Growing threat on our doorstep
A COLD war is slowly unfolding on Australia's doorstep.
Yes, literally - we're talking about a battle building over the future of the icy Antarctic.
As Australia scans for potential conflicts to our north, a separate threat is looming in the region just south of Tasmania.
So why aren't we tackling it head-on?
CHINA'S EXPANDING INFLUENCE IN THE ANTARCTIC
For a long time, China has been eyeing the Australian Antarctic Territory - a large portion of the Antarctic that by Canberra's definition belongs to us.
In 1951, Australia and a bunch of other countries signed a document called the Antarctic Treaty System, by which they laid out ownership lines and committed to not militarising the land, or exploiting it for its rich natural resources.
Australia claimed six million square kilometres of the icy continent - around 42 per cent of its total land.
But a number of other countries - most notably including China - weren't signatories to this treaty, and they don't recognise Australia's claims.
Over the past decade, China has slowly been expanding its reach in Antarctica by creating networks of stations in Australia-claimed territory.
The Antarctic Treaty expires in 2048 - and from that point, it's all up for grabs. If China can slowly increase its presence and activities there now, it'll be easier to claim in a few more decades.
WHY IS CHINA SO INTERESTED IN THIS REGION?
Adam Lockyer, a security expert at Macquarie University and author of Australia's Defence Strategy: Evaluating Alternatives for a Contested Asia, told news.com.au there are several reasons for China's interest in the region.
For one thing, it's part of their broader strategy for global domination. The rising superpower is increasing its presence everywhere, from South America to the South Pacific.
Similar to its pursuits in the South China Sea, China is seeking to increase its influence, but fall just short of sparking an actual military conflict with the United States and its allies.
China says its outposts on the Antarctic region are purely for scientific purposes. But they could also potentially be used to aid the country militarily.
"Beijing can make legitimate claims that the installations and outposts on the Antarctic are for scientific purposes, and you can't argue with that," Dr Lockyer explained. "The fear is that have a dual use, and that is that they can be used in a confrontation with the US."
But also, the region could prove hugely lucrative, holding large deposits of natural resources.
Anne-Marie Brady, a global fellow at the Wilson Centre and specialist in Chinese and Pacific politics, has warned a new space-based arms race is under way in the Antarctic between the US, Russia and China.
"The installation of satellite earth stations by the US and now Russia and China is a game changer in terms of the military importance of the continent," she wrote in The Australian today.
"The US, Russia, and China's use of their Antarctic ground stations to control offensive weapons systems and relay signals intelligence - all while conducting legitimate scientific activity - has the potential to shift the strategic balance that has maintained peace in the Asia-Pacific for nearly 70 years.
"In a time of conflict, if the US denied others access to GPS, China and Russia could employ BeiDou and GLONASS to guide strike weapons."
China and Russia currently rely on GPS, but these host satellites are all controlled by the US. This means that, in the event of a conflict, America's first tactic would be to switch these all off, leaving China blind and lost.
This is why China and Russia are working to build their own network of navigation satellites.
China's Glonass and BeiDou systems are navigation systems. They're not actually weapons, but they can be used to transport cruise missiles and ballistic missiles to different areas.
You might be wondering why China is even allowed to build these stations in the first place.
Canberra takes the position that, while Australia owns the Australian Antarctic Territory, we should advocate a position of peaceful co-operation - hence we allow Beijing to set up outposts there.
Australia's scientific community supports this - it means more flights in and out of the region, and Hobart becomes a jumping-off point for Chinese scientific aircraft.
But Dr Lockyer says it's worrying Canberra doesn't seem too concerned about China's possible ulterior motives.
"The Australian government doesn't seem too concerned about it," said Dr Lockyer. "Even in strategy, when you ask anybody about it, they tend to look north to the South Pacific. They very rarely turn around and look at what's going on in Antarctica.
"It's like they forgot to lock the backdoor."
THE FUTURE OF THE ANTARCTIC
As China slowly continues to increase its presence in the region, the big question will come up in 2048 when the treaty is up for renegotiation. Dr Lockyer compared their outposts to the way Israel treats the West Bank.
"When the time comes, we'll try to renegotiate this, but the horse will have virtually bolted. It's a bit like trying to wind back China's claims in the South China Sea - their islands are there. The only way you're going to get China out of the South China Sea is by going to war - you can't wind that back."
No Australian political party has suggested we mine or militarise the regions. Without these interests, no one is paying attention to it except scientists, who are mainly interested in its intrinsic value.
"Without a security or military lens to look through, it's a very low priority in Canberra," said Dr Lockyer.
According to Ms Brady, Beijing has hundreds of BeiDou ground stations within China, and other countries around Asia.
She said it plans to set up dozens more within the countries that make up China's Belt and Road Initiative partners - which, in cases like Papua New Guinea or Indonesia - could be very close to home.
This in and of itself is not that concerning.
But Dr Lockyer said it does represent increasing Chinese presence on our doorstep - particularly in the case of countries like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
"If you pop one in Papua New Guinea, for example, PNG rises substantially in the way Beijing considers it. Suddenly you're seeing far more of a Chinese there - in business, in government relations."
He also noted China is more likely to target poorer countries where it won't cost too much to keep them on their side.
The former head of the Australian Antarctic Division, Tony Press, warned the Australian government to step up its diplomatic efforts in the Antarctic.
Dr Lockyer agrees that Canberra has gotten far too complacent about the Pacific. "There's little doubt about that. A fresh approach is needed. China is increasing its presence, and we need to come at them with a clear set of things we're not going to accept.
"China's rise means more weight, more influence. That can't be stopped. But what we can determine is what we are and what we aren't going to accept."
There are a number of questions Canberra needs to be asking: what are we going to allow China to put outposts? How much influence are we going to allow China to have? What are the consequences of the influence we give them?
But Dr Lockyer doesn't see this conversation happening any time soon. "It's a difficult process to go through. Even within that first step of sitting down with the Australian government and strategic community, that would be a difficult conversation. It's quite delicate. There are undertones of neo-colonialism."
Meanwhile - slowly but surely - China only grows more and more powerful.