The Guardian • Issue #2069

The Kerguelen Islands sale to China

Several king penguins near Port-aux-Français station, Kerguelen Islands.

Several king penguins near Port-aux-Français station, Kerguelen Islands. Photo: Antoine Lamielle – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0) .

On 15th July 2023 France offered to sell the Kerguelen Islands to China for 60 billion Euros. The sale would make China Australia’s newest neighbour. Administratively the islands are a part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. The archipelago lies in the southern Indian Ocean. Currently there are 100 research scientists living on the islands. The Kerguelen Islands’ closest neighbour is Australia’s external territory of the Heard and McDonald Islands.

France and Australia signed a bilateral Agreement on the Indian Ocean boundary, on 4th January 1982. It drew an 800-kilometre-long boundary between the Kerguelen Islands and the Heard Island and McDonald Islands.

The Kerguelen Islands have limited economic value, with no oil or rare metals, but they include a fishing zone. Past agricultural projects failed owing to the weather and limited rain fall. In summer temperatures reach 20°C, while in winter it falls to −10°C. The islands have strategic geopolitical value as a fuelling station for China’s Antarctic research ships. For the US, UK, and Australia the sale to China has the potential of China setting up an important military hub in the Indian Ocean, not far from Africa.

The Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands is a sub-Antarctic-island group located 4,100 km southwest of Perth. The territory is managed by the Australian Antarctic Division and currently the islands have no permanent human outposts, to ensure they remain biologically pristine. The Australian external territory is a non-self-governing dependency, with the Department of Science responsible for its administration. Heard Island is used as an annual relief operations base for Australia’s scientific research bases in Antarctica. The Department of Primary Industries and Energy controls the fishing rights, which extend for 370 km into the surrounding waters. In recent years Australia Post has issued numerous stamps with “Heard Island Australia” printed on them, maintaining our territorial claim.

China signed the 1961 Antarctic Treaty in 1983, allowing Beijing to conduct scientific research in the region. With China’s growing investment in the region, France in 2021 warned that China’s Antarctic claims were an encroachment upon its territories. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report “Frozen Frontiers – China’s great power ambitions in the polar regions,” China’s world-class facilities in the Antarctic serve “to advance China’s broader strategic and military interests.” The purpose of the US think tank, CSIS, is to define the future of national security.

The sale of the Kerguelen Islands follows on from China’s ambition to build ports in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands. In June 2022, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi conducted a tour of seven Pacific Island states to gain a greater Chinese role in regional maritime affairs. China continues to seek a regional ocean security pact.

After Wang Yi’s visit, the Australian owner of the Conflict Islands, Ian Gowrie-Smith, contacted the Australian Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, to offer to sell the islands to the Australian government. Given the implications of Chinese investments in the region, the twenty-one coral atolls between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, covering an area of 3.8 sq km, became politically and strategically important to Australia. Gowrie-Smith had purchased the land in 2003 from Honolulu residents, Lu and Mary Anne Nevels, for US$25 million.

In September 2022 the PNG government ordered an investigation into the islands’ foreign ownership. Since its independence in 1975, ownership of land is confined to the state and citizens of PNG. If the Conflict Islands are a freehold title, Gowrie-Smith can only sell to a PNG citizen. If he wants to sell the islands to a non-citizen, he must first convert the titles to state leases. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese argued that any sale depends on PNG law.

The Conflict Islands pose a national security risk after the Solomon Islands signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China on 11th July. Three massive data cables carry Australia’s data pass nearby along the ocean floor, making them potentially vulnerable to espionage, according to the Australian government.

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