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“China’s New Frontiers:” The Changing Geopolitics of Space, the Poles, and the Deep Sea

"China's New Frontiers": The Changing Geopolitics of Space, the Poles, and the Deep Sea

This project focuses on the varied fringes of international order that China now groups together as “new frontiers”: space, the poles, and the deep sea. These ungoverned or under-governed spaces, once somewhat walled off from serious great power competition by technological limitations and U.S.-backed norms, are seen in Beijing and increasingly Washington as sites for sovereignty claims and rivalry and now risk being transformed from a global commons into contested spaces. If successfully and cost-effectively exploited, these domains have the potential to transform the global balance of power – just as past frontier scrambles once did. Together, they constitute an important test case for whether the rise of great power competition will overwhelm the necessity of rules-based governance.

This project seeks to answer three main questions related to China’s “new frontiers.” First, does China have a common legal approach across the major domains that the concept encompasses or are China’s positions calibrated differently for each domain? Decades ago, the first regimes in these spaces explicitly borrowed from each other, suggesting that legal linkages today are not so farfetched. Second, what are China’s activities in these domains, and how can variation in them be leveraged to explain what motivates China’s current interests across them? An accounting of China’s plans and investments in these domains reveals just how focused Beijing is on them, and determining whether this effort is driven primarily by status, economic interests, security anxieties, or internal bureaucratic rivalries has significant consequences for anticipating and addressing Chinese behavior. Third, how will China’s growing activism and its interactions with the United States in these domains shape the future of the global commons? Whether they remain the “common heritage of mankind,” as treaties often specify, or become sites of competition will be determined in Beijing and Washington, and references to historical cases of frontier rivalry can help shed light on the likely outcome.

Rush Doshi

Rush Doshi is fellow and director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative as well as a fellow at Yale’s Paul Tsai China Center. His research focuses primarily on Chinese grand strategy. As director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, Doshi leads an effort that acquires, digitizes, and analyzes Mandarin-language open sources and studies Chinese behavior to understand the country’s grand strategy. At the Paul Tsai China Center, Doshi manages a project that seeks to audit and improve U.S.-China crisis management mechanisms. Previously, Doshi was a member of the Asia Policy Working Group for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a Fulbright Fellow in China. Doshi’s research has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, International Organization, and the Washington Quarterly, among other publications. Doshi received his doctorate from Harvard University, his bachelor’s from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, and is proficient in Mandarin.

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