Chile Seeks to Expand its Defense Footprint in Antarctica

Chile is moving forward with a multibillion-dollar plan to ramp up its presence in Antarctica. The Plan Antarctica, as it is known in Spanish, is focused on improving Chile’s science, tourism and defense capabilities on the icy continent.
Janie Hulse | May 7, 2012

Chile is moving forward with a multibillion-dollar plan to ramp up its presence in Antarctica. The Plan Antarctica, as it is known in Spanish, is focused on improving Chile’s science, tourism and defense capabilities on the icy continent.

This January, President Sebastian Piñera unveiled his program which calls for renovations and construction of bases; investments to ensure Chile’s status as a gateway to Antarctica; consolidation of the country’s 67 existing Antarctica-related entities into one institution, and the development of tourism in the Antarctica-Magallanes region.

While the local media referred to this four-pillar plan as new, it doesn’t necessarily indicate a policy shift.

“Chile has a long-standing interest in maintaining an Antarctic presence, dating back about 50 years. Now, it needs to upgrade existing bases,” said Dr. Jaime García, a retired Chilean Army brigadier who holds a doctorate degree in political science. García explained that these improvements are just a matter of course as Chile claims the Antarctic region as part of its territory, which it calls the XII Region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica — the capital of which is Punta Arenas.

Col. Arturo Contreras, a professor at Santiago’s Universidad de Chile, also referred to his country’s Antarctic legacy dating back to the late 16th century, noting that “in the acclaimed poem La Araucana, Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga described Chile and Antarctica belonging together.”

Chile has four permanent, year-round bases and eight other bases that operate during the summer months when the climate is a bit more forgiving, with highs of 34 degrees F. One of them, Presidente Eduardo Frei Base, is run by the Chilean Air Force and even hosts a small village called Villa Las Estrellas, with a population of more than 80 military personnel, scientists and professors. Besides Argentina’s Fortín Sargento Cabral, it is the only stable settlement in Antarctica.

In late February, Brazil’s main Antarctic base, Comandante Ferraz — located in Admiralty Bay, King George Island — was destroyed in a fire that killed two Navy officers and obliterated millions of dollars worth of research on the effects of climate change in Antarctica and their impact on the planet.

Under international law, Antarctica doesn’t belong to any one country, though parts of it are claimed by Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. An international treaty dating from 1959 sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve and bars military activity on the continent. To date, 49 countries including Chile have signed the Antarctic Treaty, whose principal objectives are to ensure the peaceful use of Antarctica and its surrounding seas while fostering scientific research and avoiding future territorial disputes.

The problem, explained Contreras, is that applying this concept creates confusion and conflict. Countries have long-standing, disputing claims over Antarctica. For example, Chile claims sovereignty of all the land between 53° and 90° west longitude, Argentina between 25°and 74° west and the United Kingdom between 20° and 80° west longitude — meaning that these respective claims overlap.

“Antarctica will continue to be a no-man’s land in the short-term, administered internationally, but ultimately global warming will force change in the medium term, as the real potential of the continent becomes apparent and geostrategic power plays increase,” said the colonel.

Indeed, Chile’s upgraded plans for Antarctica come only a few years after reports revealing the presence of valuable minerals like iron ore, copper, gold, nickel, platinum and coal. The continent may also hold oil reserves — but the challenge is getting to all that mineral wealth under a nearly two-mile thick ice sheath.

Some experts argue that the distance to key markets, forbidding climatic conditions and limited quantities discovered to date make these funds commercially unviable. Moreover, an amendment to the Antarctic Treaty signed in 1991 prohibits mineral exploration except for scientific purposes.

The treaty itself also outlaws military activity in Antarctica. However, military personnel and equipment may be used for scientific research or other peaceful purposes.

“One mustn’t confuse military presence with armed bases or defensive posturing. The Chilean military has always been responsible for the construction and maintenance of the bases,” said Contreras, though he noted that Antarctica contains 80 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves at a time when water and energy scarcity have become major global concerns.

Antarctica is strategically located between South Africa, Australia and South America and surrounded by three of the world’s largest oceans: the Pacific, the Indian and the Atlantic. This makes it attractive as a base of operations should major conflict arise. In the Western Hemisphere, it lies near Drake’s Passage, an alternative route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. While these stormy waters are difficult to navigate, it is the only alternative to the Panama Canal in the Americas.

Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru are the only South American countries that have shown any interest in Antarctica. Yet as Contreras pointed out, only Chile and Argentina have territorial claims and a voice in the Antarctic Treaty system.

“Antarctica is an opportunity for increased Argentine-Chilean cooperation,” he said, “but also broader South American cooperation led by these two bridge countries.”

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