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Antarctica may be the only continent that hasn’t been physically hit by the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it has been immune to its aftershocks. As the outbreak ripped across the globe, forcing governments to provide bailout programs for their citizens, countries began to stall their Antarctic programs, not least as a safeguard to prevent the coronavirus from engulfing the continent.

Australia, which dedicated nearly $190 million for its 2020–21 Antarctic programs and is one of the most significant players on the continent, said last month that it would be forced to reduce its research program there. Kim Ellis, the director of the Australian Antarctic Division, told us that the number of researchers and station workers who are usually sent for the summer season, from October to February, would be cut by about half, from 300 people to 150 to 160. This means decreased operational capacity; delays in new, major projects and infrastructure development; and a limited ability to recruit and train new teams for research. Both the British Antarctic Survey and the United States Antarctic Program are also facing challenges. The U.S. National Science Foundation, which allocated $488 million of its 2019–20 budget for the polar regions, says that “there will no doubt be implications for the next austral-summer field season,” according to Stephanie Short, the NSF’s point person for the Antarctic.

Not only could the cutbacks delay important research on rising sea levels and the effects of climate change, but they also leave a door open for great-power competition that has been playing out across the globe—as Western nations have pulled back, the Russians and Chinese have maintained their activities on the continent in this period and are fighting for more access to fishing, oil reserves, and mining. Even before the pandemic, many experts we spoke with said Russia and China were using the guise of scientific research to stake further claim on the continent. Now they think that the two countries could be taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to extend their reach even more.

Donald Rothwell, an international-law professor at the Australian National University College of Law, told us that he believes China and Russia “will probably seek to maintain and even increase their Antarctic activities, especially if traditional Antarctic states begin to scale back their activities on the continent.”

The U.S. has already been jostling with Russia and China in the Arctic for decades. General Charles Q. Brown Jr., the commander of Pacific Air Forces, who was recently nominated as Air Force chief of staff, said he thinks that Antarctic competition will soon resemble the United States’ rivalry with China and Russia in the North Pole. The United States, he said, has to ask what “everybody’s motive” is when “they come down to Antarctica.” Brown added that more equipment, such as polar icebreakers—which help boats navigate safely through the water and visually signal that a country is present in the polar region—is needed for the U.S. to combat China’s and Russia’s expanding military footprint in both regions. Currently, Russia possesses more icebreakers than the United States, and China is building more as well.

“When I look at the competition, and the melting ice in the Arctic, and the competition with both Russia and China,” he said, “we’ve got to pay attention to that.”

In theory, Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System. The global pact, which was signed in 1959, is dedicated to preserving and protecting the continent for scientific research and provides a safeguard against nuclear proliferation. But in practice, with no technical ruling government or permanent human colonies beyond scientists and support staff, sovereignty on the continent is murky. The Australian Antarctic Division considers 42 percent of the continent Australian territory—a claim that is accepted by only a few nations. “One of the things that people quickly recognized in Antarctica,” says Klaus Dodds, a geopolitics professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, “is that place names and boundary drawing have an extraordinary significance in a place where all the normal indicators of ownership don't apply.”

Effectively, that’s meant it’s largely been open season for anyone who’s interested in staking a claim on Antarctica. China, which joined the treaty in 1983, was worrying nations in Antarctica long before the world shut down. As a relative latecomer to the pact, Beijing has invested significantly in research and development on the continent, catching up and even racing ahead of original members such as the United States and Australia. It has built four Antarctic stations in 30 years, and has a fifth station, near the Ross Sea, that will become operable in 2022.

China's polar icebreakers sail in Antarctica. (Liu Shiping Xinhua / Eyevine / R​edux)

As a result, Australia has grown suspicious of China’s intentions, even though it benefits greatly from Chinese investment in its own Antarctic science program. “China’s interest in Antarctica is not limited to the short term” or “shaped by scientists,” Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told us. Instead, he speculates, the country may be laying claim on the continent for resource and military advantages, unlike most of the other Antarctic Treaty members.

Australia’s worry isn’t unfounded: It has witnessed firsthand China’s behavior over fishing rights in Antarctica. While a portion of the Ross Sea was protected in 2016, South Korea, China, and Russia have fought against the expansion of protected marine areas to limit fishing.

Days before some countries reported cutbacks and delays to their Antarctic activities, the Chinese company Shanghai Chonghe Marine Industry ordered the largest Antarctic krill-fishing boat in the world to be completed by 2023. Krill, a small crustacean paramount to the diet of most Antarctic sea creatures and used as oil and feed in China, has experienced a significant population decline in recent years, and an increase in krill fishing is a serious threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. It’s also lucrative: While statistics on China’s fishing initiatives are hard to find, the country’s 2014 krill catch was worth approximately $10 million, and the krill-oil market is expected to be worth more than $400 million by 2025. Last year, the Chinese government announced that it would distribute more than $850 million in subsidies to small companies to process krill products.

The fear of many is, according to Dodds, that “fishing is a proxy for minerals,” and while the current conversation is about krill and fish, it’s a precursor to discussions surrounding mining (which is currently prohibited by the Antarctic Treaty) that could occur 30 years from now. (The treaty is set for a standard review in 2048, which could present an opportunity to modify a ban on resource extraction, including mining and oil drilling. Russia and China both want to relax the existing prohibitions.)

“Even with the treaty,” says Elizabeth Buchanan of Deakin University’s School of Humanities and Social Science in Australia, “geopolitical conflict is occurring in the form of economic control, scientific leadership, and polar-power-projection campaigning.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping says the country’s guiding principles for polar activity should be to “understand, protect, and use.” In fact, China has always been open about its interest in fishing as part of the country’s long-term aims, Nengye Liu, a senior lecturer at Adelaide Law School in Australia, told us. It has described the continent as part of its so-called strategic new frontiers, and Liu believes that its long-term goal is to change the existing power order within the treaty system. Doing so would allow China to expand research projects that have been stalled by other treaty members.

This attitude could very well sour China’s global partnerships in Antarctica. The Australian approach with China in Antarctica, Jennings said, is based on the idea that Australia can “trust them to work as equal, open, respectful partners, focused on doing work for the good of humanity.”

“How viable is that hope after [China’s] duplicitous and damaging handling of the virus?” Jennings added. “I believe that in the long term the [Chinese Communist] Party would take a similar approach to Antarctica.”

Liu takes a more matter-of-fact view. “Every country is in this game for their own interests,” he said. The question is: “How can we build a resilient system to let countries get together and do something good for Antarctica?”

Like China, “Russia remains active [in the Antarctic] despite the coronavirus,” Buchanan says. In February, Russia’s state-run geological surveyor, Rosgeologia, reported that it had already begun its first seismic survey in the area in more than 20 years. The company says the purpose of the survey was to use new technology to gauge the potential of offshore oil and gas.

Russia has also voiced displeasure about the complicated approval process for research projects, including “disparities in the national procedures regulating permitted activities.” In early February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted in a documentary about Russia’s activity in Antarctica that the continent could not be claimed by any one country.

Two weeks ago, the day after Australia announced coronavirus-related delays to its Antarctic work, one of the Russian navy’s research vessels, the Admiral Vladimirsky, arrived on the continent to locate the South Magnetic Pole’s current point, ostensibly to study the Earth’s magnetic field. The mission was meaningful for other reasons as well. The ship, which set sail in December, followed the route of Russia’s circumnavigation voyage in 1819 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Russia’s discovery of the continent. (Who first discovered Antarctica is contested.)

“We might yet see a Russian flag plant in the South Pole, mirroring the 2007 Arctic-seabed PR stunt,” Buchanan says. Back then, the Russians planted a flag at the North Pole to symbolically claim access to potential resources on an ocean floor whose ownership was disputed. Buchanan elaborated that these missions are a way for Russia to illustrate its global relevance and international reach in the polar regions.

Rothwell, the international-law expert, agrees: He believes that China and Russia “may use the current global environment as an opportunity to enhance their strategic position vis-à-vis the West.” But Tim Stephens, an international-law professor at the University of Sydney, is more sanguine about the nature of the expedition to the South Magnetic Pole: “Projects and expeditions will have been in the pipeline for some time,” Stephens told us, “and will have commenced before the pandemic.”

A post with signs to different cities around the world at the Russian Bellingshausen Station in Antarctica. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP / Getty)

In many ways, what’s happening in Antarctica is emblematic of what’s been going on in the Arctic for some time. For centuries, countries have been jostling for territorial claim in the Arctic to bolster trade routes. More recently, countries have been vying for the region’s robust resources, in addition to expanding radar and missile-defense systems. But because no one centralized treaty maintains cooperation among nations or establishes strict rules on mineral exploitation, the area has become more militarized. Russia has spent billions of dollars to build new military bases in the Arctic and upgrade existing ones, while also allowing China to drill for oil off its coast. In the U.S. military’s 2019 report to Congress, the Pentagon warned of China’s strengthening presence in the North Pole. And Western countries have deployed ships to monitor Russian activity: Earlier this month, as NATO warships sailed the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean, The Economist posited that “America and Britain are playing cold-war games with Russia in the Arctic,” as NATO ships returned to the area for the first time in a “generation.”

“The Arctic is perhaps sort of 10 to 15 years ahead of where the Antarctic is in terms of strategic competition,” Jennings, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.

Although Russia and China have also suffered the effects of the coronavirus, their decision not to press pause on current or future projects in Antarctica points to how seriously they take the issue of demonstrating sovereignty in the polar regions, even if it’s too early to tell to what extent their moves will change the balance of power on the continent. “I think [China is] seeking to position itself for strategic advantage on the other side of the crisis,” Jennings said. “ I would expect a similar full-court press on Antarctica.” Last month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report outlining China’s Antarctic posturing and urged the Australian government to make clear its expectations of the country.

The way this could play out on the continent, however, may look very different from other crisis zones. Conflict in Antarctica, according to Buchanan, “does not simply look like boots on the ground, missile strikes, or armed invasion.” Instead, “weaponized dual-use technology, such as satellites; krill fisheries; and increased ‘scientific’ presence are all elements of Antarctic conflict into the future.”

Furthermore, the temporarily shrinking presence of Western countries on the continent due to COVID-19 will lead to less transparency in Antarctica. Under the treaty system, countries are allowed to inspect one another’s research facilities to not only keep all members aware of ongoing projects, but also make sure that no country is up to anything nefarious.

Without continued inspections, it’s difficult to say what research stations are up to. Australia’s reduction of operations, Buchanan says, may allow countries such as China and Russia to expand their Antarctic presence without a watchful eye—especially because most of China’s claims lie within Australian Antarctic territory.

But inspections weren’t perfect even before the pandemic. The United States, the Netherlands, and South Korea have complained that they were difficult to conduct and track, and asked for a “system that would allow for a comprehensive inspection database.” One was finally introduced last year. More than a dozen facilities, including Chinese and Russian ones, have also never been inspected at all. In February, the U.S. conducted inspections on three foreign bases (those of Italy, South Korea, and China)—its first inspections since 2012. Ellis, the Australian Antarctic Division director, who just returned from visiting 17 different stations—including Chinese and Russian ones—said that he’s “not concerned, but always cautious.”

Multiple international meetings that allow for the discussion of research activities in person were canceled for the remainder of the year. These cancellations are significant, Rothwell said, as they diminish international accountability in Antarctica.

Despite these geopolitical tensions, Antarctica remains a place that sees a “high degree of scientific collaboration,” Alexandra Isern, the head of the NSF’s Antarctic-sciences division, told us. Undoubtedly, Antarctica allows for niceties and scientific discovery. But, according to Dodds, “it also enables you to be nasty. It enables you to be obstructive, petty, and vindictive.” The coronavirus will either encourage countries to double down on their commitment to work together and share information or augment the palpable divide. “I don’t think there’s any middle ground,” Dodds said.

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