Skip to main content
Blog post

No. 32 | Antarctic Diplomacy in a BRICS+ World

Polar parties have returned from the Indian city of Kochi, after the hosts formally concluded the business of the 46th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) on 30th May.   

Over 400 delegates attended and engaged in one form or another, and this year’s organizers enjoyed a great deal of local and international media commentary, which was largely positive for the Indian organizers, the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research and Ministry of Earth Sciences.  

India used the ATCM to announce its plans to submit comprehensive environmental evaluations designed to underpin the plan to establish the Maitri-II research station, which it is hoped will be operational in 2029.  

Sclerotic governance?  

Notwithstanding some plaudits, the meeting revealed yet again the sclerotic state of Antarctic Treaty governance.  The Antarctic Treaty has relied on the ATCM as the stand-out forum for the consultative parties to gather and discuss relevant business since it entered into force in 1961. Consensus remains the treaty's governing principle, and failure to reach agreement means things do not happen.  

For instance, for the third year in a row, measures to acknowledge the Emperor Penguin as a specially protected species was blocked by Russia and China to make a non-consensual point. Therefore, the 46th ATCM underscored the harmful trend of the political weaponization of scientific research at the detriment of endangered species.   

Yet again, it has also proven impossible to find consensus over whether to extend consultative party (CP) status to both Belarus and Canada. CP status represents a formal recognition by existing CPs that a candidate has demonstrated “substantial scientific research activity”. CP status also affords voting rights in future ATCMs. Belarus is a principle Russian ally and Canada would attract strong support from NATO member states and others.  

 The prime reason for the impasse on both matters remains the continued fall-out from the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. In October 2022, the destruction of Ukraine’s Antarctic offices by a Russian missile strike gripped the 2023 ATCM and provoked a partial CP walkout.  

 However, unlike the 2022 and 2023 ATCMs held in European cities, the 46th ATCM in India did not linger heavily on the war. Not least in part because China was so publicly critical of the ATCM being used to discuss non-polar matters.   

In terms of matters of substance, the Kochi Meeting acknowledged that tourism needed to be further regulated, without agreeing to a comprehensive framework to manage this burgeoning industry.  

Enter the BRICS+ 

An interesting and relatively novel trend to outline during the 46th ATCM is certainly the tentative signs that India, Brazil, and other BRICS+ nations such as Brazil and South Africa might be members to watch in terms of working with China and Russia in disrupting Antarctic governance.   

A similar trend is affecting Arctic geopolitics. Russia recently floated out a plan to create the equivalent opportunity – a science complex – for BRICS+ partners in Pyramiden, on the Svalbard archipelago. Several countries reportedly expressed interest in the endeavor, although plans have not materialized yet.   

For many polar parties, including the US and UK, a potential BRICS+ coalition in the Antarctic is an unsettling prospect. In 2024, Saudi Arabia joined as an acceding party and as a coalition they might well decide to accelerate the country’s claim to be a consultative party by making an informal network of BRICS+ scientific bases available for involvement.  

Considering the absence of notable BRICS countries as signatories of the recent joint communique on Ukraine, there is now further evidence that countries like India, Brazil, or South Africa might be in lockstep with Russia over future Antarctic governance. Together, BRICS+ countries could potentially shift the consensus-based decision-making process towards a more transactional, opportunistic, and case-by-case model.  

 For instance, a BRICS+ coalition might very well start introducing bargains and trade-offs concerning the creation of future Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or wildlife protection measures in exchange for concessions in Antarctic resource governance or elsewhere. Such a situation would essentially take good regional governance hostage and dim the spirit of consensus.  

Russia’s obstructive behavior  

To make matters worse, a news story broke during the 46th ATCM that Russia ‘discovered’ 510 billion barrels of hydrocarbon potential in the waters of the ‘British Antarctic Territory’. For some British newspapers, this was deeply portentous with fears expressed that the Antarctic Treaty was on the verge of collapse because Russia was hellbent on exploiting those oil resources.   

The reality of the situation was quite different. The South African-based Daily Maverick has been at the forefront of investigating the ongoing activities of a Russian vessel, the Alexander Karpinsky, which is part of the Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition. It reportedly conducted seismic surveying work under the auspices of the Russian geological company, Rosgeo.  

The Karpinsky has been to Weddell Sea several times since 2011, but much of its work has been in and around East Antarctic sedimentary basins. The source for the 510 billion barrels dates from a 2020 Rusgeo document which made reference to hydrocarbon estimates, noting that the objective was to “assess the oil-and-gas bearing prospects of the Antarctic Shelf.” In contrast, the 2024 statement by Rosgeo only mentioned that it had completed geophysical surveys as part of the 65th Russian Antarctic Expedition.  

Regardless of the various Rosgeo statements, recent events around Russia’s Antarctic policy shed light on how Moscow has become an “awkward actor” in Antarctic governance. There is indeed a growing track record of nefarious behavior from the Kremlin with regards the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) – for instance the weaponization of its civilian fishing fleet for disreputable purposes, notably suspected dual-use activities for military intelligence purposes.   

Moscow is also taking ATS decisions hostage through systemic obstructionism. In blunt terms, Russia is sabotaging the rules-based order in Antarctica. An interesting parallel can also be drawn with recent Russian activities around the illegal, unilateral attempt to alter the maritime borders of the Baltic Sea

 Questions remain as to the nature and purpose of the Russian exploration activity. The Protocol on Environmental Protection (also known as the Madrid Protocol) is clear, via Article 7, that there is a permanent mining ban in the Antarctic. Yet some ambiguities remain about what parties can reasonably do as part of ‘scientific research’ (which is allowed). Indeed, the Protocol itself does not define “scientific research” and other key terms such as ‘mineral resource activities’ (which is banned). Russia has given public assurances that it is not engaged in ‘prospecting’ – but the challenge for other parties is whether Russia can be trusted.  

For most Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties, the priority is to ensure the integrity of the Madrid Protocol remains intact. Rusgeo’s surveying and tectonic seismic research is one thing, but Moscow’s longer-term agenda is another. Russia is openly contesting established regional governance by slowly imposing its view of a ‘first come, first serve’ order regarding resource prospection and exploitation. The Kremlin wants to ensure pre-emptive commercial presence and dominance, should there be a resource ‘race’ on the continent and in the Southern Ocean, and that its future ‘rights’ are respected by others. 

The way forward 

What will happen after the 46th ATCM? Parties will gather in Hobart, Australia to consider total allowable catches for the Southern Ocean as part of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in the fall. China and Russia look set to resist any further adoption of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), while at the same time increasingly demanding that CCAMLR acts more like a regional fisheries management organization rather than a conservation-based regime that allows for some ‘rational use’ of resources.  

The UK takes over the CCAMLR chairship this year from Ukraine and few believe that the relevant parties will be able to find the consensus necessary to advance proposals for East Antarctic, Weddell Sea, and Antarctic Peninsula MPAs. Should Russia and China decide, once more, to obstruct the creation of future MPAs, ATCPs will have to avoid making concessions.  

Polar geopolitics in Antarctica is fraught. Uncomfortably for those western states that have been so used to shaping the ATCM agenda, there is growing evidence that BRICS+ are becoming more assertive in Antarctic diplomacy. Furthermore, the state of ‘degraded interaction’ with Russia is creating a vacuum in which BRICS+ countries can fill and that obstructive actors like Moscow and Beijing can exploit.   

In the wake of the Kochi meeting, there is more than ever need to further protect Antarctica’s vulnerable ecosystems and avoid a situation in which competitive geopolitical dynamics take good, scientifically informed governance hostage. By reintroducing the core values of the ATS, the recently updated US National Security Memorandum on the Antarctic region represents a welcome and necessary step forward in this direction. More pointed leadership will be necessary to stop the erosion of trust within the ATS and of the consensus-based decision-making process in the Antarctic.  

Polar Institute

Since its inception in 2017, the Polar Institute has become a premier forum for discussion and policy analysis of Arctic and Antarctic issues, and is known in Washington, DC and elsewhere as the Arctic Public Square. The Institute holistically studies the central policy issues facing these regions—with an emphasis on Arctic governance, climate change, economic development, scientific research, security, and Indigenous communities—and communicates trusted analysis to policymakers and other stakeholders.  Read more