Antarctic oil sets up cold war

Construction of a startling new base on the Ross Sea coast will bring millions of dollars to Christchurch but raises questions over possible rival bids over New Zealand's potentially oil-rich Antarctic claim.

South Korea, using a Lyttelton-based icebreaker, will next year begin building a $120 million base at Terra Nova Bay, 300km north of New Zealand's Scott Base.

Jang Bogo, named after an eighth-century maritime king who controlled Asia's Yellow Sea, will be one of the largest permanent bases after Scott Base and the United States' McMurdo Station.

Hyundai Engineer and Construction will build the 4000m2 Jang Bogo base, which will house 15 people in winter and 60 in summer. An environmental review noted that because the Terra Nova Bay lacks suitable runways, the materials will all be shipped from Busan to Christchurch where it will be loaded aboard Korea's new icebreaker, Araon.

New Zealand's claim to the Ross Dependency was suspended with the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959 which also demilitarised the continent.

That treaty expires in 2048 and with the Ross Sea suspected of being one of the world's largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, pressure is already building over what will happen when the treaty expires. Korea's patriotic base name, following China's new bases with nationalistic titles, hints at possible territorial claims, according to a paper written by Sydney's Lowy Institute national security fellow, Ellie Fogarty.

While not calling for an all-out Antarctic military option, she said Australia's longer-term national security was intrinsically tied to Antarctica's future use.

"In the face of growing interest from other members of the international community, Australia must act now to ensure its Antarctic policy and activities are suitable to protect its interests." Australia and New Zealand together claim around half of all of Antarctica, and Peter Cozens, senior fellow at Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, says Wellington and Canberra will have to develop a joint approach.

"In some ways it seems as if our government would like our claim to simply disappear on the grounds that it will require a lot of effort and largesse, " Cozens said. He believed New Zealand might have to spend $500 million on a rugged Antarctic ship capable of being a national flag carrier in the Ross Sea.

Fogarty said higher oil prices would make it feasible to extract the 50 billion barrels believed to exist in the Weddell and Ross Seas.

"Despite the treaty's provisions, recent activities of several states suggest that the questions of sovereignty and resource exploitation are far from resolved."

She noted New Zealand used military personnel and material in its operations and the Defence White Paper included Antarctica as a core New Zealand Defence Force responsibility.

Given that Australia and New Zealand have a lengthy defence relationship and many common strategic interests, "co-operative surveillance or joint investment in unmanned capabilities with New Zealand might also be explored", she wrote.

Fairfax Media