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Bill Hayton on the South China Sea in 2020

“There is nothing ‘historic’ about China’s ‘historic rights’ claim” in the South China Sea.

Ankit Panda
Bill Hayton on the South China Sea in 2020

The South China Sea popped into mainstream news in July with the U.S. State Department announcing a “strengthening” of U.S. policy regarding China’s claims in the sea. But while the statement resurfaced the South China Sea conundrum for the West, analysts of the region have been watching all along – among them Bill Hayton, an associate fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House. The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda spoke to Hayton recently about the goings on in the South China Sea, from the neverending discussions between ASEAN and China on a code of conduct to the ahistoric nature of China’s “historic” claims and future possibilities of even higher tensions in the region.

Hayton’s upcoming book “The Invention of China” will be published by Yale University Press in October.

The U.S., in early June, issued a note verbale at the United Nations expressing its disapproval toward China’s “historic rights” based claims in the South China Sea. How do you rate the significance of this?

I see this as a welcome push-back against a Chinese tactic that can be best described as “revanchism.” China is trying to claim that its fishermen (and oil explorers) have rights that go beyond UNCLOS based upon a particularly nationalistic and evidence-free reading of history. If this is allowed to prevail, it would allow China (and perhaps other countries based upon China’s precedent) to exploit resources well outside its legitimate Exclusive Economic Zone. This would be like putting a bomb under UNCLOS, blowing up a key part of the international maritime order. Put simply, under a “historic rights” claim, Beijing would be demanding a share of the marine resources that UNCLOS allocates exclusively to the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

I have looked into the emergence of China’s “historic rights” claim and discovered that it emerged from the poorly-researched ideas of a few nationalistic Taiwan-based academics-turned-politicians in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is nothing “historic” about China’s “historic rights” claim. It deserves to be laughed out of court. Unfortunately, this laughable idea does seem to be a key motivator of China’s behavior in the South China Sea at the moment. It would be a tragedy if this joke of an idea caused a conflict.