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?

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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.

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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.

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