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Treaty of Tordesillas Syndrome: Sovereignty Ad Absurdum and the South China Sea Arbitration

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Abstract: The South China Sea is the fifth largest body of water in the world. It accounts for five trillion dollars in annual commercial activity involving a third of maritime traffic worldwide. China claims wide-ranging sovereign rights over upwards of ninety percent of this Sea via a controversial U-shaped line. Its claim upsets regional stability and portends a coming conflict with the United States, the world’s supreme maritime power, over the application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China claims its sovereign authority predates UNCLOS by millennia; critics date China’s claim to 1947. Already described as the most important ruling in the modern history of the international law of the sea, a Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration handed down a sweeping rebuke of China’s contentions in the July 2016 Award in the South China Sea Arbitration (Philippines v. China), setting up a confrontation between emergent China and established United States. This Article discusses that Award in light of the fundamental tension within the liberal model of freedom of the seas -- the unreconciled tension involving ownership interests over resources of the sea (dominium) and the decision-making power to rule over the seas (imperium). While scholarly attention dissects the Tribunal’s discussion of historical and factual circumstances (effectivités) that aggregate against China’s sovereignty claims, this Article notes deeper problems, too: Ambiguities in UNCLOS have allowed powerful states to historically territorialize wide swaths of the dwindling global commons, all within the compliant liberal framework. Such claims are reminiscent of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), where Spain and Portugal divided up ownership of the world. The territorializing instinct of the Treaty of Tordesillas serves as a syndromic indicator of a recurring problem involving the sea and its increasingly scarce resources. It sets up a major challenge for international law as between superpower interests in the South China Sea, and, more generally, over disputes involving the global commons and spatial regimes on the emerging frontier of technological capability.

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