Terra-forming Islands in the South China Sea, or the Future of International Law in the Age of Anthropocene

As per our disciplinary formations, IR scholars often indoctrinate instruct their students with the assumption that anarchy is a constant in international relations. The use of the term, however, generally assumes that there are natural/material constants within the international that transcend central concepts of sovereignty, power, and choice/preference. In other words, the assumption is that anarchy has (material) limits. Even those subscribing to the discursive turn would/might agree that there are material constraints that limit ‘meaning construction.’ We base a number of international laws, norms and regulations on this assumption; there are certain constants that cannot be changed through human actions. Our aspirations, capabilities, hopes, preferences, do not change these constants. What if – and this is a big ‘what if’ – for the time being, we are increasingly wrong about this assumption? What if human ability to transform the earth’s eco-systems has reached a level where this basic assumption no longer holds valid, or as valid as it used to be?


A number of geologists, environmental scientists, and futurists alike have already picked up on this trend. Looking at climate change in particular, they claimed that the earth has entered a new epoch in its life cycle. “We now live in the age of Anthropocene!” these scholars claim. Anthropocene, in this context, refers to the humans’ distinct ability to affect earth’s ecosystems. This claim is disputed, yet many see merit in it. To understand, or reflect, on the implication of the fact that we, as humans, are not the only ‘things’ that matter in this world of ours, you can also look at this amazing post by Audra Mitchell on Posthuman Security.


While in the future we might see the effects of other types of terra-forming and/or bio-engineering in international relations and international law, this post will only look at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the effects of the Chinese pursuits in the South China Sea on the said law. The BBC ran an excellent exposé back in September on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) pursuit of building man-made islands on the South China Sea and its (intended) effects on the territorial water disputes between the countries of the region. Aside from the amazing medium through which the BBC editors and reporters managed to convey the message, the story itself is equally worth reflecting on for all things international.

The PRC, as it turns out, is building man-made islands on existing coral reefs and atolls in the South China Sea to enforce its sovereign claims on the supposedly oil rich and strategically significant South China Sea. These new “islands,” along with their constant naval presence, are built to accommodate military airfields and outposts – all traditionally recognized signs and performativities of sovereign power. China is thus re-inventing and re-interpreting international law, and doing so in an extremely passive aggressive way – I will build an island here, please, thank you!!!


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is developed around the assumption that while states can control, or (re)claim sovereignty over existing archipelagos, islands, reefs, rocks, etc. they cannot build new ones. That is just not considered to be a possibility – at least in the scale that they are transforming already existing reefs into full-fledged islands or islets. Or so it was assumed back in the 1960s when the Convention was drafted. While this principle becomes slightly unclear with the rising sea levels, islands emerging as a result of underwater volcanoes, or when states like Japan re-enforces the integrity of tiny rocks in the middle of the ocean to make territorial claims well into the tropics, the Chinese pursuit of building islands is a whole new ball game. I do not see this to be either technophilia, or science fiction. This is, however, an issue that international jurists and theorists of international law will increasingly have to face in the future.


China’s ‘passive aggressive’ actions in the South China Sea are in no way ‘unreasonable’ or ‘irrational’ acts of international politics. In fact, the Chinese are practicing rationality in an extremely creative fashion. They are re-inventing the rules of the game, imagining new conditions of possibility for international law. In order to strengthen their territorial claim for the upcoming international arbitration over the territorial water disputes, they are building islands that can be populated by military personnel; an ultimate de facto sovereignty claim that would be recognized favorably by de jure interpretations by the jurists responsible for making a decision.

The division of the South China Sea’s territorial waters is the source of an ongoing dispute between the PRC, Taiwan (or the Republic of China), the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The problem for China, in anticipation of a UN ruling based on the UNCLOS, is all these state have actual islands in the South China Sea, and any ruling by the UN on the issue will probably favor these states over the Chinese claims for that reason. While Chinese authorities already stated that they would ignore the outcome of any such ruling, judging by the very fact that they are building five new islands they are also demonstrating their willingness to engage with the international norms and laws.

On the one hand, this story tells us nothing new about the state of international politics. Strong states pursue power-politics and are increasingly doing so in new and creative ways. Chinese power is the reason why China can build islands and enforce its sovereignty in the South China Sea, or, have their cake and eat it, too. On the other hand, this is all new: the fact that assumed constants of international law, such as the materiality of territoriality, are being undermined by a combination of human will, technological advancements and power (broadly understood) is new. So what does it mean for the future of international law. The outcome of this process of building islands to establish sovereignty over international waters might either undermine an already not-very-strong international law by setting a precedence, or force international jurists to develop international further to think about the effects of technology on existing international agreements, laws, and norms.


7 thoughts on “Terra-forming Islands in the South China Sea, or the Future of International Law in the Age of Anthropocene

  1. Pingback: Quick links (#20) | Urban Future (2.1)

  2. Pingback: Terra-forming Islands in the South China Sea, or the Future of International Law in the Age of Anthropocene | Redvince's Weblog

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