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Transforming Orders: how Indo-Pacific geopolitics reconstruct maritime space and alter the law of the sea’s territorial sovereignty and freedom of the seas norms

The growing influence in international affairs of fast-developing countries such as China and India has become an unquestioned reality. However, the extent of this apparently historic transformation of international order(s) and its consequences for how the world will be governed in the ‘Asian Century’ remain hotly debated. In particular, China’s embroilment in maritime territorial disputes and confrontations with the United States over the freedom of navigation are widely taken as evidence that the rising powers are seeking to redefine major norms of international order such as they are, among others, codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Yet, the renewed focus on the oceans is indicative of a broader phenomenon. China’s discovery of the marine resources-based ‘blue economy’ as a new growth engine for realising its long-standing ‘national rejuvenation’ goal, including through the Maritime Silk Road connectivity strategy, has been influenced by, and in turn informed, other actors’ strategic thinking. Also the US, Japanese and Australian ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ strategies, and India’s ‘Act East’ policy, emphasise the seas as spaces offering vast opportunities for the furthering of national prosperity while simultaneously harbouring grave threats to national security. And the European Union, too, discovered great potential in the blue economy and enhanced its efforts to strengthen maritime connectivity through safeguarding the so-called rules-based order across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Thus, heightening tensions between global flows embodied in the freedom of the seas norm, and territorial identities enshrined in the norm of territorial sovereignty, make Indo-Pacific maritime politics a suitable lens for assessing a crucial dimension of transforming international order(s). Therefore, this study addresses the phenomena of governments’:

  1. hardening stances over territorial disputes, especially in the East and South China Seas;

  2. advancing of sovereign control over maritime space through the expansion of exclusive economic and defence-related zoning, and

  3. linking and militarisation of the Indian and Pacific Oceans through efforts to secure global communication lines.

Taken together, these developments raise the main research question: How do international norms structure maritime space, and how do social constructions of space, conversely, affect the interpretation and application of norms? This question will be answered by examining:

  1. How the territorial sovereignty and freedom of the seas norms were defined at the time of the UNCLOS-signing in 1982;

  2. How key Indo-Pacific actors’ views and practices of maritime territorial sovereignty and of the freedom of the seas have evolved from the 1980s until the present, and

  3. How these practices have altered (perceptions of) international order(s) and of the international law of the sea.

Project duration

January 2021 - December 2023

Head of Project

Third party funding

Project publications