China’s Challenge to the Global Commons: Compliance, Contestation, and Subversion in the Maritime and Cyber Domains
International Relations, vol. 35, issue 3 (September 2021), pp. 446-468.
21 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2022
Date Written: June 27, 2021
It is often predicted that rising powers such as China will seek to reshape the international order as they gain influence. Drawing on comparative analysis of the maritime and cyber domains, this article argues that China poses a challenge to the global commons because its actions reflect a pragmatic focus on national interest that disrupts more collaborative conceptions of their governance. However, instead of directly rejecting existing regimes, China has pursued a mixed strategy of complying when these regimes confer benefits and employing contestation or subversion when they conflict with its strategic aims. In particular, China has used contestation and subversion to push for the enclosure of the maritime and cyber domains, extending ideas of sovereignty and territoriality to them to varying extents. While the relatively well-institutionalized nature of maritime governance has limited China’s focus to the application of specific rules in areas where it prioritizes sovereign control, the embryonic status of the cyber regime has enabled China to call into question the fundamental definition of cyberspace as a global common. Subversion has also allowed China to accomplish strategic goals through ‘grey zone’ tactics, resulting in increased conflict below the level of war in both domains.
Keywords: China, global commons, maritime security, South China Sea, cyberspace, governance, international order, subversion, contestation, conflict, compliance
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