How Historical ‘Humiliation’ Drives China’s Maritime Claims

How Historical ‘Humiliation’ Drives China’s Maritime Claims

by Eric Fish / June 16th, 2016  / Asia Society

In coming weeks, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague is expected to deliver its decision in a casebrought by the Philippines to settle contested island claims with China. The case comes as China has taken increasingly bold actions in recent years to assert maritime claims in the South China Sea disputed by Southeast Asian nations — actions including the construction of island bases for military purposes, and confronting foreign ships and aircraft that travel in the region.

China’s claims reach deep into the South China Sea. On maps of the area, Beijing has demarcated what’s known as the “nine-dash line” (pictured in green in the below map), a boundary that brushes up near the Vietnamese, Philippine, Bruneian, and Malaysian coasts. China hasn’t specified exactly what privileges it’s entitled to under the nine-dash line, but asserts “historic rights” over the area. This position has encountered stern opposition from rival claimants and the United States for violating freedom of navigation tenets outlined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China and all other parties (but not the U.S.) are signatories. China has expressed that it will not abide by the outcome of the Hague arbitration case.

In 2014, BBC journalist Bill Hayton, formerly based in Southeast Asia, published the book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, which gives historical and contemporary context to the disputes in the region. In an interview with Asia Blog, Hayton discussed the thinking behind China’s claims, and how Beijing might be rethinking part of its strategy in enforcing them.

Why does China care so much about these tiny uninhabited islands in the South China Sea?

I think there are different parts of the Chinese state and Communist Party that have different motives, but they all sort of work together toward the same end. The state-owned oil companies are interested in the oil and the fishing companies and coastal provinces are interested in maximizing their fish catch.

Then there are various strategic imperatives. I think they are concerned about the security of the coastal cities and would like a kind of buffer zone around them. They’re concerned about the safety of supply routes. And I think another very important factor is the likelihood that the Chinese nuclear submarines might want to hide in the South China Sea, so their Navy wants a “bastion” to keep out potential adversaries and their anti-submarine warfare equipment. But that’s not the whole story.

I think everything is predicated on a sense of ownership — that since the 1930s really, China’s elite have convinced themselves and the population that they are the only rightful owners of the features in the sea. Along the way, that’s gotten twisted into an idea that they are, to some extent, the rightful owners of the waters within the “nine-dash line.” What I’ve tried to do in my research is show that this is not some ancient claim, but was the response to things that happened in the 20th century.

No Chinese official ever went to the Spratly Islands before December 12, 1946, as far as we can tell. They were in the Paracel Islands as early as 1907, and then stuck a flag in at least some of the islands in 1909. But the Spratlys — there was no interest by any Chinese officials in administering or occupying those islands until they got there in the 1940s. The nine-dash line was drawn back in 1947 and it was clearly a cartographic convenience — it didn’t have any historical meaning whatsoever, but it’s now sort of become an article of faith. In terms of a claim to historic rights in the waters within the nine-dash line, I would say that probably only appeared in the mid-to-late 1990s. So these are not ancient claims by any means; they’re relatively modern.

A survey conducted in 2013 found that 83 percent of people in China see South China Sea disputes as a continuation of the “Century of Humiliation” (1840-1949), even though none of the South China Sea countries contesting China’s claims were transgressors during that period. Why do you think that is?

There is a sense that emerges out of the chaos of early 20th century China that the country was stripped of its rights and lands by foreign powers. There’s this whole genre of maps of “national humiliation” that were published in the 1920s and 1930s to show the population how much land had been stolen by Japan, France, Britain, and other countries. Some of these maps included great lines that went huge distances — as far as Iran and Afghanistan and the whole of Southeast Asia.

My thought is that during the rest of the 20th century, with land boundaries, there were powers that pushed back, so China was obliged to make agreements with those countries and settle the land disputes. But on the sea boundaries, there was no pressure to reach a deal and no one pushing back constantly. The dream that these little islands are rightfully China’s was never challenged.

Tschinahere’s a narrative that the Century of Humiliation won’t be complete — certainly until Taiwan is returned to the motherland — and the problem is that these little tiny specks could be put into the same category as Taiwan. China has already regained control of Hong Kong and Macau, and if one starts to see it put the Spratlys in the same category as Taiwan, then we have a problem, because there’s a real mismatch between the Chinese sense of entitlement and the historical evidence of a shared sea. It’s never been an exclusively Chinese sea or exclusively anybody’s sea. It’s always been a shared sea, and that’s really what I’ve tried to argue. When you look at the history as neutrally as possible, it’s the shared history that’s the most significant feature, and that’s what it should be again. Read more…

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