A Transatlantic Approach to China in the Global Commons

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Main Image Credit Fishing equipment in China. Courtesy of Pixabay

This Whitehall Report explores transatlantic convergences and divergences over the governance of the global commons of the seas and outer space and China’s actions within it.

The rise of China as a global actor has sparked debate in the West over its nature and ultimate wider strategic political and military ambitions, including in the maritime and outer space domains. As global commons, these shared international spaces lie beyond the national jurisdiction of states and are governed by international treaties and frameworks. The potential economic and strategic benefits that lie within these two global commons are immense and, as technological advancements enable greater exploitation, have challenged existing frameworks and the rules that govern these spaces. The debate around how these spaces should be governed in the future, and the extent to which they should be conserved, therefore crucially includes the role that China plays and the norms that it is advocating.

The US’s policy towards China has sharpened over the years with growing strategic competition between Beijing and Washington. It is increasingly concerned with China’s challenge to the international rules-based order and the stronger emphasis Beijing is placing on the promotion of its own rules and norms. The EU, non-EU European states like the UK and transatlantic groups like NATO have also started to publicly recognise China as a strategic challenge.

While Europe and the US seem to converge on many norms in the maritime domain, this is less the case in outer space. This is partly due to the well-established governance framework for the maritime commons, which is largely absent for outer space activity. However, other factors are at play. Europe has traditionally pursued a policy of engagement with China, and to a certain extent continues to do so in areas like maritime governance. Furthermore, in the absence of strong institutions with full competence in specific policy areas, some European states continue to engage with China out of national interest and the private sector continues to see economic opportunity in doing so.

There are also wider strategic challenges in bringing the transatlantic community closer on China – namely, that of European autonomy and transatlantic disagreement over governance norms. This is particularly evident in the outer space domain, which the US does not view as a global common. It is pursuing a US-centric policy, and has established a governance framework outside the UN system. Moreover, Europe has long viewed the US as an economic competitor in this space and is seeking to challenge US company dominance in outer space technology, in addition to recognising the growth of Chinese companies.

Against this backdrop, finding a transatlantic approach to China and global commons governance is easier said than done and will require addressing gaps in normative divergences across the Atlantic.

This Whitehall Report explores transatlantic convergences and divergences over the governance of the global commons of the seas and outer space and China’s actions within it. The report defines the global commons and explores how they are regulated. It argues that debates around the governance of the maritime and outer space domains are more complex than simple adherence to UNCLOS or the Outer Space Treaty. It then analyses how Europe, China and the US are engaging with the global commons, and examines European and US concerns over Chinese activities. As Europe presents a complex web of actors and decision-making processes, the report explores divergences between the EU institutions, relevant agencies, EU member states and non-EU European countries. Finally, it offers a brief analysis of the extent of transatlantic convergence and divergence on the issue of global commons governance.


Veerle Nouwens

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific

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