China’s South Sea Claims Were Always about Emotion, Not History
The problem for the region is that, despite the arbitration ruling, those misunderstandings and emotions will not easily go away. Far from it: Chinese schools are continuing to inculcate young minds with the same muddled views of the past, and the national media is reinforcing the message for adults. To those Chinese who care about the issue, the arbitration will appear as yet another episode in the story of national humiliation. If we could trust the Chinese leadership to allow the free flow of information and an open debate about history, we could hope for a new understanding to emerge. For the time being, that is about as likely as China dismantling its giant artificial islands.
The tribunal’s award is 501 pages long. I’m still reading it, but my favorite line so far comes in Paragraph 270, where the judges say, “The Tribunal is unable to identify any evidence that would suggest that China historically regulated or controlled fishing in the South China Sea, beyond the limits of the territorial sea.” This destroys the implicit misunderstanding at the heart of China’s attitude towards the region—that it, and only it, has been the sole user of the waters between its coast and those of its neighbors.
No one can deny that Chinese traders or fishing communities based along the coast of what is now China made extensive use of the sea. But so did traders and fishers from all the other countries around it. So did merchants from India, Persia, Arabia and Europe. The history of the South China Sea has always been a shared one. Muslim traders built a mosque in Guangzhou in the eighth century, Chinese shipwrights borrowed design ideas from Malay vessels, and the region grew rich on the profits of exchange. The chauvinism about China’s superior and exclusive claim to the sea only emerged in the dying years of the Qing Empire and the chaotic early years of the Republic of China.
That chauvinism underpins the South China Sea problem to this day. China wants to maximize its claim there for many reasons—chiefly coastal defense, fishing rights, oil exploration and maneuvering space for ballistic-missile submarines. These are entirely rational wants and each has its own lobby within the Chinese political system forcefully defending its interests. What makes these issues so toxic for the region is the sense of entitlement and righteousness that underlies Chinese actions. This has become palpably worse since President Xi came to power. He may have reined in the various state agencies, but he has given them renewed national purpose to defend China’s claims. Read more…