“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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