The West Antarctic rift system is the result of late Mesozoic and Cenozoic extension between East and West Antarctica, and represents one of the largest active continental rift systems on Earth. But the timing and magnitude of the plate motions leading to the development of this rift system remain poorly known, because of a lack of magnetic anomaly and fracture zone constraints on seafloor spreading. Here we report on magnetic data, gravity data and swath bathymetry collected in several areas of the south Tasman Sea and northern Ross Sea. These results enable us to calculate mid-Cenozoic rotation parameters for East and West Antarctica. These rotations show that there was roughly 180 km of separation in the western Ross Sea embayment in Eocene and Oligocene time. This episode of extension provides a tectonic setting for several significant Cenozoic tectonic events in the Ross Sea embayment including the uplift of the Transantarctic Mountains and the deposition of large thicknesses of Oligocene sediments. Inclusion of this East-West Antarctic motion in the plate circuit linking the Australia, Antarctic and Pacific plates removes a puzzling gap between the Lord Howe rise and Campbell plateau found in previous early Tertiary reconstructions of the New Zealand region. Determination of this East-West Antarctic motion also resolves a long standing controversy regarding the contribution of deformation in this region to the global plate circuit linking the Pacific to the rest of the world.