On 12th July 2016, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague ruled that Chinese claims to territorial rights in the South China Sea have no legal basis, after a case was brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 by the Philippines. The tension in the South China Sea is at a fever pitch, with China vowing that it “will take all necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,”[i] countered by the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and fighter jets to the region. This ruling certainly does not mark the end of the South China Sea dispute. In fact, this ruling might just have opened up Pandora’s Box.
The South China Sea has been home to territorial disputes for many decades. The disputes involve claims among several states that all have an interest in the fishing areas, potential natural resources and strategic control of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. China asserts that its historical claim to these prized waters predate the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) however Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei beg to differ and believe the international law regulating the delimitation must be adhered to.
Why does China claim this area?
Money, money, money goes to explain much of China’s so-called “win win” approach to its contemporary foreign policy decisions. The area in question without doubt offers huge economic benefits to the PRC: from the potential for unique access to the immense fishing area, strategic control of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, and increased access to exploiting potential natural resources (i.e. oil) are to name a few examples. Geopolitically, its security would have been strengthened had the Court chosen to favour China in this dispute, given the current dominance of U.S. backed naval resources in the region. It would be naïve not to recognize the material realities of the dispute. However, in addition to the economic and geopolitical dimensions, there is a third dimension which is often neglected by the popular accounts of the dispute, namely the historical dimension. China is not only claiming the South China Sea because it has vested interests in the region, but also because China views the area claimed within the nine-dashed line as historically theirs. In order to understand Chinese foreign policy fully, particularly as it re-emerges as a superpower, it is necessary to understand the ancient Chinese conception of world order.
In order to understand the way the PRC is currently acting, first one needs to look at the concept of Tianxia, which can be broken down into three parts: the world (in a geographical sense), the will of the people, and the world institution[ii]. What is important to note is that Tianxia does not refer to a nation state as we interpret it, but to a world or society: “traditional China did not see itself as a nation-state or even as an empire with separate subject peoples, but rather as the centre of civilisation.” [iii] This led to the ancient Chinese idea of Sinocentrism, the idea that China is the undisputed centre of civilisation. In the Sinocentric world order China has a hegemonic position. In the past when China aimed to create a Sinocentric world order, it did so by socialising foreign rulers into accepting China’s centrality and superiority. In fact, in some periods, the Chinese rulers were able to accomplish this with some Western visitors as well as in the system of tributary and vassal states.
As China re-emerges as a superpower, it seems clear that this Sinocentric viewpoint is being taken on-board once more by its leaders. Gone are the days of Xiaoping’s “bide one’s time” philosophy, the nation is now taking a lead with assertive foreign policy choices, such as refusing the tribunal’s ruling in the South China Sea dispute, despite being a UNSC power. China will not easily give up its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The first Chinese interaction with Western international law in the 19th century was not easy. China experienced it as traumatic, leaving memories of humiliation, domination and oppression. The unequal treaties signed in this time period, such as the Treaty of Nanking, encroached upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and exemplified how foreign imperialism managed to reduce the Middle Kingdom to a society with semi-colonial status. The Chinese saw international law as one of the tools used by the west to restrain ‘wild foreign consuls’[iv]. Although today international law is part of China’s advancement strategy to catch up with the developed countries, “early Chinese experience with international law still remains a key to the understanding of the present Chinese attitude towards international law”[v]. The Chinese claim to the South China Sea is based on unverifiable historical claims and while this does not hold much power in international law, the Chinese government will not back down any time soon.
What happens next?
The tribunal has no powers to enforce its ruling. China has rejected the ruling and maintained its presence in the South China Sea claiming that it has the right to set up an air defence zone. The U.S. has framed the outcome of the case as a test of China’s respect of international law. China’s rejection could lead to reputational damage, as well as alienating its neighbours if it maintains the current course of action and language. However, it is playing well to its citizens at home who are increasingly seeking a more active role for China in international relations. Whether the tensions in the South China Sea will escalate to a military encounter between China and the U.S., is unclear. However, this ruling has created more uncertainty and unease for both sides. In any case, it is clear that the situation in the South China Sea goes much deeper than merely economic and geopolitical power. To understand contemporary foreign policy decisions made by the PRC, one must look further than simply realpolitik. It seems that China’s assertiveness is a reassertion of an age old worldview which has influenced Chinese governance and self-understanding for over two millennia.
Berivan Dilan is a recent graduate from Maastricht University in International Relations, and is starting an MSc in International Political Economy at LSE.
[i] Reuters. (2016). China vows to protect South China Sea sovereignty, Manila upbeat. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-ruling-stakes-idUSKCN0ZS02U
[ii] Zhao, T. (2006). Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept ‘All-under-Heaven’ (Tian-xia,). Social Identities, 12(1), 29-41.
[iii] Nathan, A. J., & Scobell, A. (2015). What Drives Chinese Foreign policy. In China’s search for security (pp. 1-37). Columbia University Press.
[iv] Zhaojie, L. (2001). Legacy of modern Chinese history: its relevance to the Chinese perspective of the contemporary international legal order. Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, 5, 314-326.
[v] Zhaojie, L. (2001). Legacy of modern Chinese history: its relevance to the Chinese perspective of the contemporary international legal order. Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, 319.