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A Sense of Sovereignty:  How China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’ Affects U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

Lieutenant Commander Colin Raunig, USNR

China’s period of sustained foreign intervention and imperialism in the 19th and 20th century is known in China as the Century of Humiliation and has shaped how China has used international law “to protect and advance its state sovereignty.” [1] A clear comprehension of Chinese-Western historical relations is necessary to inform a prudent U.S. maritime strategy to assert U.S. interests in the South China Sea while reducing the risk of violent escalation between China and the United States. Although China’s “historic rights” claim is unfounded, the history of China is rich with lessons that can be applied to today’s problems in the South China Sea. China’s current interpretation of international law is the result of the country’s historical experience with that law, which has legitimized Western powers’ oppression of non-Western states, peoples, and cultures, including that of China.[2]

The military and political actions that China takes toward other countries should be seen through the lens of China’s history of foreign invasions, beginning with the Opium Wars in the 19th century and ending with Japan’s invasion of China in the 20th century. As noted by Fu Ying, a former ambassador to Britain and now spokesman for the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, these are humiliating events that still affect China today.[3] “The People won’t tolerate it if we lose territory yet again,” says Fu. “We’ve lost enough.” [4] The concessions that China made in both the Opium Wars and the proceeding Japanese occupation had continuing repercussions not first appreciated by the Chinese and which they are attempting to correct today. [5] Every Chinese concession generated additional demands, and Chinese diplomatic and economic control was lost that they are still trying to take back.

China claims it has “historic rights” that predate current rules-based international order and are said to exist within a “nine-dash line” that extends more than 1,500 km down from the southern coast of China. [6] On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), an international tribunal in The Hague, ruled China’s historic claims invalid.[7] Furthermore, the PCA ruled that only claims consistent with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were valid.[8] UNCLOS, ratified by China in 1996, instructs that maritime rights derive from land, not history. [9] The case was brought to the court by the Philippines in 2013, after China claimed control of the Scarborough Shoal, about 220 miles north-west of Manilla.[10] The court also ruled that the shoal was only visible at low tide, and thus not considered land in order to claim territorial waters.[11] China did not take part in the proceedings and refused to accept its verdict.[12]

As a member of UNCLOS, China is obligated to obey the court, but there is no enforcement mechanism in place to ensure they do.[13] The ruling, as well as China’s refusal to “accept, recognize, or execute” the verdict threatens regional security as China seeks to assert itself as a regional power and America continues to insist on policing the Pacific. [14] It is unlikely China will quit UNCLOS and has not done so to date. Doing so would reinforce the impression that China is an isolationist unilateral power, and do damage to its global image.[15] More likely is that China will establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea similar to the one over the East China Sea established in 2013 after a confrontation regarding the Senkaku Islands.[16] The aircraft that fly through the existing ADIZ are ordered to report their location to Chinese authorities, though U.S. military aircraft ignore this mandate.[17] As recently as March 23, 2017, China warned the United States that they should respect their ADIZ after they reported that a U.S. B-1 bomber was flying illegally over the East China Sea. This ADIZ, and the potential of a southern one, adds to the risk that aircraft from both countries could end up in confrontation.

The Chinese experience in the Opium War made an indelible impression on current Chinese strategic thinking. Leading up to 1839, China’s imperial court had been receiving European diplomatic and religious missions since the sixteenth century.[18] Although banned, opium constituted a considerable business in China due to the relationship between Chinese smugglers and British India, the center of the world’s opium poppy growth.[19] The Qing court sought to ban opium trade altogether, ordering Western trade missions in Guangzhou to forfeit their opium chests for destruction.[20] British opinion saw this behavior as an unacceptable affront and the British government ordered a fleet of ships to China for blockade, seizure of Chinese vessels, and seizure of Chinese territory.[21] This was the beginning of The Opium Wars. The first war ended with the Treaty of Nanjing in which China ceded Hong Kong to Britain and agreed to open five ports for trade.[22] Western powers justified its encroachment of Chinese sovereignty by the fact that China did not recognize sovereignty in the first place.[23]

The rejection of international law was practiced by both China and Western powers, much to the detriment of an equitable relationship existing between the two powers. Western powers at the time, working with legal theorists who justified colonialism, devised a “family of nations” made up primarily of Western powers.[24] Countries such as China, Japan, Siam, and the Ottoman empire, were excluded “on account of their inferior standards of civilization.”[25] This racist “standard of civilization” set forth by the “family of nations,” combined with European military superiority, forced non-European societies to acquiesce to European standards of civilization.[26] This acquiescence includes the submittal to and the protection provided by international law. Because China was not considered a member of the ‘family of nations,’ they were not protected under the provisions of Eurocentric international law, “including respect for state sovereignty.”[27]

European colonial powers made the treaties for the sake of expediency and out of the traditional benevolence for foreign powers from afar.[28] China saw such treaties as a “traditional method of absorbing the barbarians and wearing them down.” [29] The Qing court used the treaties and rulings of international law “to protect China and Chinese interests from further foreign onslaught until an opportunity presented China to reassert itself.”[30] Western powers, however, were not worn down, but enabled. Every Chinese concession generated Western demands.[31] After the British Treaty of Nanjing, the U.S. and French both negotiated their own treaties that included a “Most Favored Nation” clause stipulating that any concession offered by China to one country must be offered to the others.[32] Because imperialist powers used international law to justify subjugation of the Qing state, China had little reason to believe that they would be accepted to any Western-based system of major countries.[33] Indeed, Western powers didn’t seek to accept them, striving to exploit China for economic and political gain.[34]

China saw such multilateral foreign efforts as beneficial compared to the option of a unilateral Britain. The “Most Favored Nation” principle was preferred, because it meant that Britain would have to share their spoils with other countries rather than exacting and benefiting from all of them itself.[35] The Celestial Court thought that adhering to the letter of the treaties would establish a ceiling to Western demands.[36] Western Powers, of course, saw no such ceiling, instead viewing the treaties as the beginning of a long process of drawing China into the influence of “Western norms of political and economic exchange.”[37] China had no interest in such exchanges, and refused to submit to demands to broaden the treaties to include free trade and diplomatic representation in the Chinese capital.[38] China had no interest in being a “normal state,” in being just another country weak enough to be overtaken by invaders.[39] Their investment in their national superiority depended on their ability to operate with foreign forces in the way that was most advantageous.

As this was happening, civil war was in progress in southern China.[40] Christian missionaries had existed in small numbers for centuries and they began to enter the country in large numbers after the Opium War.[41] Buoyed by their fundamentalist Christian ideology and increased Western presence, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) began in earnest to destroy the Manchus and replace Qing as the ruling power. [42] The Taiping were eventually slaughtered, but not before they ruled their Nanjing-based Heavenly Kingdom for eleven years.[43] Although no exact figures are known, it is one of the most devastation conflicts in history, with a death toll that is estimated in the tens of millions.[44] By destroying one chapter of Chinese history, the Taiping rebellion helped to create another, all in the shadow of the West induced Opium War in the reckoning of contemporary Chinese strategic narrative.

The Qing dynasty ultimately ended in 1912,[45] inspiring 20th-century revolutionaries to adopt racialist anti-Manchu passions associated with the Taiping movement, adopt the Taiping as role models, and condemn the Qing as race traitors and slaves to a discredited cause.[46] This collapse of Qing was expedited by an Eight-Power allied force—France, Britain, the United States, Japan, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy—that dictated another treaty that granted more rights to foreign powers and cash compensation on a country that was already struggling economically.[47] The Chinese people were becoming fed up with these concessions, with vast results.

After the outbreak of World War I, escalating with the defeat of Germany, Japan increased pressure on China, presented China with its “Twenty-one Demands,” China, in negotiations, proposed allying with the United States against Japan. [48] On 2 November 1917, however, the Lansing-Ishii Agreement was signed between the United States and Japan, violating China’s sovereignty and recognizing Japan’s special interests in China.[49] This agreement disappointed high-ranking Chinese officials, who accused the United States of “betraying” China.[50] Japan, taking advantage of its position, demanded control of requested areas of China.[51] In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the United States decided to give half of former German territorial rights and interests in Shandong to Japan, in the Treaty of Versailles.[52] The Chinese delegation lodged a protest and refused to sign the treaty, sparking a similar sentiment that spread throughout China.[53] Chinese scholars have since maintained that Chinese involvement in World War I and the Paris Peace Conference lead to a significant loss of sovereignty.[54]

On 4 May 1919, 3,000 Chinese people took to the streets to protest the Treaty of Versailles concessions. [55] The protest was the intellectual founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which was established in 1921. [56] Mao Zedong would later call the May Fourth Movement a “new stage in China’s bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism.” [57] Some have misunderstood the May Fourth Movement and resulting spread of Communism as a repudiation of democracy; it isn’t.[58] It instead represented a “widespread anger with what the West had taken away from China.”[59] The Communist Party competed for influence with the Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, leaving China without a central authority, and vulnerable to foreign powers. [60] By 1932, Japanese powers expanded into Manchuria, creating a separate state called Manzhouguo and staking a claim as to its imperialistic intentions.[61] Japan went to war against China in 1937.[62]

By the time of the Japanese surrender in 1945, some 14 million to 20 million Chinese perished during these eight years of Conflict.[63] The CCP’s intellectual movement continued to thrive as a way of creating a modern, powerful country like the Soviet Union.[64] Due to U.S. diplomatic pressure, the Soviets officially withdrew support from the CCP but supplied them arms.[65] The United States sided with the Nationalists. [66] Chinese civil war followed. [67] By 1949, the CCP was victorious through the majority of mainland China.[68] China was finally united, under the newly proclaimed tittle of People’s Republic of China.[69] Although united as a country, China was not united with the world, and had little interest in doing so. Mao, the leader of the CCP, summed up China’s attitude toward the prevailing international order by saying, “We have stood up.”[70] With Mao’s declaration, the Century of Humiliation was over, but the memory of humiliation and death would endure, and establishing efficacious diplomacy with foreign powers would take time.[71]

Mao’s posturing was a daunting prospect for China in 1949, as the Chinese communists were underdeveloped and overmatched on the international stage.[72] The United States backed Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalists during the Civil War; post-war, the Chinese Communist Party initially partnered with the Soviet Union as an ideological ally.[73] To substitute for a lack of physical strength, Mao emphasized establishing a “ideological militancy and psychological perception,”[74] which entailed “a Sinocentric view of the world”[75]– meaning China was the global cultural center. By asserting itself as a global power, China redefined Chinese identity at home and abroad.[76] China isolated itself diplomatically, launching the Great Leap Forward in 1958, confronting both the United States and the Soviet Union in a dual-adversary policy that last until 1967, and which point, from 1968-1970, Mao moved away from the Soviet Union and towards reconciliation with the United States.[77]

On 25 October 1971, when the United Nations General Assembly officially recognized the People’s Republic of China as the representative government of China, replacing that of the Republic of China (Taiwan).[78] This measure allowed the P.R.C. a place in the General Assembly as well assuming its place on the U.N. Security Council.[79] This recognition motivated President Nixon to visit China and open America’s relations with Beijing. [80] Although now ostensibly a player on an international scale, China, in line with the Soviets, only recognized treaties and customs as sources of international law [81] and continued to avoid judicial proceedings on an international level.[82] In its participation on the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, China did not consign jurisdiction in the International Law of the Sea, as doing so would run contrary to its idea of state sovereignty.[83] As a Permanent Member of the Security Council, any candidate that China elected would have been automatically elected, but it did not do so between 1971 and 1984.[84] This was due to China’s inexperience with international law as well as general hostility to any notion of law.[85] China has proven time and time again that it more readily and adequately responds to interstate disputes that are resolved by negotiations rather than legal proceedings.[86]

Although the Century of Humiliation was over in 1949, it took two decades for China to become an international player of diplomacy. By heading the Communist movement in China, Mao redefined Chinese national identity as a way of reclaiming the psychological ground that it lost at the hands of British plunder. [87] The period that extends from the Opium Wars to Mao can be accounted for by China’s actions prior and subsequent to China stepping onto the international stage of the UN in 1971, as well as China’s hostility towards UNCLOS and international law since then. China wants to be a player on the international scene while maintaining a Sino-Centric view of itself. The current Chinese government is influenced by nationalism more than it is by Marx or Communism, as they lack the procedural legitimacy of democratically elected government, and rely on nationalism to legitimize its rule. [88]

The Century of Humiliation combined with the current state of the CCP directly influence China’s current approach in the South China Sea. For years, China has sought to assert far-reaching territorial claims in the South China Sea. [89] These claims have invoked the ire of its neighbors and have led to numerous military confrontations that threaten to destabilize America’s influence in Asia as well as the equitable use of this area by the international community.[90] On 26 January 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to suggest during his confirmation hearings that a blockade of newly constructed military installation in the South China Sea would be good policy to implement.[91] This statement from Tillerson provoked a response in the Global Times, a Chinese national newspaper, which warned: “Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish.”[92]

As China is now a “member of the club” of the international community, there is no alternative but to continue to engage with China and integrate with them “the institutions, rules, laws, and norms of the international community.”[93] This means a constructionist perspective continues training programs to Chinese professionals and aid programs to China.[94] This does not mean containment, an absurd, simplistic, and potentially dangerous notion that is detached from reality cannot compete with the complex, but beneficial strategy of interaction and commerce.[95] This does not mean a blockade.

China has a complex and brutal history that shapes its current identity. As such, it is “a confused and conflicted rising power undergoing an identity crisis of significant proportions . . . More than anything, China wants to be prosperous, secure, respected, and left alone in its own geocultural orbit.”[96] China’s current desires have deep roots that extend back to the very beginning of the Century of Humiliation. The United States needs to consider China’s perspective as it seeks diplomatic success in the South China Sea. This could mean aggressive, if peaceful measures of deterrence. This could also mean persuasion. The prospect of sanctions could prove to China that it is not only in their economic interest to play ball, but in their interest to be a respected and viable international power in the 21st century. 

In order for the United States to succeed in the South China, the United States needs to maintain its own role as a global power while minding China’s history and the present reality in the South China Sea. Rules alone, or arbitration, have proven only to change the perception of the situation of the international community on the reality of China, without actually changing the reality at all. Action without regard to consequence, meaning violence, has only caused meaningless destruction without helping to evolve international relationships with China or China’s relationship with itself. The United States can achieve its goals in the South China Sea with proper implementation of its diplomatic strength, which will help to influence China without humiliating them. 



[1] Phil W. Chan, “China’s Approaches to International Law since the Opium War,” LeidenJournal of International Law (2014) 27, 861.

[2] Chan, Journal of International Law, 859-862.

[3] Jonathan Broder, “The ‘Inevitable War’ Between The U.S. And China,” Newsweek, June 22,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Henry Kissinger, On China, (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 54.

[6] Jonathan Broder, Newsweek.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Courting Trouble,” The Economist, July 16, 2016,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Shruti Godbole, “Trouble Waters: Demystifying the South China Sea Ruling,” Brookings, September 6, 2016,

[13] “Courting Trouble,” The Economist.

[14] Ibid., Broder, Newsweek.

[15] “Courting Trouble,” The Economist.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Chan, Leiden Journal of International Law, 863.

[19] Kissinger, On China, 46

[20] Ibid, 46.

[21] Ibid, 48.

[22] Chan, Leiden Journal of International Law, 866

[23] Ibid, 866.

[24] Ibid, 868.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 871.

[28] Ibid, 866.

[29] Kissinger, On China, 54.

[30] Ibid, 868.

[31] Kissinger, On China, 54.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire, (New York: Perseus Book Group, 2012), 80.

[34] Kissinger, On China, 54.

[35] Ibid, 63.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid, 64.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Julia Lovell, The Opium War, (New York: The Overlook Press 2014), 247.

[41] Kissinger, On China, 65.

[42] Ibid., Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: WW Norton And Company), 171-174.

[43] Spence, The Search for Modern China, 174.

[44] Tobie Meyer-Fong, “Where The War Ended: Violence, Community, and Commemoration in China’s Nineteenth-Century Civil War,” American Historical Review, December 2015, 1725.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Kissinger, On China, 87.

[48] Ibid., 88. Yafeng Xia and Zhi Liang, “China’s Diplomacy Toward the United States in the Twentieth Century: A Survey of Literature,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 41, No.2 (2017), 243.

[49] Ibid, 243.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Tony Saich, “The Chinese Communist Party During the Era of the Comintern (1919,-1943), International Institute of Social History, 8.

[56] Ibid. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 322.

[57] Ankit Panda, “The Legacy of China’s May Fourth Movement,” May 5, 2015,

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Kissinger, On China, 87.

[61] Westad, Restless Empire, 251.

[62] Ibid, 251.

[63] Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 363.

[64] Westad, Restless Empire, 289.

[65] Westad, Restless Empire, 289.

[66] Kissinger, On China,  89.

[67] Westad, Restless Empire, 290.

[68] Ibid, 290.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid, 292.

[71] Matt Schiavenza, “How Humiliation Drove Modern Chinese History,” The Atlantic, October 25, 2013,

[72] Kissinger, On China, 98.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid, 100.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Xia and Lang, Diplomatic History, 258.

[78] “People’s Republic of China In, Taiwan Out,” The New York Times, October 25, 2011, china-in-taiwan-out-at-un/

[79] Ibid.

[80] David Shambaugh, China Goes Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 314.

[81] Phil C. W. Chan, Leiden Journal of International Law, 883.

[82] Ibid, 886.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Schiavenza, The Atlantic.

[88] Jayshree Bajoria, “Nationalism in China,” Backgrounder, April 22, 2008.

[89] “Courting Trouble,” The Economist.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Robert Farley “A US Navy Blockade in the South China Sea is Not Sound Strategy,” The Diplomat, January 26, 2017, in-the-south-china-sea-is-not-sound-strategy/

[92] Ibid.

[93] Shambaugh, China Goes Global, 314-315.

[94] Ibid, 315.

[95] Ibid, 315.

[96] Ibid, 317.


Lieutenant Commander Colin Raunig, USNR

Lieutenant Commander Raunig graduated from the Naval Academy in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering. For eight years, he served as a naval flight officer on board the E-6b Mercury, then as the sole liaison officer the Japanese Naval Academy. He now is a naval reservist and MFA student studying fiction at Colorado State University.


(This essay was previously published in the U.S. Naval Institute's Naval History Blog.)



This essay was previously published in the U.S. Naval Institute's Naval History blog.
Published: Tue Jul 31 12:09:31 EDT 2018