Re-conquering old seas.

Photographer: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

China's Dubious Land Grab in the South China Sea

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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China’s claim of jurisdiction over pretty much the entire South China Sea boils down to this: Dudes, we’re back. That is, after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers and 67 years of rebuilding since the Communists took power,  the country is ready to reassert dominion over a body of water that has been in its sphere of influence for millennia.

As J. Bruce Jacobs of the American Enterprise Institute explained two years ago, there are a lot of questions about how much control, if any, China was ever able to assert in past centuries over an expanse of water that stretches 1,000 miles south of its southernmost coastline. But it’s definitely capable of asserting control now, so that’s what it’s been doing -- mainly, by building artificial islands atop reefs in the Spratly Islands and harassing fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam.

Such behavior is not unprecedented for an aspiring great power. As has been pointed out by others, the U.S. behaved similarly in the Caribbean and a few other seas in the late 19th and early 20th century.

But a big part of China’s self-image is that it’s not an aggressive nation. And while some peoples on China’s territorial fringes, such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs, might beg to differ, it’s generally true that China has been far less interested in conquest and colonization than just about any other major power. So it’s essential for China that its actions in the South China Sea be seen as reclaiming lost ground, not conquering anything new.

Two summers ago I went to China with a group of journalists on a trip organized by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation, and this topic came up a lot with the government officials we talked to.  It was striking how aggrieved they sounded at the slightest suggestion that the country’s behavior in the South China Sea might be seen as aggressive.

Today, though, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague determined in a case brought by the Philippines that there is “no evidence” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of any historical justification for Chinese dominion over the South China Sea.

China had boycotted the proceedings, and the government immediately dismissed the ruling as “null and void.” Which leaves a potentially combustible situation: An international court has determined that there is no legitimate way for China to lay claim to most of the South China Sea. Chinese officials have been asserting the legitimacy of that claim domestically for so long and with such conviction that there’s really no way they can back down. Got any ideas for resolving that?

  1. Which of course was really 27 years of upheaval during Mao Zedong’s reign and 40 years of rebuilding since.

  2. It didn’t come up at all during my just-completed trip to China, I guess because I was talking to people about business, not foreign policy.

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To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net