The Extraterrestrial Impact of the South China Sea Dispute


History offers lessons for the coming legal and geopolitical debates in space.

On January 20, 1788, Captain Arthur Philip sailed into Botany Bay at the helm of the British flagship Sirius and a convoy of transports to realize the United Kingdom’s new claim to Terra Australis. After a 252-day journey to the farthest known edges of the Earth, the freshly appointed colonial governor must have been shocked to see, only a few days later, the arrival of two French ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, led by explorer Jean-Francois de la Perouse. In order to forestall French claims to the territory and recognizing the value of a recently explored harbor to the north, Philip quickly departed to establish a colonial seat at Port Jackson, also known as Sydney Harbor. In a lesser-known act of history, Philip also moved to secure Norfolk Island, resting in the South Pacific above New Zealand. During the earlier voyages of Captain James Cook, the island was identified as possessing the critical resources of pine wood and flax, commodities underpinning British naval power – the equivalent of oil and uranium in today’s strategic environment, according to author Robert Hughes.

This race for territory and resources by world powers was not the first nor would it be the last. It was a message I relayed to the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) recently held in Adelaide, Australia. The IAC is the world’s most important gathering of the international space community, attended by leaders from national space agencies, academia, and the burgeoning industry of commercial space, represented by titans such as Elon Musk of Space X, who announced his lofty intention to send the first colonists to Mars by 2024. This year’s IAC also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty, the international agreement aimed at establishing principles governing the exploration and use of outer space. As such, the international forum provided a timely opportunity for me to address the development of space law.

Even as technology can propel us beyond the boundaries of our earthly domain, we cannot escape our human nature and the attendant consequences. However, the international community can learn from and improve upon our history by anticipating the coming legal and geopolitical debates in outer space. We can do so by examining our experience in the South China Sea dispute. Accordingly, we must acknowledge five key principles applicable to shared domains beyond national boundaries like outer space.