The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claims

Bill Hayton
5 October 2017

This seminar offers a new account of the development of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The speaker argues that a collective Chinese belief in an “historic claim” to the reefs and rocks therein emerged in distinct episodes during the first half of the 20th century, partly in response to perceived threats to the country’s sovereignty but mainly as attempts to shore-up declining nationalist legitimacy. He argues that this effort was not a process of documenting a pre-existing and self-evident claim but of imagining, constructing and asserting a new one through the mobilisation of both emotion and archive documents. Moreover, this account emphasises the importance of the acquisition of knowledge and concepts from foreign sources and the confusion and misunderstandings that that entailed. The legacy of this confused claim-making shapes the geopolitics of the South China Sea today.

About the Speaker: Bill Hayton was appointed an Associate Fellow with the Asia Programme of Chatham House in 2015. He is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (Yale, 2014) and Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010). Bill has worked for the BBC since 1998 and currently works for BBC World News television in London. He was the BBC’s reporter in Vietnam In 2006-07 and spent 2013 embedded with Myanmar’s state broadcaster working on media reform. He has given presentations about South China Sea and Southeast Asian issues for think-tanks and government institutions in the UK, US, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere. His written work has been published in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Diplomat and the National Interest, among others. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London.