From the Moon to the Bottom of the Sea: China’s Rise and the Future Governance of the Final Frontiers

[NASA/unsplash]

“A first for humanity and an impressive accomplishment” – when NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter to express his admiration in early January, it wasn’t to laud the most recent accomplishment of his own agency. Quite the contrary: Bridenstine congratulated China, one of the United States’ emerging competitors in the domain of space exploration, for successfully landing a probe on the far side of the moon – a feat that none of the traditional space powers has ever accomplished.

Five decades after Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the lunar surface, not everyone might share Bridenstine’s excitement over an unmanned moon landing. Yet, China’s successful mission undoubtedly constitutes a break in the geopolitics of outer space. By performing an unprecedented and highly sophisticated operation, China made an announcement to the world: We’re in space, too, and we’re here to stay. And indeed: In the years ahead, China plans to cement its status as space power through further missions, including a crewed mission to the moon that is planned for as early as the 2030s.

But there’s more to China’s moon landing than simply a desire for international prestige. Interest in the moon’s resources, in particular water, rare earths, and the potential energy source helium-3, has surged in recent years, fuelling the imaginations of governments and private enterprises alike. In the view of many observers, future manned landings will only serve as the precursor for the establishment of permanent lunar bases, which in turn could be used as gateways for both mining operations and exploration missions into deep space. While likely still years away, the prospect of a permanent Chinese presence on the moon has sparked calls for the U.S. to step up its own space program – in order not to play second fiddle to China in an emerging space race.

The Global Commons as ‘New Strategic Frontiers’

As impressive as China’s recent advances into outer space might be, they hardly come as a surprise. In fact, they are only one manifestation of a larger strategic effort by the Middle Kingdom to strengthen its presence in those areas of the globe – and beyond – that were long considered humanity’s final frontiers. In 2015, the CCP government identified the polar regions, the deep seabed, and outer space as China’s new strategic frontiers, noting that they “are ripe with opportunities”. What unites all these strategic frontiers is their status as global commons, that is, resource domains that do not fall under any state’s jurisdiction, and to which all states have access – at least in theory. In practice, utilizing the resource wealth of the global commons has been the prerogative of technologically advanced states with the ability to project power far beyond their borders.

This is precisely the club of states that China has joined, and outer space is not the only resource domain that China has set eyes on. With over 2,500 vessels, China’s distant water fishing fleet is estimated to be the world’s largest. Keen to escape the country’s overfished national waters, Chinese vessels roam the high seas and fish off the West African coast and Antarctica. While the extraction of precious metals such as cobalt or manganese from the deep seabed might still be years away from being commercially feasible, China is making sure that it is in pole position once mining operations come underway. As of now, it holds the largest number of exploration licenses issued by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the international body responsible for regulating access to deep-sea mineral resources. Finally, since acceding to the “rich man’s club” of Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties in 1985, China has consistently expanded its presence on the white continent. In 2018, China launched its second icebreaker and laid foundation to the country’s fifth Antarctic research station.

Naturally, many Western analysts view China’s recent advances into the global commons with uneasiness. The discomfort is particularly prevalent in U.S. security circles, where the commons are considered the ‘connective tissue’ of the international system, facilitating the passage of goods, people, and data. Most importantly, as Barry Posen wrote in 2003, “command of the commons is the key military enabler of the U.S. global power position.” From this perspective, the ascent of China – be it through a permanent presence in space or a growing blue water navy to protect China’s maritime interests – threatens the control of the commons that has formed the backbone of U.S. hegemony for decades. China’s recent attempts to restrict navigational rights in the South and East China Seas have done little to alleviate concerns in this respect.

New Players, Same Old Problems

With much of the debate focusing on Sino-U.S. security competition, the implications of China’s rise for global resource governance have received considerably less attention. Although international discussions over how resources in the global commons should be governed have gone on for decades, the development of comprehensive governance frameworks has been sluggish to date. However, technological innovations and mounting environmental pressures have given a new urgency to these debates, making the question over China’s normative preferences all the more intriguing.

The first bone of contention in this context has been how to best conserve resources threatened by overexploitation, such as fish stocks in the high seas. In this context, China recently became the target of international criticism when it vetoed the establishment of marine protected areas in waters off Antarctica – presumably because of its growing interest in exploiting the region’s krill stocks. However, opposition to stronger high seas governance is hardly unique to China, but rather a position shared by most large fishing nations. This has been especially visible in ongoing negotiations over a new international agreement to regulate the conservation and use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). Western states such as Canada or Norway have been among those most critical of delegating authority over the designation of protected areas to an international body; China, by contrast, has thus far kept a relatively low profile and largely acted in unison with the G77. Whether China will adopt a more assertive stance on measures that could curtail the freedom to fish the high seas will be a crucial development to monitor as negotiations proceed.

A second contested issue where China’s position will carry weight in the future concerns distributive justice. Since the late 1960s, developing states have attempted to challenge the aforementioned de facto monopoly of industrial states over hard-to-access resources by demanding the establishment of inclusive global resource regimes that promote an equitable distribution of the resources in question. In the UNCLOS negotiations, developing states – including China – celebrated an improbable success when the final text of the convention recognized deep-sea minerals as the “common heritage of mankind”, to be managed through an international authority (the ISA) in a way that all countries would receive a share. Yet, subsequent attempts to extend the common heritage principle to Antarctic and lunar resources failed – in both cases, China sided with the states opposing the demands of the Global South. Nonetheless, contestation over the common heritage principle continues to this day: In the BBNJ negotiations, for instance, the G77 and China claim that marine genetic resources in the high seas constitute the common heritage of mankind and that consequently, some kind of benefit-sharing scheme is needed.

Contrary to its open contestation of international legal norms in regional waters, China’s profile is thus less clear-cut when it comes to the question which norms should govern global common-pool resources. Thus far, China has largely played along in existing institutions, and only occasionally taken a strong stance on contested normative questions. Admittedly, its low profile might partly be explained by the fact that the commercial exploitation of some resources is still a long way off. China’s vision for the global commons will therefore likely become clearer once such exploitation becomes an economic reality. When that time comes, China will confront difficult choices: Will it promote resource conservation over exploitation, or vice versa? Will it stick to its identity as a large developing state, advancing the Global South’s agenda of distributive justice, or act upon its economic interests as a technologically advanced nation? Whatever path it chooses, China’s growing weight means it has the power to tip the scales – one way or another. With the global commons under unprecedented pressure, this power comes with the greatest possible responsibility.

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The “scholarly mainstream” in German IR

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Given its object of study, one would think that the field of International Relations would be a particularly cosmopolitan and ecumenical discipline. In many ways it is. But in some respects it resembles a collection of warring tribes. This has probably declined somewhat since the Big Debates of the 1990s—the Neo-Neo Debate, epistemology wars between neo-positivists and ‘critical’ theorists—which still provide many of the key readings for students of IR theory. But these Big Debates didn’t really end in a definitive victory for one side. They mostly gave way to a Cold Peace amongst relatively insular scholarly communities. Well they maybe did – it’s hard to know for sure.

One of the interesting phenomena about how IR scholars talk about their field and their tribe is that they often refer to it as ‘mainstream’. Often, this is done by those who feel they are outside of the mainstream. (Interestingly, there does not appear to be an accepted metaphor to refer to those who are not part of the mainstream – backwaters? Counter-currents?) But what does this mainstream consist of?

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Between Dusk And Dawn – A reply to Frank Nullmeier

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Following Frank Nullmeier’s review of “A Theory of Global Governance” (TOGG) in our previous blogpost, Michael Zürn responds to some of the remarks made by the author. Is TOGG deficient because it does not focus on decision shaping through global capitalism or on power relations between multinationals and child labor? No, he argues, because TOGG is a theory about the effects of the system of global political institutions and does not seek to answer questions about IR in general or provide a new theory of the World Society. Instead, it shows how extra-political relations of power and dominance impact the political system and become institutionalized therein. Lastly, the image of the Owl of Athena that only sets out at dusk is somewhat inaccurate as a comparison, Zürn claims. TOGG does not merely look backwards and assess the strength of Global Governance as it emerged in the 1990s – it examines why this system is on the brink of the abyss, while simultaneously asking for the conditions under which it may survive in the future. Read the whole German article here.

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Legitimacy Problems of the Global Governance System. Michael Zürn’s theory of global politics

In his post, which originally appeared on Theorieblog, Frank Nullmeier critically examines Michael Zürn’s “A theory of Global Governance”, published in 2018 by Oxford University Press. The “Global Governance System” (GGS), as proposed by Zürn, is based on the exertion of global authority primarily through international organizations, whose political and epistemic authority has grown substantially over the past thirty years, even though they only act within a certain policy area. The consequences are severe legitimacy problems of the GGS. Nullmeier analyses the theoretical implications of such a vantage point, arguing that focusing on normative integration of international organizations comes at the expense of questions of state power, violence, and economic struggles, which are regarded as exogenous. Read the full article in German here.

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Help! I have ‘backlash’ whiplash: Towards a progressive contestation

                                                                                                                                                              [Photo: Alex Radelich/unsplash]

For lack of a better term– or for reasons of inexactitude– scholars have zeroed in on the term ‘backlash’ to describe our current political moment. I would like to take some time to unpack this historically, and to offer some tentative thoughts on how to re-frame contestation as distinct from mere ‘backlash’. To begin with, a ‘backlash’ is defined as a strong negative reaction to a social or political development. It often harkens back to a fabled past and represents an attempt to reclaim a set of privileges. Images of segregationists in the American South come to mind. And yet, not all those who contest the current order are reactionary. In fact, many social movements are born from a desire to emancipate. The concept of a ‘backlash’ precludes this possibility. It articulates a subtle suspicion of those who would question prevailing orthodoxies, regardless of the substance of their critique or the manner with which they engage politically.

In framing contestation as a ‘backlash’ we accept the grand narrative of a liberal teleology. That is, the almost evangelical belief in a rules-based international order, which privileges markets and individual autonomy. For better or worse, we are told that there are no real alternatives. This is a lethal form of intellectual inertia: it sanitizes politics and immobilizes debate precisely when we need it most.

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Peripheral innovation – the dental therapist movement in the US

                                                                                                                                                                   [Photo: Nhia Moua/unsplash]

Diffusion is known as a process that ties together the centers of the world ever more closely. Once the privatization of water supply made it on the international agenda, privatization soon became a topic in capitals all over the world. Once it becomes the world standard to have a ministry for digital affairs, governments around the world will establish such an organization. Still, there is another and more hidden network of diffusion: diffusion that connects the world’s peripheries – sites of marginalized populations both in the Global South and the Global North. Here, an innovation does not move between the centers of power; it moves between the peripheries forgotten by the centers.

Dental therapists in the US are a case in point of such peripheral diffusion. They deliver basic dental services to underserved populations in peripheries, services that are normally delivered by dentists. Dental therapists work around the world in sites that are considered underserved. The profession was first established for dental services to schoolchildren in New Zealand in the 1920s, following bad health status of recruits. Now, there are dental therapists in 53 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe. In the US, they were introduced for the first time in Alaskan Native communities. Currently, the dental therapist movement is introducing this profession in peripheries all over the US.

This movement and the spread of dental therapists in the US draw attention to important features of peripheral diffusion in a globalized world.

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This cannot be business as usual: re-examining the role of the scholar in the age of Trump


                                                                                                                                                                 [Photo: Cole Keister/unsplash]

The Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen wrote in the summer of 1932 ‘one hears talk on all sides of a crisis—and sometimes even a catastrophe— of democracy’. Embroiled in a bitter exchange with his fellow legal scholars, the erstwhile philosophy teacher from Vienna was increasingly isolated and at odds with his profession. ‘Those who are for democracy’ he argued ‘cannot allow themselves to be caught in the dangers of idle debates’. Spirited in his defense of the Weimar Constitution, Kelsen was not in keeping with the times. There was, he believed, a sense of urgency to his scholarly work that his contemporaries simply did not understand. We live in a world, he lamented­, absent of heroes. Within months of accepting his professorship at the University of Cologne, Kelsen was summarily dismissed on political grounds.

‘History may not repeat itself’, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues, ‘but it certainly instructs’. Once again there is talk of a crisis of democracy. Yet like the fatigue which comes at the onset of a fever, there exists a disorientating malaise amongst social scientists. We work and publish; we debate with our colleagues, but to what ends?

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Interview: James Currey on publishing African Literature

                                                                                    [Photo: Kuukuwa Manful/Africa Oxford Initiative]

In this episode of our interview series, our host Lynda Iroulo talks to James Currey, co-founder of the Oxford-based James Currey Publishers and, together with Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe, creator of the African Writers Series launched in 1962.

Listen in, as Currey gives insight into his first steps in the publishing business and contemporary African literature, and why he doesn’t intend to stop what he is doing any time soon.

Find an abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

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Researching Humanitarian Affairs: Normative Issues, Research Gaps, and Methodological Challenges

[Photo: Dmitri Popov/unsplash]

The study of humanitarian affairs – defined as international politics and policies that deal with the limitation of human suffering in situations of crisis and war – should be the core issue for many scholars of International Relations. In this blog post, I deal with three central themes relevant for studying humanitarian affairs: 1) issues and challenges, 2) research gaps, and 3) methodological challenges. In doing so, I am hoping to facilitate a larger debate about how we, as scholars of IR, can and should study humanitarian affairs. I will then conclude with some normative considerations on the relationship between International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law in the context of humanitarian affairs.

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Interview: Sifiso Ndlovu on the Soweto Youth Uprising (II)

In this week’s podcast episode, listen to the second half of Lynda Iroulo’s conversation with Prof. Dr. Sifiso Ndlovu, who took part in the 1976 Soweto youth protests against the oppressive apartheid regime.

After describing the events preceding the uprising in part one, hear Prof. Ndlovu talk about what happened on June 16, 1976, the paths that protesters have taken afterwards and his advice to young people today in part two of the interview.

Prof. Sifiso Ndlovu

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