Conflict Over the South China Sea: Identity Politics Meets History

Conflict Over the South China Sea: Identity Politics Meets History

By Shawn McHale, Associate Professor of History and International Affairs, George Washington University 


The South China Sea is one of the great connecting oceans of the world, acting as a major conduit of Asian and global trade.  It has also been a worrisome site of conflict.  In recent years, disputes over territorial claims have led to armed clashes involving China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has also led to demonstrations.  Arguments have spilled into cyberspace: on YouTube, Google Earth, online newspaper articles, and chat rooms, nationalist tempers have flared over their country’s claims to these tiny islands, atolls, and reefs.

Most of the territorial claims over the South China Sea are surprisingly weak, and none is incontestable.  Here we must distinguish between arguments over the Paracels, the far-flung cluster of islands, reefs, and atolls closest to China, and those over the Spratlys, a similarly widely spread set of islands further to the south. Only China and Vietnam contest the Paracels, whereas six countries have claims to the Spratlys. Finally, the contemporary bitter arguments over sovereignty in this area repeatedly invoke historical evidence. It is the latter issue that will be the focus of this Policy Commentary.

Bluntly stated, we cannot impose contemporary notions of sovereignty on historical practices before the twentieth century.  Despite much misinformation and inflamed rhetoric to the contrary, historical evidence overwhelmingly supports the view that states did not, traditionally, claim exclusive territorial rights over the vast majority of the South China Sea.  To the contrary: the area has historically been an Asian maritime commons. What, then, does the historical evidence suggest? And how has argument over this evidence shaped Asian identity politics today?


At the core of today’s conflict is the People’s Republic of China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, represented by the famous tongue-shaped demarcation line on Chinese maps that reaches 1500 kilometers south of China’s Hainan Island. Yet this claim contradicts historical practice. Historically, China made a distinction between the “inner ocean” and the “outer ocean.” The “inner ocean” referred to the shallow waters right off the Chinese coast: this area ended somewhere between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands. (Some argue that it may have included at least parts of the Paracel Islands.) In this area, the Chinese state presumed to have some authority. But beyond it, it did not. Wherever we draw this ambiguous boundary, one fact seems clear. Until the late nineteenth century, China never claimed exclusive sovereignty, in the modern sense of the term, over the expansive maritime space and its territories that it claims today.


Before the twentieth century, it makes sense to think of the South China Seas as an Asian maritime commons: a shared area whose resources were open to all.  Chinese merchants, traders, fishermen, and pirates probably dominated much of this area over the last one thousand years.  Other peoples used this area as well. No state exercised control over it.  Referring to the period at the turn of the nineteenth century, the scholar Wang Wengsheng has called part of this area “an uncontrolled and largely uncontrollable nonstate space.”  We could extend his comment to the entirety of the South China Sea.

There is one possible exception to the view that the South China Sea was a “non-state space”: Vietnam’s ambiguous state claim over part of the Paracels dating from 1816. This was substantiated by the planting of a flag, construction of stele, and other marks of authority.  But this claim never excluded others from using many of the islands, reefs, and atolls of the Paracels. Indeed, a range of peoples, particularly Chinese and Vietnamese, sometimes stayed on the larger islands for an extended time. They did not establish permanent settlements there, however, and did not act as representatives of states.  Rather, the Paracel Islands seem to have acted as a defense perimeter between China and Vietnam. As for the Spratlys, China never made any substantive sovereignty claim over this area at this time.  In fact, no state has a compelling historical claim over the Spratlys.  In short, the vast reaches of the South China Sea were open to all.


China, in 1902, and France, in 1931, were the first states to assert modern sovereignty rights over parts of the South China Sea. France, building on the earlier Vietnamese claim, substantiated its territorial claims by constructing buildings, erecting markers of ownership, stationing temporary garrisons, and the like.  China protested these actions, but did not take equivalent action itself.  Japan, from the 1930s through World War Two, contested French claims and aggressively pursued its own claims to parts of this area.

Japan renounced its claims in 1951. France let its claims lapse in the 1950s.   In 1946, the Republic of China occupied Itu Aba (Taiping Island), the largest of the Spratly Islands, and placed a garrison there.  However, it did not permanently occupy the area. Since this period, a whole series of other claims have been made, or reiterated, by Vietnam (North, South, then unified), the Peoples Republic of China, The Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.  In 1974, the PRC attacked the South Vietnamese Navy in the Paracels, killing Vietnamese sailors, and establishing control over the Paracels. Since then, there have been numerous incidents.  The most serious clash occurred in 1988, leading to 74 Vietnamese deaths. In recent years, there have been an extensive number of low-level conflicts. Most have involved fishermen or exploration vessels, but a minor incident involved an Indian warship visiting Vietnam that transited an area claimed by China in August 2011.


Today, most analysts assume that resources, especially oil and gas, lie at the heart of most claims to the South China Sea. Yet this is not the gut issue that animates Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, or Filipinos, to name the most active claimants since the 1950s. It is nationalism, combined with a sense that traditional rights to use parts of the South China Sea are being violated. The Chinese and Vietnamese publics, and sometimes their governments, have been the most ardent. This issue is not novel.  Generations of children have grown up thinking that this area is “theirs.”  On Google Earth, Chinese posters deface Vietnamese claims to islands with their own. “Vietnamese communists will be punished,” reads one tag. On YouTube, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipinos post dueling videos about the Spratlys. Such actions underline a key point:  while Southeast and East Asia are integrating in many ways, identity politics can force them apart.

As China rises, one of the trickier tasks it faces is its relations with nearby “minor” powers. With the South China Sea, China faces a delicate conundrum: to push for its “rights” and alienate its neighbors, or find a cooperative path forward.  Undergirding the debate are emotional appeals by members of the public in different parts of China and Southeast Asia that their country has a historic, sacred, and inviolable right to all or part of this area. But the historical record shows how ill-founded most of the rhetoric is. It also, ironically, suggests a way forward: by appealing to historical practice over the last millennia, then developing a modernized version of an Asian maritime commons (perhaps with fewer pirates?), in which all claimants share access to resources and have freedom of navigation.

This post is originally from a Rising Powers Initiative Policy Commentary. A PDF version can be found here