With the announcement of an increased US military presence in Australia, our strategic planners are focused on the rising importance of the Indo-Pacific. But we have taken our eye off our southern flank.
Like other rising nations, China and India want a higher profile in Antarctic affairs. But, unlike other countries, they're chasing that profile with much more vigour and with determined independence.
They have active Antarctic programs and are increasing the number of their polar bases. Two of China's bases are in the Australian Antarctic Territory. Its latest is at Dome A, one of the highest and coldest points on the Antarctic continent.
China is extremely interested in the prospects of future Antarctic resource development.
One of India's bases has a monitoring role associated with its planned hi-tech monitoring station in northern Madagascar. That station is part of India's aim to have a presence throughout the Indian Ocean, partly to balance growing Chinese influence there. Satellite technology and research are central to Antarctic operations. Most low-earth orbiting satellites cross the Antarctic continent every 90-100 minutes. If they do so on descending orbits, they can download their data into ground stations in Antarctica.
Countries could make use of their Antarctic bases and the full range of signals and electronic intelligence that require the use of satellites and ground stations for direction-finding and monitoring.
New Delhi, for example, is setting up a remote sensing ground station in eastern Antarctica to boost the remote-sensing data transmitted by Indian satellites.
Occupying Dome A is full of political symbolism, but it is no coincidence that the Chinese have established their third station there. At one of the highest points on the continent it's ideal for sending, receiving or intercepting signals from satellites.
It offers China unprecedented visibility for astronomical research. The main advantage of ground stations in Antarctica is that they can retask satellites in a timely fashion.
Advanced defence forces are heavily reliant on space-based infrastructure, communications and navigation systems. China and India could use their Antarctic bases for these purposes. But how would we know?
To do so would be at odds with the Antarctic Treaty, but the sparse use of the treaty's inspection mechanisms means that such activity could go undetected.
The US, Russia and China have demonstrated the capability to destroy space vehicles using anti-satellite missiles. India and Pakistan may be prompted to initiate their own space warfare programs. If Antarctic sites take on military significance, we could see a move towards destabilisation of Antarctica as a zone of peace.
For Australia these potential developments are worrying. We're the largest claimant in Antarctica. Our territorial claim in Antarctica can't be defended in military terms and doesn't need to be if Antarctica remains demilitarised.
There's now a defence posture review under way to examine whether our military is appropriately positioned to respond in a timely way to Australia's defence and security demands.
Today there is almost no Defence engagement on Antarctic issues. Defence could use one of its four C-17 Globemasters for Antarctic logistics. New Zealand uses its air force to fly personnel to and from Antarctica. Our air force should work with New Zealand into and out of Antarctica to gain polar logistics experience. Defence should be represented on high-level interdepartmental forums on Antarctica.
Military personnel could be included in Antarctic missions for operational support. Short-term secondments by Defence to the Australian Antarctic Division in Tasmania would give our armed forces a greater feel for what might be required if circumstances were to change. None of the new vessels to be acquired by the navy will be ice-capable and Defence has passed responsibility for Southern Ocean patrols to Customs.
Antarctica matters. It's time our strategic planners looked south.