Falklands warning: China and Russia ‘could push UK and Argentina into fresh dispute’

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Britain and Argentina have long argued over sovereignty of the Falklands, which boiled over into conflict when the South American country invaded the British Overseas Territory almost 40 years ago. Before that though – following the creation of the Antarctic Treaty System – the territory south of the 60th parallel was formed into a new dependency, the British Antarctic Territory, which also overlaps claims by Argentina and Chile on the icy continent. This area includes three regions which were previously administered by the British as separate dependencies of the Falkland Islands – Graham Land, the South Orkney Islands, and the South Shetland Islands. 

All three country’s claims to the region have been suspended since the treaty, Article 4 of which states “No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica”.

As diplomatic relations over the Falklands continue to be strained, Royal Holloway’s Professor Klaus Dodds has stated the two countries will continue to uphold their deal in Antarctica.

He told Express.co.uk: “I think, for the moment, conflict between the UK and Argentina is unlikely.

“The UK and Argentina have, in a sense, some common cause here.

“Despite all their disagreements in places like the Falklands, there is a common cause because both countries are long-standing, but smaller Antarctic nations.

“The Antarctic Treaty System protects both of their territorial claims.”

The Antarctic Treaty System entered into force in 1961 and sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, for freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity on the continent. 

But, while Prof Dodds is sure the UK and Argentina will not break the agreement, he fears others may.

He added: “The last thing the UK and Argentina want – and Chile because they claim the same part – is the treaty to fall apart. 

“That is of no strategic advantage to any of those three countries.

“So what Argentina and Britain will do in the future is continue to trade in a war of words over the ownership of the Falklands and South Georgia, but they don’t want conflict

“There is no incentive and both would look on with concern in terms of what Russia and China might wish to do in Antarctica and hope that the US would be an important strategic counterbalance.”

Russia currently has the most icebreaker ships in the Antarctic and China is building more, in what experts have already warned could lead to future tension.

They are both trying to contest marine protected areas, to allow for more fishing, which some say is a proxy for mineral mining. 

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In 2048, several elements of the Antarctic Treaty will come up for contention, but Prof Dodds warns that China and Russia can “chip away” at parts of the treaty well before then, which risks crumbling the whole pact.

He continued: “In the next five to 10 years, a lot of this tension will make itself known, so there’s no point obsessing about dates on the treaty.

“What’s going on now is a source of concern, not what happens in 2048 – a lot of these things are already revealing themselves.

“We’ve got to stop thinking of these places as remote, unimportant or disconnected, they’re not – they are centre stage in global politics.

“Western countries want to hang on to the treaty, so what China will do is it will keep chipping away at the terms – in the sense of the collective will and determination of the others to try and block them – because they don’t want China to walk away, or Russia. 

“That’s why consensus often leads to uncomfortable compromise, it’s a Catch-22 – you want to keep the big players, but it carries with it costs and dangers.”

Prof Dodds says this is the kind of scenario which could potentially leave the door open to difficult decisions between the UK and Argentina if the treaty no longer holds weight. 

He added: “Argentina and the UK are both claimant states in Antarctica and the Antarctic Treaty protects their territorial interests.

“With China and Russia chipping away, you might have a situation where other parties have a very difficult decision to make about how they maintain ‘consensus’ which is the hallmark of Antarctic governance.

“No one wants China and Russia to walk away from the treaty.

“Argentina and the UK, of course, if they both remain part of the treaty, still have a common interest in making sure that the treaty endures.”

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