Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and the China-Taiwan Issue

As I explained in my previous post, the claim of the People’s Republic of China to Taiwan derives from the nationalist tradition that developed in China after its tragic encounter with Western powers. In this post, I would like to show how the concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity in China have been shaped by the country’s unequal relationship with Western imperialist states and how these concepts have become an integral part of Chinese nationalist discourse.

Sovereignty and Territory – Premodern vs Modern States

The terms ‘modern state’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ are too complex and controversial to be discussed here. However, some definitions are necessary in order to examine the evolution of the Chinese state in modern times, so I will just provide a general description of them. 

First of all, modern states – as the name implies – are a relatively recent phenomenon that originated in late medieval and early modern Europe. The most important and distinctive characteristics of the modern state are: 1) monopoly of the means of violence 2) territoriality 3) sovereignty 4) constitutionality 5) impersonal power 6) bureaucracy 7) authority/legitimacy 8) citizenship (for a comprehensive discussion see: Christopher Pierson: The Modern State, 2004).

While premodern states tended to have flexible borders, the modern state occupies an exact territory in which it claims to have absolute authority, and it considers every violation of its territory as a threat to its very existence. Premodern empires, like the Chinese and Roman states, on the other hand, “were extensive and powerful political formations, but their territorial limits tended to be set by ill-defined frontiers rather than by … clearly demarcated borders” (ibid., p. 9).

The concept of sovereignty, which is a fundamental category for the establishment of modern international relations and law, was the result of the multi-state settlement of early modern Europe. It is often described – more or less accurately – as the Westphalian model, because it first emerged with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic. The principles of international relations as defined by the Peace of Westphalia were: 

  • 1 The world consists of, and is divided by, sovereign states which recognize no superior authority. 

  • 2 The processes of law-making, the settlement of disputes and law enforcement are largely in the hands of individual states subject to the logic of ‘the competitive struggle for power’. 

  • 3 Differences among states are often settled by force: the principle of effective power holds sway. Virtually no legal fetters exist to curb the resort to force; international legal standards afford minimal protection. 

  • 4 Responsibility for cross-border wrongful acts are a private matter concerning only those affected; no collective interest in compliance with international law is recognized. 

  • 5 All states are regarded as equal before the law; legal rules do not take account of asymmetries of power. 

  • 6 International law is oriented to the establishment of minimal rules of co-existence; the creation of enduring relationships among states and peoples is an aim only to the extent that it allows military objectives to be met. 

  • 7 The minimization of impediments on state freedom is the ‘collective’ priority (Christopher Pierson: The Modern State, 2004, p. 37).

Simply put, in early modern Europe the competition between states that were relatively similar in size and military power made it necessary to define some “rules of the game”. Each state claimed to occupy a certain clearly demarcated territory that it guarded jealously against other states, and to possess absolute authority inside its own territory. Sovereignty therefore became a fundamental principle of international law, as it  implied “the recognition of the claim by a state to exercise supreme authority over a clearly defined territory” (Dominik Zaum: The Sovereignty Paradox: The Norms and Politics of International State-Building, 2007, p. 28). 

It must be remembered that up until the First and Second World War, European states considered military confrontation as a legitimate means to advance each state’s particular interests. It was, in fact, a brutal world in which violence was considered acceptable, justifiable, and even necessary. In the famous words of Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz: “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means” (“Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln“; Carl von Clausewitz: On War, Chapter I, Paragraph 24; German edition, ibid.). 

Now, what is the difference between premodern and modern states? Did premodern states have no sovereignty or territoriality? 

Well, perhaps the best way for a modern Western reader to understand how premodern states were structured is by comparing them with the British Empire. The British Empire was undoubtedly a political entity; it had a government, a territory, a bureaucracy, etc. However, it was, in many respects, nothing but a loose confederation of territories bound together by a centre of authority, Britain proper. Every British colony had its own semi-independent administration, its own officials, its own economy, laws,; there was no standardized, uniform citizenship, school system, law system, etc. Moreover, the borders of the British Empire were in a process of constant change, because of the imperial dynamics of frontier expansion through war. 

While modern states have a unified and standardized territory, citizenship, school system, law system etc., the British Empire was a loose, improvised, decentralised amalgam of territories. By the 1890s the Empire ruled over a quarter of the globe and one-fifth of the total world population. But, in the words of Lord Milner, it completely lacked “any permanent binding force, or rational system” (William Roger Louis / Andrew Porter /Alaine M. Low [ed.]: The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 3, 1999, p. 171). The Empire also lacked a strong bureaucratic organisation. For instance, in India, Britain’s largest colonial possession, 2,000 colonial officials ruled over 200 or 300 million Indians. In Uganda, 3 million local people were governed by 25 British officials (ibid., p. 177).

It is not surprising that this loose empire collapsed as soon as its centre faced financial and military trouble. While Britain itself was a modern state, the British Empire was, paradoxically, a premodern state. Thus, it failed to create an allegiance to the Empire among its millions of subjects throughout the world. For them Britain was as far away as the Emperor was for the Chinese or the Romans.

If we understand why the British Empire wasn’t a modern state, then we can easily understand why the Roman and Chinese empires did not possess the characteristics of a modern state. 

As far as Rome is concerned, Christopher W. Morris explains that

governance of Rome’s huge number of subjects was somewhat indirect, through local elites (who became Romanized). The administration of the empire did not penetrate very deeply … Empires such as Rome’s “did not conceive of themselves as existing side by side with other such entities as making up with these a wider system analogous to the state system. Rather, each empire saw itself as having political charge of the world as it conceived of it.” The empire’s boundaries were not borders, but merely frontiers – the furthermost point reached by conquest (urbi et orbi) (Christopher W. Morris: An Essay on the Modern State, 2002, pp. 30-31). 

The Roman Empire, like the British Empire, ruled over a vast territory (let us here remember that in ancient times communication was slower than in the 19th and 20th century, so that the actual distance between Rome and its periphery or Beijing and its periphery might somewhat correspond to the distance between London and the periphery of its empire). However, it lacked a standardized, unified bureaucracy, citizenship, and a clearly defined territory. 

As Clifford Ando puts it, “membership in modern states requires citizenship, and therefore arguments about the role of government in society can proceed from legalistic definitions of membership“, but the Roman Empire “divided the population of the world differently, into citizens, noncitizen residents of the empire, and barbarian nonresidents who might yet be conquered” (Clifford Ando: Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, 2000, p. 12).

Therefore, the Roman Empire was a loose confederation of territories whose limits were constantly redefined by military success or defeat; and Roman subjects were divided into several groups, in fact, one might be a subject of Rome but not be a Roman citizen; moreover, administration was inconsistent and often semi-independent.  

I hope that the examples of the British and Roman Empires will help understand why the Qing Empire was, too, a premodern state. “The notion of ‘China’ as a fixed territorial space is a relatively recent development. Over the centuries, the shape and size of the lands that various dynasties controlled shrank and grew like an amoeba” (James R. Akerman [edit.]: The Imperial Map: Cartography and the Mastery of Empire, 2009, p. 98). 

As Zhidong Hao explains: “One example of this loose definition of land is the Portuguese use of Macau beginning in 1553. There was no formal lease or contract. As long as the Portuguese paid the local Cantonese government some money, later on called ‘rent,’ they could use it” (Zhidong Hao: Whither Taiwan and Mainland China? National Identity, the State, and Intellectuals, 2010, p. 77). De facto, sovereignty in Macau was shared by the Chinese and the Portuguese, until in 1887 the Qing were forced to cede Macau formally to the Portuguese. However, the Chinese always claimed that the ‘unequal treaties’ were invalid as they were obtained through extortion. 

This example shows that the Qing did not clearly understand sovereignty until Western powers began carving up their territory. For the Qing, the ‘barbarians’ at the frontier were not a threat to their rule, as long as they accepted formal subordination to Chinese civilisation and to the Empire. The Portuguese stayed in Macau and payed a rent for 400 years. This did not appear to the Chinese a serious problem, as Macau was just a small frontier territory and the Portuguese didn’t seem to threat the central authority. When we talk about Taiwan, Macau, and other territories of the former Qing Empire, we must always remember that the Republic of China (ROC) and later the PRC translated the ancient concepts of imperial rule into modern concepts of sovereignty and territoriality, whereby their main motive was nationalism and the need to use the international system invented by the foreigners in order to repel them. 

When in 1842 the Qing government signed the Treaty of Nanjing that ended the First Opium War they had “little idea what it signified to the Western powers” because they did not understand international law as defined by the West. “To the court, the treaty was a means of granting some privileges to foreign peoples in exchange for a return to peace, not unlike agreements reached with ‘rebels’ in Turkestan in Central Asia—the last major sector of the Qing empire to be conquered. That is, treaties were a tactic of imperial policy, not an irrevocable promise” (Peter Zarrow: After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885-1924, 2012, p. 92). 

It was only after the Second Opium War and the subsequent treaties that the Qing were forced to sign that Chinese politicians and intellectuals began to understand that their lack of knowledge of Western international law put China at a disadvantage. Therefore, in the 19th century the Qing Empire “was drawn into an international system of state relations that was not merely dominated by Western powers but defined by them” (ibid., p. 92). Some members of the Chinese elite realised that they could not counter the West if they did not understand basic concepts such as what a sovereign state was. Soon, books like Elements of International Law by the American jurist Henry Wheaton were translated into Chinese. A new generation of Chinese intellectuals began to emerge, who advocated the adoption of the Western system as the only way to defend China from exploitation.

One of them was Zheng Guanying (鄭觀應/郑观应; 1842-1923), a successful comprador who worked for Western businesses after failing the imperial examination. He understood the West better than many of his contemporaries. He argued that the traditional claim of the Chinese Empire to rule over “all under heaven“, i.e., the entire world, ignored the reality of the existence of many competing states. He believed that China could only defend herself if she developed her economy and if she accepted international law as a basis of state-to-state interaction with the West (see ibid; p. 93). In the 1890s he wrote:

Our treatment of Westerners has been so magnanimous, and their treatment of the Chinese so poor. Where is injustice and where is humanity? [They] carry weapons in time of peace, they reduce the wages of their [Chinese] employees, they speculate and go bankrupt, they protect Christian converts, they control the customs duties, they kidnap and sell our people – all these various kinds of wrong-doing should be forbidden by Western law and not tolerated by international law (Suu-yu Teng / John K. Fairbank: China’s Response to the West. A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923, 1982, p. 113).

In order to understand the PRC’s territorial claims and its insistence on sovereignty, we must first of all understand that these concepts have been adopted by generations of Chinese intellectuals and politicians as weapons against rapacious foreign aggressors; moreover, that these concepts are instruments which serve the wider purposes of Chinese nationalism and state-building. 


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