US scholar Lucian Pye once famously said that China was not a country but ‘a civilization pretending to be a state.’ That may have been apt at one time, but today’s China has been transformed into a modern state that plays an active role in international forums.
However, China also tries to capitalize on its long history when pressing its case in international disputes. Nowhere is this more clear than in the current South China Sea territorial dispute, which pits China against several of its neighbours. Also embroiled in the various rows are the United States, India and, increasingly, Japan. It’s a potent mix.
In 1996, Beijing ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and publicly embraced the treaty’s provision that ‘China shall enjoy sovereign rights and jurisdiction over an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf’ – a hitherto unknown concept.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
At the same time, however, it reaffirmed its claim over the islets, rocks and reefs in the South China Sea on historical grounds—grounds that aren’t recognized by the convention. That is to say, China claims all the rights granted under international law today and, in addition, claims rights that aren’t generally recognized because its civilization can be traced back several thousand years.
Historically, China was the dominant power in East Asia and considered lesser powers as its tributaries. By insisting now on territorial claims that reflect a historical relationship that vanished hundreds of years ago with the rise of the West, Beijing is, in a sense, attempting to revive and legitimize a situation where it was the unchallenged hegemon.
The ambiguity about what parts of international law China recognizes and which bits it doesn’t gives rise to the current dispute, which directly involves Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and indirectly involves the interests of many other nations.
The claims made by Southeast Asian countries rest primarily on the provisions of the Law of the Sea. China, however, is taking the position that its sovereignty over the territories concerned precedes the enactment of the Law of the Sea, and so the law doesn’t apply. History trumps law.
In 2009, China submitted a map to the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea in support of its claims to ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and the adjacent waters’ as well as ‘the seabed and subsoil thereof.’
The map featured a U-shaped dotted line that encompassed virtually the entire South China Sea and hugged the coasts of neighbouring countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. This was the first time China had submitted a map to the United Nations in support of its territorial claims, but there was no explanation given as to whether it claimed all the waters as well as the islands enclosed by the dotted line.
This was a radical departure from the position China took when it ratified the treaty. Back then, China said that it would hold consultations ‘with the states with coasts opposite or adjacent to China respectively on the basis of international law and in accordance with the principle of equitability.’
Significantly, especially for the United States, China’s position on UNCLOS has also shifted in another respect. In 1996, it took the position that foreign warships required its approval in order to pass through China’s territorial waters. Now, China says that foreign warships must obtain its approval before they can pass through its exclusive economic zone – a much wider area that isn’t part of its sovereign waters.
The United States disputes that position, maintaining that waters in a country’s EEZ are part of the high seas and that naval vessels are free to enter them and even conduct operations without any need for approval.
This difference in opinion between China and the United States (as well as most developed countries) has led to confrontations between the two countries, with US naval surveillance vessels carrying out information-gathering missions in China’s EEZ and being challenged by the Chinese.
China’s resort to history is a relatively new development in international law, although it isn’t completely unprecedented. For example, coastal states have been allowed to claim extended jurisdiction over waters, especially bays or islands, when those claims have been open and long-standing, exclusive, and widely accepted by other states.
In China’s case, however, its claims are evidently neither exclusive nor widely accepted by other states since they are being openly contested. Still, Chinese officials and scholars have attempted to buttress their arguments by appealing to historical records.