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Sovereignty and Suzerainty

In a commentary in the Financial Times today, Asia Editor David Pilling argues that the current Sino-Japanese island dispute is difficult to settle historically, because both sides wish to apply current notions of sovereignty to a time before the rise of the modern nation-state.

Pilling writes:

I offer no opinion as to whose legal claim is stronger. But I suspect that something deeper is at stake. Before westerners brought their guns and opium to east Asia, the idea of a nation state was not well established. “Back then, people didn’t really have the concept of sovereignty, rather there was suzerainty,” says Min Gyo Koo, an expert in international affairs in Seoul. China was self-evidently the dominant civilisation, he says. As such, it collected tribute from surrounding kingdoms, such as Ryukyu, which later became known as Okinawa when it was annexed by Japan.

Jonathan Fenby, a historian of China, puts imperial China’s likely relationship with the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands thus: “Things like exercising practical sovereignty
over a rocky island didn’t matter. So long as people recognised the innate superiority of the Chinese system, that was enough.”

It’s an important point because trying to base contemporary claims on the past can be a tricky endeavor. In a 2007 essay, Fudan University professor Ge Jianxiong argued:

Another example is Vietnam, the larger part of which was under the administrative control of the Han and Tang Dynasties. But beginning in the 10th century, Vietnam founded its own independent kingdom, after which, during the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, it was a vassal state. Of course, this is not the same as complete independence, therefore before France made Vietnam a French colony, France had to force the Qing government to relinquish its sovereignty and claims over Vietnam. Nevertheless, we are not able–at least after the 10th century—to regard Vietnam as a part of “China.” Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, Burma are also in a similar category.

Now, what of the countries of South East Asia and Japan that have never officially been the vassals of any dynasty? Chinese history books call them “Tributary States.” Actually, it was either international trade under the “tribute” banner or else it was only temporary visits. Most of what the books call “Tributary States” are like this. What is more, we have only the one-sided views of the Qing court records that were based on past precedents and written for the court’s own aggrandizement. For example, people also called Russia, France, Portugal, and the “Red Hairs” as tribute states. (During the Ming, Dutch people were called “Red Hair Foreigners,” After the mid-Qing they also called the English, “Red Hair Foreigners”) Can we possibly accept that these states were also vassals of the Qing?

Until now, there are those people who feel that the more they exaggerate the territory of historical “China” or China’s successive dynasties and kingdoms the more patriotic they are. Actually, it is exactly the opposite. If China really wishes to rise peacefully, we must understand the true facts of history, only then will we be able to know the sum of our history, learn from our experiences, and so be on a solid footing to face the future.

There’s always a danger when history is made to serve the contemporary, and the ahistorical conflation of things like tributary status, territorial control, empire, and state are all part of the trap in which present-day politicians can find themselves enmeshed when trying to do so.

8 Comments on Sovereignty and Suzerainty

  1. Hi there. Really appreciate your insights into Chinese history and your constant stress on the ‘messiness’ of it all. Some planks of support from a recent Simon Schama article in the Guardian:

    “It’s exactly because history is, by definition, a bone of contention (the Greek word historia meant, and was used from the very beginning by Herodotus as, “inquiry”) that the arguments it generates resist national self-congratulation. So that inquiry is not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us.”

  2. Goddam, Professor Ge just crushed it. Between that and the rational behavior over the British poppies, (yes yes, I know that ‘rational’ is not the smartest word to use in the wake of Orientalist bullcrap about the Chinese mind, but there is no other word I can describe it), Chinese institutions look pretty good these past few days. I knew you were in the bag for the Chinese government :).

    Now, where is the post on why CCTV 5 did NOT show the Wizard-Rockets game today? John Wall had a triple-double! Who cares about the Celtics or the Mavs? This is the greatest tragedy enacted by the Chinese government since… EVER!

  3. I have a feeling this is the first of many triple-doubles for they young Mr. Wall, and if there were another reason to watch the Wizards, maybe they’d show the games…

    Seriously though, I usually watch my NBA via Slingbox or NBA League Pass. The CCTV 5 announcers and the random scheduling annoy the hell out of me.

  4. I wonder if it’s necessary to go this far with the analysis? Are these claims really based on ancient suzerainty or is that mostly just an excuse, given that many more such claims could be made but are not? Similar problems with territorial claims are seen elsewhere in the world (Greece v. Turkey, Argentina v. UK, US v. Canada etc.) in which the issue of ancient suzerainty of one polity to another is pretty much a non-issue, yet these disputes persist.

    Even in the case of China, the Chinese border disputes with Russia owe, as far as I know, nothing to the concept of suzerainty, and only become a heated issue when it suited Mao-era policy for China to be in conflict with the USSR.

    I would say that China’s disputes with Vietnam, India, and Japan persist because the aftermath of WWII, and the PRC’s unilateral denunciation of ‘unequal’ treaties, left the ownership of various territories in notional dispute. Moreover, these disputes only become a heated issue when it suits the policy of a party to the dispute for them to be so.

  5. I guess I should also say that the interpretation of the maritime EEZ (economic exclusion zone)as being indistinguishable from territorial waters, an interpretation much denigrated by maritime nations like the UK for obvious reasons (i.e., they lose more than they gain from such an interpretation), is also perhaps the biggest driving force behind these disputes. Rather than pointless, uninhabited scraps of land whose land area can double depending on the state of the tide, ownership of these islands represent a potential claim on all the sea and sea-bed within a 200KM-radius. Without this incentive, one of entirely modern origin, it is hard to imagine that these disputes would be pushed to the length that they are.

  6. I could never get League Pass to work (although I did not have my proxy up at the time). Slingbox you say? I will have to check that out. I tried streaming it but my usually reliable site was wack. I have instructed my wife to drape herself in a giant Chinese flag if there is any Wiz game on CCTV 5 and see if she can score an interview. Because getting on CCTV, like climbing the Great Wall, is something you MUST DO if you are in China.

  7. @FOARP, you forget resources, whether real, potential or imagined. There’s been talk for years now about natural gas deposits in the South and East China Seas, very near where, if not smack on the disputed territorial boundaries.

  8. Pillings, as usual, is wrong. The issue in the Senkakus is that the current Chinese governments are inventing a modern claim based on their reconstruction of the Qing and prior selected texts to serve their own modern purposes. The current clash is completely artificial. For the entire twentieth century to 1968, no Chinese government claimed the senkakus and all maps and texts identified them as undisputed Japanese territory.

    In the 19th century, however, the Senkakus were a case of a clash between japan using then modern ideas and opposing them to the Qing ideas of its universal rule over tributary states. Pilling’s view is incorrect, in all its aspects.

    Han-yi Shaw discusses this in his extensive but ardently pro-ROC piece on the Senkakus.

    His arguments are self-serving bullshit, as I note in my post on them:

    But his perception of how Japan had beaten the Qing to the punch in adopting to the changing world order seems ok.


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