China's South Sea Claims Were Always about Emotion, Not History
- Bill Hayton
The South China Sea arbitration award is not just a victory for the Philippines over China; it is a victory for evidence over sentiment. I have spent the past five years digging through the competing versions of the region’s history. In the process, I have learned that China’s claims in the South China Sea were always more emotional than historical. They emerged from the sense of national violation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and mixed misunderstandings about history with poor translations of foreign maps and an unbending sense of self-righteousness.
The problem for the region is that, despite the arbitration ruling, those misunderstandings and emotions will not easily go away. Far from it: Chinese schools are continuing to inculcate young minds with the same muddled views of the past, and the national media is reinforcing the message for adults. To those Chinese who care about the issue, the arbitration will appear as yet another episode in the story of national humiliation. If we could trust the Chinese leadership to allow the free flow of information and an open debate about history, we could hope for a new understanding to emerge. For the time being, that is about as likely as China dismantling its giant artificial islands.