The following article is published in English and Chinese.
By Tommy Jamison
The present dispute over the South China Sea doesn’t hinge on fishing rights, or oil fields, or even military bases. At its root the controversy stems from conflicting, profoundly held and historically consistent “core interests/核心利益.” On the one hand, the United States sees freedom of navigation as a fundamental pillar of the post-war order and integral to the past 70 years of relative peace and prosperity. On the other, China’s (re)assertion of sovereignty over the South China Sea should be contextualized within its century long campaign to recover territory lost under (semi)-imperialism. The historical grounding of both these arguments seems lost on much of Washington as well as Beijing.
Territorial controversies are not new in China. From the Opium War (1839-42) to the present, resisting imperialism and recovering lost territory have constituted core objectives of Chinese foreign policy. As such, it is only through first exploring this historical context that we understand the modern conflict in the South China Sea. Because of “Western” (semi)-imperialism, territorial disputes in Chinese modern history are very common and have profound political ramifications. The question of Shandong’s sovereignty was the fuse for the May Fourth movement (1919); Japan’s aggression in Manchuria (1931) led to the collapse of the post-WWI internationalist system and incited the Second World War; before 1997 Hong Kong was one of the world’s last formal colonies; today Sino-Taiwanese relations remain a powder keg, and so on. From this historical perspective of course the South China Sea is a sensitive question. It is also in some ways a legacy of resistance to imperialism and, to a certain extent, a continuation of the 20th century movement to recover lost territories.
At the same time, from a macroscopic perspective, the U.S. post-war diplomatic strategy can be summarized in four principles: 1) defend democratic regimes; 2) encourage free trade; 3) protect freedom of navigation, because it is a fundamental requirement of free trade (alongside today freedom of information, the skies and even space); and 4) spread liberalization, an admittedly abstract principle. In short, the U.S. post war strategy has been an attempt to replace the pre-war anarchic international system with a liberal internationalist system. China’s activity in the South China Sea threatens these aims, particularly freedom of navigation, and thus threatens the post-war international system. Freedom of navigation is often criticized in mainstream Chinese media, as in, “At root, freedom of navigation is an excuse to implement the ‘pacific rebalance’ strategy and to contain the emergence of China,” but the present world was developed from these ideals. As such, freedom of navigation is in no way an empty slogan, but rather a core U.S. interest.
与此同时，在宏观层面上，美国二战后的外交战略可以归纳为四个原则：一是保护民主政府；二是推动自由贸易；三是捍卫航行自由，因为航行自由是贸易自由最基本的要求，现在这个原则扩展到飞行自由、信息自由，甚至天空自由等范围。第四个原则是最抽象的——普及自由化。简而言之，美国二战后的战略试图用自由国际秩序来代替二战前的无政府国际秩序(anarchic international system)。如今，中国在南海的行为威胁到了这些原则，特别是航行自由，因此也威胁到了二战后的国际秩序。中国主流媒体常常讽刺航行自由，比如“归根结底是借推行航行自由之名，行推进亚太再平衡战略、遏制中国崛起”等，但是目前的世界格局正在这理念之上发展而来。因此，航行自由绝非一个凭空的口号，而是一个核心利益。
None of this is to say that today’s South China Sea controversy is a direct continuation of China’s resistance to imperialism—far from it—but only to suggest that the conflict’s acuteness cannot be divorced from a larger historical context. When writing his history of Sino-U.S. relations from 1989-2001, David Lampton appropriated a saying about spousal conflict to sum up his findings: Same Bed, Different Dreams (同床异梦). That’s about right for the South China Sea as well. Still, the more worrying phrase might be the oft heard, “one mountain cannot hold two tigers” (一山，不容，二虎), which not coincidently frames the last chapter of Sarah Paine’s excellent history The Wars for Asia (1911-1949). Given the significance of historical context in this dispute, the potential for the misuse of history is likewise apparent. Eric Hobsbawm once wrote, “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market.” That danger seems particularly applicable to South China Sea where the trends of nationalism, hegemony, ecological scarcity and globalization intersect.
Still, one thing is for sure, giving serious thought to the historical background informing behavior on both sides of the Pacific would go a long way toward dispelling the distortions of modern day nationalists and bureaucrats alike. It might even help prevent an especially unnecessary war.
Tommy Jamison is a PhD Candidate in International History at Harvard University. He served as an officer in the U.S. Navy between 2009-2014.
Featured Image: South China Sea Goddess of Mercy 南山海上观音圣像. (Percy)