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China's South China Sea arguments only prove its own perverse logic of history

Do you remember what China said a few weeks ago, while justifying its opposition to India entering the Nuclear Supply Group (NSG)? It said that there were global rules and norms such as the Nuclear-Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), which India did not care to join. It said that if an exception to the rule was made for India, what is the point of even developing norms and regimes?

In other words, while painting itself as a champion of international organisations and their sanctity, Beijing projected India as an irresponsible country and unworthy of NSG membership. Whether India deserved such a comment from China, despite the fact that it is universally recognised to have maintained an impeccable non-proliferation record, while China is widely known to be one of the biggest non-proliferators of nuclear and missile technologies to North Korea and Pakistan is another matter.

But look at the same China now. On 12 July, a tribunal of five judges at The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a unanimous award in Republic of Philippines v. People's Republic of China, a case filed in 2013 by Manila to know its maritime entitlements and status in South China Sea, where China maintains sweeping territorial claims.

 Chinas South China Sea arguments only prove its own perverse logic of history

File image of the South China Sea. Reuters

The tribunal's 500-page ruling squashes any justification China might have had for harassing ships passing by its "controversial artificial islands". It ruled that China's map showing the vast area as its own territory is illegal and without basis under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is at the core of modern maritime law and signed by over 160 nations (including China).

The treaty, it may be noted,  grants exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to coastal nations extending 200 nautical miles from the shore baseline, giving them sole exploitation rights over all natural resources in that zone.

The tribunal made it clear that while China may have made use of the islands in the South China Sea (it has built seven artificial islands), there was nothing to suggest that China "had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources". If anything, this is a strong rebuttal to China’s position and its rhetoric on the South China Sea issue. To be precise, China's territorial claims in South China Sea include the Reed or Recto Bank and the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines; the Paracel Islands with Vietnam; and portions of the Spratly Islands with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

China, which was lecturing India on the sanctity of the NSG, has come down severely on the verdict of the tribunal, set up under the aegis of the UNCLOS (of which China is a member). Chinese President Xi Jinping has said that China's "territorial sovereignty and marine rights" in the seas would not be affected by the ruling. Xinhua, the country's official news agency, described the "ill-founded" judgment as "naturally null and void". The Communist party's mouthpiece newspaper, People's Daily, said, "The Chinese government and the Chinese people firmly oppose (the ruling) and will neither acknowledge it nor accept it."

And what is more, the Chinese response has come with military threats; China has just commissioned a new guided missile destroyer at a naval base on the southern island province of Hainan, which is responsible for the South China Sea.

It may also be noted that China has territorial maritime disputes with Japan over the Daiyutai/Senkaku islands, and the Suyan/Leodo reef with South Korea. In all these cases, China uses its history to claim sovereignty, though in the strict sense of the term, it only decided to claim sovereignty over the disputed territories — whether maritime or land — only in late 1940s. Its arguments have invariably been about the distant past, when some Chinese kingdom or the other covered these territories, even though the then king or the ruler did not exercise effective authority or sovereignty over them.

In certain cases, as with the South China Sea example, its historic claims have been based on the logic that the Chinese were the first to discover the islands, evident from the remnants of Chinese terracotta in them. Going by the same logic, the Americas, both South and North (including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina), should have been parts of either Italy or Spain since these two continents were discovered by Christopher Columbus (Italian by birth, whose journey was sponsored by the Catholic monarchs of Spain).

History is often a confused heap of facts and that is why history's lessons are no more enlightening than the wisdom of those who interpret them. And going by the Chinese interpretations, Tibet became a part of the Chinese empire when the great Mongol Genghis Khan annexed Tibet (most parts of it) in the early 13th century. It is a strange logic, because taken to its logical conclusion, one could argue that China is a part of Mongolia and does not deserve to exist as an independent nation.

And secondly, why are the Chinese not claiming a quarter of Europe, Russia and the whole of West Asia (Middle East) and Central Asia since these also constituted the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan?

The problem with the Chinese version of history is the inability to draw the line. After all, it is also fact that the pre-Mongol history of Tibet was militarily glorious. In the eighth century, the Tibetan empire was expanding at such a pace that the then Chinese emperor had to flee his capital and a Tibetan nominee was put on the Chinese throne! Peace was restored in the year 821 with the conclusion of a treaty, which laid down clearly the boundaries between China and Tibet. It read: "Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the East is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet."

That being so, on what basis has China brought Tibet under its sovereignty? This is a logical question for us Indians to ponder over since our northern frontiers remain "disputed". It may be noted that for centuries together, India shared a border with Tibet, not with China.

Even if one were to accept Beijing's "historical claims" argument for a moment, the problem, as Prof Mohan Malik has pointed out succinctly, is that the Chinese empire was not the only empire in pre-modern Asia and the world.

"There were other empires and kingdoms too. Many countries can make equally valid 'historical claims' to lands that are currently not a part of their territory, but under Chinese control (eg, the Gando region in China's Jilin province that belongs to Korea). Before the 20th century, there were no sovereign nation-states in Asia with clear, legally defined boundaries of jurisdiction and control. If China's claims are justified on the basis of history, then so are the historical claims of Vietnamese and Filipinos based on their histories. Students of Asian history, for instance, know that Malay people related to today's Filipinos have a better claim to Taiwan than Beijing does. Taiwan was originally settled by people of Malay-Polynesian descent — ancestors of present-day aboriginal groups — who populated the low-lying coastal plains," writes Prof. Malik.

In fact, if India follows the Chinese logic, then Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia (Srivijaya), Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have no right to exist as independent nations since each one of them at some point of the time was a part of the empire, of either Chandragupta Maurya or Ashoka or a Chola or a Moghul or the British.

In other words, if one accepts the Chinese theory of history to advance territorial and maritime claim, then it will amount to rejection of the history of other countries, particularly India, Vietnam, Philippines, Japan and South Korea. China may extol the virtues of a multipolar world, but in the process it is striving for a unipolar Asia, where, true to its theory of "Middle Kingdom" (China is the only civilised country of the world according to God; others are only peripheral and must pay obeisance to it), China will not allow another pole, whether it is India or Japan, to make the world truly multipolar.

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Updated Date: Jul 17, 2016 13:30:12 IST