Event ReportsPublished on Dec 08, 2012
An Indian maritime expert feels China, which had increased its defence budget several-fold in order to retain or recover its territories in the disputed area, is also cleverly diffusing the situation by having joint military exercises with countries around the area to prevent them from banding together against its claims.
Chinese claim over South China Sea has as much to do with economics as history

The Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation organised an interaction on ’Understanding the South China Sea Imbroglio’ on December 8, 2012. It was initiated by Lt-Colonel Nadan Nilakanda (retd) who, delving into the history of the Chinese empire, laid out in minute detail how the tumultuous history of the region had played a part in shaping present-day geo-political conflicts in the South China Sea region.

Nilakanda started off by talking about the Qin dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China, which ruled from BCE 221-206. Although their rule was short-lived, they were instrumental in unifying China and setting the tone for the Han Empire that was to follow. He then went on to discuss the Han dynasty which is considered China’s golden period. He mentioned that till today most people in China consider themselves Han. That included many ethnic minorities, something he termed as ’Confucius-bias’. While 95 per cent of China is Han, minority groups occupy some sizable regions, including Guangzhou, Xinjiang, Tibet and Sichuan, which are the source of China’s major internal tensions.

Several years after the Han dynasty came the Great Yuan Empire which was established by Kublai Khan, the fifth Khan of the Mongol empire. This empire set the tone for China’s commerce and trade, Nilakanda said. He then moved forward to 1842, where after a century of being humiliated and weakened by foreign powers, China waged and lost its ’Opium Wars’ against the UK. That sowed the seeds of nationalistic sentiments among the proud people.

From there, Nilakanda recounted the intriguing tale of Hong Xiuquan, who immersed himself in Christianity and became a religious fanatic who amassed millions of followers. Hong went out on a religious mission to spread Christianity as he thought of himself as the brother of Jesus Christ. He led the famous ’Taiping Rebellion’ which was one of the bloodiest conflicts and left by estimates 60 million people dead.

Nilakanda then analysed China’s tributary system. The Chinese were in the habit of buying off the loyalty of tribes. And they expected even other empires to bow down to the Chinese emperor. This was essentially an Eastern form of colonisation where kingdoms were free to self-govern but had to accept the empire as their master and pay taxes. Zheng He, a Muslim emperor from China, amassed a huge navy and he was one of the first people to make expeditions into the South China Sea. Once, he even brought the King of Ceylon as a captive back to his court for not paying tribute to him. The Qing (or Manchu) dynasty was the last to use the tributary system.

On the South China Sea issue, Nilakanda then jumped to Vietnam’s history. In BEC 111, the Vietnamese were dominated by Chinese who took over the Northern part of Vietnam. Prior to the conquest, Vietnamese controlled large portions of southern China. The Ming was the last to rule over Vietnam before the Chinese took over.

Philippines and Malaysia were also briefly discussed. The former was taken over by the Spanish in late 1500’s. Malaysia on the other hand was occupied by the British. The country, initially a Hindu and Buddhist kingdom, made a switch to Islam in the 14th and 15th century. During the British period they controlled the narrow Strait of Malacca through which 50 per cent of the world’s crude oil is shipped today.

Nilakanda finally moved on the crux of the discussion by mentioning Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which is a point of contention between China, Taiwan and Vietnam. When China’s civil war ended, the country drew a ’Nine-Dash’ line across its international maritime claims. China submitted these maps even while they signed up for the UN Law of the Seas. However, these claims were all disputed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines and Malaysia, thus triggering the tussle over South China Sea that continues on till today.

The speaker said that China felt it had a sovereign right over the South China Sea on historical basis but that it was unlikely to hold before the International Court of Justice. The time of tributaries had vanished with China’s past. As he pointed out, during the 1990’s, when China had a much weaker navy, it was willing to move forward with joint development of the South China Sea areas but countries like Vietnam were opposed to it. Ironically, as China’s navy grew in might and strength over the last two decades, she became unwilling to negotiate as she had the upper hand. China also has military and strategic concerns in South China Sea. The Hainan Island hosts a well-established submarine base, for example.

Nilakanda then explored the Chinese psyche in these claims. He said that the Chinese Government wanted legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Hence they made claims over several territories that they felt was rightfully their own. China claims Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang despite majority of the inhabitants of these places considering themselves independent and sovereign. He expressed that China has time and again let nationalism run amok. For example, when a stray US missile accidentally destroyed part of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade or when her people boycotted Japanese goods this year. However China has been careful to ensure that the South China Sea is devoid of those nationalistic sentiments by down-playing its concerns and issues in its State-authorised media.

Responding to a question of India’s legal standing in the South China Sea, Nilakanda said though joint development initiatives by ONGC and Vietnamese companies had gone ahead, ONGC withdrew from some deep territories in Chinese waters. He also referred to the Chinese use of military force. He said China was unlikely to use military force in the South China Sea. However the Chinese Government had increased its Defence budget several-fold in order to retain or recover its territories in the disputed area. He thought that China was also cleverly diffusing the situation by having joint military exercises with countries around the area to prevent them from banding together against her claims.

(This report is prepared by Karthik Shankar, Ist year, BA (Journalism & Mass Communication), SRM University, Chennai)

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