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Australia to invest $800 million shoring up Antarctic claim amid strategic competition

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Australia will fund long-range helicopters that can be launched from icebreaking ship Nuyina.  (AAD: Pete Harmsen)

 Australia will fund long-range helicopters that can be launched from the icebreaking ship Nuyina.

Australia will soon fly a fleet of surveillance drones over the interior of Antarctica and establish temporary stations to boost its influence amid renewed competition in territory it maintains an historical claim to.

The federal government will today announce an $800 million commitment over the next decade focusing on strategic objectives and exploration, but also on climate research and environmental management.

It comes as China expands its presence and activity in the hard-to-reach Antarctic interior within the 42 percent of the continent claimed by Australia, despite such claims being paused under an international treaty.

"The money we are investing in drone fleets, helicopters, and other vehicles will enable us to explore areas of East Antarctica's inland that no country has ever been able to reach before," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Some security experts and government analysts worry that if the treaty — which also bans military and mining activity — were to fail, then China may challenge Australia's claim and role in the region.

"When I sit down with world leaders to discuss the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in the face of increasing pressures, the strategic importance of our scientific leadership is clear," Environment Minister Sussan Ley said.

"We need to ensure that the Antarctic remains a place of science and conservation, one that is free from conflict and which is protected from exploitation."

The drone fleets and other autonomous vehicles will establish an "Antarctic eye" in the region, with integrated cameras and sensors allowing vision and data to be viewed in real-time.

Four helicopters with a range of 550 kilometres will be purchased that can be launched from Australia's new icebreaker, Nuyina, allowing access to parts of Antarctica that have never been visited.

This improved reach will benefit scientists who can study new areas of the continent, and also ensure Australia is active within its claim.

Expert warns Antarctic arms race

Antarctic strategy expert Elizabeth Buchanan from Deakin University said the investment in drones was "sorely needed" but would need to be carefully managed.

"This clearly signals Canberra's move into the grey zone of dual-use technologies — a space in which Russia and China are well versed," Dr. Buchanan said.

"Drones have both military and civilian research applications.

"While it is easy enough for Australia to smack 'science' on drone policies, making use permissible in Antarctica, this may embolden Russia and China to enhance their own dual-use technologies — an arms race of dual-use capabilities, if you will."

Australia's three research bases cling to the coast of Antarctica, while China has stations much further inland.

Dr. Buchanan said Australia had fallen behind when it came to inland traverse capability, making it difficult to routinely inspect Chinese bases closer to the South Pole, such as Kunlun.

"Built in 2009, Australia has yet to inspect Kunlun physically," Dr. Buchanan said.

"In fact, no [treaty nation] has undertaken an inspection of Kunlun station."

Research stations in Antarctica are often inspected by other nations to ensure compliance with the treaty banning military activity and mining.

Last year, Australia abandoned plans to build the continent's first concrete runway near Davis Station, one of the only areas on the continent with solid rock.

By not continuing with that project, more money has been made available for this announcement.

Research on glaciers and marine science is also included in the package, along with funding for a new aquarium to raise awareness of the important role krill play in climate science and the food chain.

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