls under the Antarctic Treaty (Image: GETTY)

China is increasingly interested in the area

China is increasingly interested in the area (Image: GETTY)

He added: “In Antarctica, because ownership and sovereignty is disputed, it means that these sorts of arguments are really challenging to manage.

“The treaty does not come up for renewal in 2048. What the treaty has is an option for a review conference, but before you get to that point there are still mechanisms in place to make sure that parties don’t abandon the treaty too quickly.

“What I think is more relevant to say is what we’ve seen over fishing in marine protected areas is a clear direction of travel which indicates that China is going to assert itself more and more in the Antarctic context.

“What you are seeing is a country that played no part in the original negotiations in 1959, so they come to the system late.

“But what it has absolutely made clear is describing the polar regions as strategic new frontiers and China has said they are of resource interest to it.”

Currently, Moscow possesses more icebreaker ships than the US, and China is building more.

Prof Dodds believes these research vessels could be used to push the boundaries of the treaty.

More icebreaker ships will be seen in the area

More icebreaker ships will be seen in the area (Image: GETTY)

He continued: “We are going to see more and more fishing and it will be for fish, but also krill – a shrimp-like creature used in fertiliser and you will see a lot more evidence of China and Russia getting more involved in the governance of the region.

“That inevitably brings with it concerns that there might eventually be conflict in Antarctica over how we manage it.

“What you might say is the fish come first as a source of conflict, but what we’re worried about is if China and Russia start to insist upon more and more mineral-based exploration and potential exploitation.”

Currently, Moscow possesses more icebreaker ships than the US, and China is building more.

Prof Dodds believes these research vessels could be used to push the boundaries of the treaty.

He continued: “We are going to see more and more fishing and it will be for fish, but also krill – a shrimp-like creature used in fertiliser and you will see a lot more evidence of China and Russia getting more involved in the governance of the region.

“That inevitably brings with it concerns that there might eventually be conflict in Antarctica over how we manage it.

China and Russia have continued work in the south

China and Russia have continued work in the south (Image: GETTY)

“What you might say is the fish come first as a source of conflict, but what we’re worried about is if China and Russia start to insist upon more and more mineral-based exploration and potential exploitation.”

Many experts have previously warned that fishing is a proxy for mining and Prof Dodds believes this will continue, due to a “grey area” of the treaty.

He added: “Under what’s called the ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection’ mining is banned, but there has always been this grey area where what counts as geological research could look like mining.

“So you’ve always got this dual-use element of science – it’s brilliant for learning about things, but can also be used to evaluate what’s in certain environments.

“So there is anxiety over fishing first, then minerals later and you don’t need to invoke a date like 2048 to see the potential pressure points.

“What we are absolutely going to see is China and Russia becoming more and more assertive in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

“I think the next decade is going to be absolutely crucial.”



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