By David Geaney
Best Defense guest columnist
Since at least the third century AD, successive Chinese dynasties have asserted jurisdiction over parts of the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Until the end of the 19th century, when Western and Japanese imperialists imposed a series of unequal treaties on China and began what is commonly referred to in China as “The Century of Humiliation,” China maintained its assertions of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. In recent years, China has revived those historic claims and began aggressively protecting what it deems to be its sovereign territory.
To understand these claims and how to work with (or against) them, it is necessary that the West appreciates the historical and political context in which they have been made. Look close enough and the West will start to see that the Chinese Communist Party’s continuing existence is tied up in their claims, and thus no amount of pressure will cause China to retreat from them.
China’s motivations run deep and their path has even been codified in law so that any Chinese leader who cedes territory is essentially committing treason. In March 2005, the third conference of the 10th National People’s Congress passed the so called Anti-Secession Law, which makes it state policy and the “common obligation of all Chinese people” to safeguard Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. While on the surface the law pertains to Taiwan, it also applies to all of China’s other territorial claims. A Chinese leader that ceded sovereignty over any land could conceivably face criminal charges for violating the Anti-Secession Law.
The problem with using past humiliation as a rallying cry is that it amplifies the consequences of being viewed as weak. Bowing to international pressure and rescinding claims of sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, especially in light of the very public reclamation efforts, would not only be against current Chinese law, but would be political suicide for the CCP. The Chinese people would simply assess that the West had once again succeeded in bullying and imposing itself on China. The memory of the Century of Humiliation will only increase the Chinese people’s resolve to fight for what they deem to have been their sovereign territory since “ancient times.” Failing to aggressively defend its claims could create domestic risks for the Communist Party as the increasingly nationalistic population may decide the government is weak and should be replaced. With their dismissal of the July 2016 international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea and their continued militarization of its reclaimed islands, the Chinese government has shown it understands this and will not succumb to international pressure.
China has much more to lose than uninhabited islands in a conflict over the South China Sea. One can be certain that China will not back away from their claims of sovereignty because to do so would not only cause them to lose face internationally, but would increase domestic disapproval and pressure on the regime. The CCP knows the cost of weakness, real or perceived, having successfully sold themselves as the antithesis to the weak leadership that precipitated the Century of Humiliation.
The CCP’s very existence may rest on defending their claims in the South China Sea, and the party’s leadership knows it. The international community, and the United States in particular must add this into their calculations before deciding how to react to Chinese claims.
David J Geaney is currently a captain in the United States Air Force, and has served in the Pacific theater. He has studied Chinese politics, culture and history for 10 years and has a BA in Chinese and MA in International Relations. In November 2016 he served as a panelist on “Dealing with the Rise of China” during a conference for the International Studies Association. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, U.S. government or any organizations of which he is a member.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons