The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claims: Maps, Misunderstandings, and the Maritime Geobody
Tác giả: Bill Hayton
Mordern China ngày 4 tháng 5 năm 2018
This article offers a new account of the development of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. It argues that a collective Chinese belief in a “historic claim” to the reefs and rocks therein emerged in distinct episodes during the first half of the twentieth century, partly in response to perceived threats to the country’s sovereignty but mainly as attempts to shore up declining nationalist legitimacy. It situates the claim within efforts by Chinese intellectual and state elites to construct a national “geobody” in the first decades of the twentieth century. It argues that this was not a process of documenting a preexisting claim but of imagining and asserting one through the mobilization of both emotion and archival documents. Moreover, this account emphasizes the importance of the acquisition of knowledge from foreign sources and the confusion that entailed. The legacy of this confused claim-making shapes South China Sea geopolitics today.
China’s maritime geobody, a collective psychological attachment to offshore islands, emerged through several stages during the early twentieth century. In early 1909 there was almost no interest in the fate of these faraway features among either officials or the general population. Forty years later, officials and agitators alike could declare them to be an intrinsic part of the national corpus. Part of this process was a consequence of imperial China’s transition into a new world of theoretically equal nation-states, but part of it was the result of decisions taken by particular elites to use the new nationalism to legitimize their political positions.
In 1909, popular anger against foreign powers was a potent destabilizing force in southern China. The sense that a Chinese nation was being collectively violated had become embedded among a vocal section of the population. Before the twentieth century it seems unlikely that the discovery of a Japanese merchant on an island like Pratas would have generated quite the same reaction. But in the context of political crisis, in which the nationalist legitimacy of the Qing rulers was being challenged, it is not surprising that they took steps to assert a new form of national sovereignty over Pratas.
It was less likely that they would do the same thing over the Paracel Islands. So far as anyone in China was aware, the islands were not being violated by foreigners. The decision to launch a high-profile mission to claim them was a deliberate political gesture by the local Qing administration intended to buttress a weakening state. However, after this grand patriotic gesture, the state lost interest in the islands, failing to administer them or undertake the kind of acts that Western powers regarded as the necessary building blocks of sovereignty.
It was not at all logical that Chinese officials would extend their country’s territorial claim to the Spratly Islands, far to the south and much closer to the coasts of Indochina, Borneo, and the Philippines. This only happened because of a particular set of circumstances in 1933—in particular, the mistaken perception that France was again violating “Chinese” territory by annexing the Spratlys. Once again nationalist sentiment was directed in particular directions in order to bolster the threatened legitimacy of a ruling elite: in this case from the rival Southwest Political Council. The council mobilized nationalist arguments to criticize the government in Nanjing, forcing the latter to justify what many regarded as appeasement of imperialist aggression. It did the council little good in the long term, however: by 1936 its autonomy had been swallowed by the Nanjing government (Lary, 1974: 205). The same was true in 1947: a threatened Nationalist government tried to turn the South China Sea into a source of political legitimacy, but within two years it too had been ousted from power.
In the writings reviewed here, Chinese officials and their public reveal understandings about the nature of sovereignty that differ from those of Westerners. Chinese documents published during the episodes examined here suggest a collective belief that islands off the coast and regularly visited by Chinese fishermen were naturally Chinese territory. For their own reasons, the Western powers prioritized discovery and administration over proximity. Chinese officials and writers gave almost no consideration at all to the possibility that these islands may be equally near other coastlines (such as the American-occupied Philippines or French-occupied Indochina) or that other fishing communities might use them as well. These clashing claims only became evident as the geopolitical competition between China, France, and Japan increased in the 1920s and 1930s.
The sometimes-cynical process of asserting an official claim to the islands developed in parallel with the construction of an emotional claim to them—a maritime geobody. Academics, officials, and journalists adopted that emotional claim and sought to spread it by disseminating information with which their audiences could construct a sense of attachment to places that they had never, and would never, visit. This was not so much an imagined community, to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase (Anderson, 1991), as an “imagined territory”—but one that, in the future, people would be willing to die for. The construction of that imagined territory, that geobody, took place through the mobilization of particular kinds of historical evidence—snippets of information that reinforced the preexisting sense of right. This process continues to this day.
There is much more work to be done in the archives of the Land and Water Maps Review Committee and its successors and on the relationship between their work, the private initiatives of patriotic cartographers, geographers, and other educators and the journalistic and nationalistic writings of the period. Only by doing so can we fully tell the story of the emergence of China’s “historic claim” to the South China Sea.
Bill Hayton là học giả chương trình Châu Á – Thái Bình Dương ở Chatham House, Anh Quốc.
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