Tag Archives: china

The South China Sea and Freedom of the Seas

The Permanent Court of Arbitration has just reached a decision arbitrating the case brought by the Philippines against China in the South China Sea. The court has decided that the ‘9 Dash Line’ drafted by China back in 1947 is invalid. China has angrily rejected the ruling, and there’s really not a blind thing the Philippines can do

about it, no matter how gleeful they may be at present.

South China Sea 9 Dash Line

From US Central Intelligence Agency, would you believe, via Wikipedia

It’s appropriate that this decision as made in The Hague, because international maritime law as we know it began in the Netherlands, 400 years ago, when a Dutchman, Huig de Groot, wrote an unpublished treatise De Indis (On the Indies) in 1604/5, and followed up by publishing Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) in 1609. These laid down the concept of the freedom of the seas, on which the South China Sea decision is based.

Freedom of the Seas sounds both worthy and universal, but even apparently universal legal concepts occur in a particular context. Huig de Groot, better known by his Latinized name Hugo Grotius, was dealing with a very specific event that occurred not all that far from the South China Sea. In 1603, Dutch merchant adventurers seized a Portuguese caravel near Singapore, and subsequently hired a smart young lawyer – Grotius – to provide the legal backing for their action.

Hugo Grotius, legal theorist

Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, Hugo Grotius (1631), from Wikipedia

To understand the background, we need to go back before Grotius’s birth to 1568, when the Dutch rose in rebellion against their Spanish rulers. The Netherlands had been incorporated in the Hapsburg Empire when the last Duke of Burgundy died on the battlefield, leaving his only daughter Mary the greatest heiress in Europe. After tense diplomatic negotiations, she was quickly married off to Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Their son married the heiress of the Spanish kingdoms, so their grandson, Charles V, found himself ruling an empire that stretched from the Netherlands (i.e. Burgundy) to Austria to Spain to Spanish America.

The arrangement worked more or less under Charles V (1500-1558), who was brought up in the Netherlands, spoke Dutch, and spent most of his life racing from Kingdom to County to Duchy around his crazy empire, but his son, Philip II, settled down outside Madrid, a Spaniard through and through. Add in the complexities of the Protestant Reformation, and the whole tottering edifice began to crumble.

Then in 1580, the legitimate Portuguese royal line died out. Philip’s mother had been a Portuguese princess, so he claimed this throne as well. The Hispanic Peninsula was combined under a single ruler – and so were their trade and territories overseas.

During the 16th century, Europe slowly digested the amazing implications of Columbus’s discovery of a whole New World. In a supreme act of European hubris, in 1494 the Pope divided the globe between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas.

tordesillas map

Carved up like an orange – the Treaty of Tordesillas and later modifications. Note that the Portuguese managed to scrape in Brazil. From Wikipedia

Spain (actually Castile) took the Western Hemisphere, while Portugal – which had been expanding down the African coast and soon entered the Indian Ocean – took the Eastern Hemisphere. No one outside Europe, of course, knew that the carve up had taken place – and even within Europe, it took some time for other nations to pay attention. After 1580, the Hispanic domination of the world seemed complete – at least from the European perspective.

Except that, like mammals evolving during the age of the dinosaurs, smaller maritime powers were beginning to emerge.

The Dutch had nothing like the economic or military power of the Spanish/Portuguese Empire – but they were sailors and businessmen, and they knew how to use their maritime power to hurt. The Dutch – and the English under Elizabeth Tudor, who backed the Dutch Revolt – attacked Philip II’s combined empire through its shipping. Dutch and English privateers bled the Spanish state of its bullion, attacking the heavy galleons that brought the gold and silver back to Europe.

They also began to challenge the Hispanic monopoly, setting up trading posts in West Africa and the West Indies to draw trade (including the slave trade) away from the Spaniards. It was Portugal’s bad luck that, from 1580, another dynastic accident meant that its trade in the East Indies was also fair game.

In 1603, the newly created Dutch East India Company [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC] seized the spice-laden Santa Catarina off Singapore and sailed it back to Amsterdam. The shareholders were delighted, but there were some uneasy consciences amongst them, and Grotius was given the task of demonstrating that the seizure had taken place in open waters and was therefore legal.

Grotius argued that the sea belongs to no one. Any state has the right to sail across it, and in the 1603 context, the Dutch were not trespassers on a ‘Spanish lake’. (As rebels, they were entitled to the seizure as an act of war). Of course, Grotius’s treatise, especially the published 1609 version, has a much wider context, but he was also dealing with a particular situation and its implications.

It was at every level a very Eurocentric perspective. No one in the Netherlands had a clue that Polynesians had sailed the Pacific – the so-called Spanish Lake – for centuries, or that Malays, Javanese, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Filipinos all shared the waterways of South East Asia, including the South China Sea.

This sharing was not, of course, necessarily good-natured. In the South China Sea, for instance, there was a very long history of Cantonese clans and families competing with each other, building levees and planting barriers strategically across the outlets of the Pearl River estuary so that they – and not their neighbours – could hold on to the precious silt that poured down the river. Ironically, perhaps, the Netherlands has a similar tradition of reshaping their estuarine landscape with canals and river mud. Such historic ‘terraforming’ is, of course, very different from the massive earthworks China is undertaking today.

China’s ambit claim to control of everything within the ‘9-dash line’ has now been rejected, but perhaps it is time to abandon Grotius’s doctrine of Liberum Mare. According to Grotius, and by implication in the recent decision in The Hague, nobody owns the open sea, and freedom of navigation should be protected at all costs.

What needs protecting today, though, is not just freedom of the seas, but the seas themselves. The oceans are dying – from overfishing, pollution, acidification and rising temperatures. What belongs to no one is cared for by no one. We need to move on to a new way of sharing a precious common resource.

Note: I’m sorry I’ve been silent for so long. My excuse is a bad reaction to a yellow fever shot, and a broken rib. Normal transmission is now resumed.

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Red Poppies, Blue Poppies

Nearly 3 years ago, the British Prime Minister David Cameron made his first official visit to China. It was early November, so like most British (or European) politicians, he was wearing a red poppy in his lapel to mark Remembrance Day.

The British Embassy staff in Beijing advised him not to wear it while he was in China. Poppies have a loaded message for Chinese, which has nothing to do with the bloodstains of Flanders fields. Poppies mean opium.

The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, has flowers that are usually blue, although they can also be red, white, or somewhere in between. After they finish flowering, the seedpods swell. Left alone, they will eventually dry and crack to release a mass of tiny poppy seeds, but to produce opium, the poppy farmer carefully slashes the green seedpods. Over a day or so these wounds bleed raw opium, which is collected daily.

Traditionally the sticky resin was dried into cakes of opium, which could be used in many ways. It could be chewed or smoked – there’s an excellent description of the process of preparing an opium pipe in Graham Green’s The Quiet American. Dissolved in alcohol, opium became laudanum, which was used widely as a painkiller or soporific in the 18th and 19th centuries.

1024px-Illustration_Papaver_somniferum0

Purified into heroin, it was used by doctors well into the 20th century. I once gave a talk on the history of opium to a group of elderly women. Most of them had had their babies during the 1950s. One woman told me afterwards that the births she experienced using heroin were much less painful than the ones after it became illegal in 1952.

The Chinese prohibited opium much earlier than the rest of the world – but without success. There were edicts against it during the 18th century, and in 1799 the Chinese government banned its importation in any form. The British East India Company was the main supplier, and while the EIC officially withdrew from the opium trade in 1809, a mere 10 years after they were asked to do so, they didn’t stop making the stuff. Most of the illegal opium produced today comes from the same Golden Triangle first set up by EIC traders in the 18th century.

The trade really took off in the 19th century. Free traders, mainly British but also some Americans, smuggled it into Canton/Guangzhou, where it had a devastating effect – not just on individual users, but on the economy as well. One of the key figures in the trade was my old friend Walter S Davidson, who went to China as an opium trader in 1812. By the time he left in 1822, two firms dominated the smuggling trade, Jardine, Matheson & Co (still alive and kicking in 2015) and Dent & Co, WSD’s old firm.

In 1839 the Chinese renewed their efforts to keep out the opium traders. The Emperor sent his own picked official, Commissioner Lin, to Canton to crack down on the trade. In a grand public gesture, he seized the stockpiles of opium from the British merchants and destroyed the ‘foreign mud’ by mixing it with salt and lime and throwing it into the sea.

It was a grand public gesture, but it failed completely. Britain declared war, and China was defeated in the First Opium War (1839-42). In a humiliating peace treaty, the Chinese were forced to hand over Hong Kong Island, and open 5 Treaty Ports to foreign trade. When land sales opened on Hong Kong, Dent & Co bought the first block of land. They were also among the first to open in Shanghai.

The opium trade continued to flourish and foreign trade and foreign ideas steadily weakened in Chinese Imperial Court’s grip on authority. A second Anglo-Chinese War (1858-60) saw British and French forces reach Beijing, where amongst other things, they looted and destroyed the Summer Palace. Amongst the many items looted was a Pekingese dog that was given to Queen Victoria. Without so much as a blush, she named him Looty. There’s a good account of the affair here.

China is very much in the news at the moment. The Australian Government is passing a China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. An American warship has deliberately sailed within 12 nautical miles – the distance that marks the extent of territorial waters – of the Spratly Islands.

And President Xi Jinping has just been on a state visit to Britain. This has inevitably led to talk about human rights in China. Reporters at the BBC in particular have been effortlessly sanctimonious, and there is no doubt that in some matters, China’s record is dodgy – but then, as our ex-PM Tony Abbott so effortlessly demonstrated yesterday, nobody is perfect.

Wearing poppies, David Cameron, George Osborne, Vince Cable and Michael Gove drink a toast at a contract signing in China, The Guardian, 10 November 2012

Wearing poppies, David Cameron, George Osborne, Vince Cable and Michael Gove drink a toast at a contract signing in China, The Guardian, 10 November 2012

On his 2012 visit to China, David Cameron didn’t take his embassy’s advice, and wore his red poppy regardless, because he refused to kowtow to Chinese sensibilities. The word kowtow is Cantonese. It refers to a stylized prostration before the Emperor, where the subject kneeled, then knocked his head on the ground a specified number of times. It came into English usage following Lord Macartney’s 1793 Embassy to China. Britain wanted trade concessions, but Macartney failed to get them – allegedly because he refused to perform the kowtow.

Personally I think it might be a good idea to cut China some slack. In a culture that famously thinks that it is still ‘too early to tell’ what will be the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, the humiliations of the 19th century are still quite raw.

The President and the Barmaid

And I spent my soul in kisses, crushed upon your scarlet mouth,
Oh! My red-lipped, sun-browned sweetheart, dark-eyed daughter of the south.

With all the kissing and cuddling that’s been going on lately between Barack Obama and Julia Gillard, maybe it’s time to quote the words of another American President with a thing for Australian women.

I have heard several times in the last week that until LBJ came to Harold Holt’s funeral in 1967, no American President had visited Australia.  The truth is, Australia is a long way from the rest of the world.  Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said (though I can’t find hard evidence) that he had never visited Australia, because he had never been on the way to Antarctica.  So it is not surprising that world leaders didn’t visit Australia before the era of fast air travel.  Nowadays, of course, they all find an excuse to come, especially during the northern winter.

But in fact, one American President spent a considerable time in Australia and left his mark on it.

President Hoover stamp 1965

Hoover stamp, 1965, from Wikimedia

Herbert Hoover arrived in Kalgoorlie as a young geologist straight out of Stanford University, in 1897. Continue reading

China wakes

I first visited China in late December 1994 when a colleague invited me to join him at a history conference in Guangzhou.  The language of the conference was Cantonese, so I was pretty marginal to the event, but even through the language barrier, I found it a fascinating experience.

Apart from the papers themselves, some of them very good even in translation, more general images stick:

The crowds everywhere, but particularly at the railway station, where hundreds of people were bedded down on mats on the floor.  It was a horrifying sight, as I assumed – quite wrongly – that they were homeless.  Later I realised they were travellers, heading for home villages to celebrate the summer solstice.

A visit to the Huangpu Military Academy, where Sun Yat-sent began his revolutionary movement to unite China – and my belated realisation that Huangpu was ‘Whampoa’, the island in the Pearl River where the tea clippers anchored in the early 19th century.

A handbag factory that was little more than a hut in a field, full of people working at heavy-duty sewing machines.

What I mainly took away from my visit was the evidence everywhere of venture capitalism on the rise.  Amongst the middle class, speculation was rife.  On one trip, we stopped at another university to have tea and snacks in the history department tearoom.  Some of the teachers were there, all sitting around a television in the corner showing (I assume) the local stock market prices.

While most of the visitors were heading back to Hong Kong after the conference, I went on to Macao, the Portuguese enclave at the eastern tip of the Pearl River, and I made the last part of my trip to the frontier by taxi.  We swept along vast highways, masterpieces of civil engineering, but with almost no traffic.  Beside the roads were brand new houses, Chinese McMansions large enough for servants quarters and, no doubt, more children than the statutory single child.

‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will astonish the world’.

So said Napoleon, two centuries ago.  Well, we all know now that China has woken – and the evidence was there in the early 1990s.  Just last week, China and Pakistan announced that China plans to build a new port in Baluchistan, part of a ‘necklace of pearls’, a series of ports to funnel goods into western China without the need to go through the choke points of South East Asia.

I was involved, however marginally, with the conference in Guangzhou because I’m interested in Australian trade with China – not the recent, vast trade in raw materials, but the early trade, which began during the first years of the 19th century.

In Napoleon’s day, China’s main export was tea.  In early Australia, tea and sugar usually formed part of a convict’s rations – the discretionary part that could be given for good behaviour, or taken away as a punishment – so anyone who employed convicts wanted access to tea, which was the main form of bribery for good work.

The whole tea trade took place through Canton [now Guangzhou] in the south, on the Pearl River.  It was a tightly controlled trade.  The foreign merchants had to live in ‘factories’.  They couldn’t bring their wives and children into Canton, couldn’t move outside these compounds and had to leave after the trading season was over.  Outside these summer months, they and their families lived in Macao.

European Factories, Canton
William Daniell, The European Factories, Canton, in Wikimedia Commons

The problem for the traders – British, American, French, Dutch and others – was that China didn’t need any of the trade goods they had to offer.  In 1792 the Emperor Ch’ien Lungtold George III complacently:

our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.

Then the traders discovered opium.  Like all addictive drugs (including tea?) opium was an ideal trading product.  Demand is constantly renewed because people use it up and want more.  The Chinese tried to control the trade, but British and American traders continued to bring it in illegally.  Within a generation the balance of trade – and power – had shifted.

In 1838 the Emperor sent Commissionar Lin Zexu to Canton to put a stop to the opium trade once and for all.  He seized the foreigners’ stocks of opium and burnt this ‘foreign mud’ publically.  Outraged, the traders – with the backing of the British navy – imposed a blockade on Canton.  The First Opium War followed, and China was forced to concede the island of Hong Kong on a 150-year lease, as well as opening up 5 new ‘treaty ports’ to foreign traders.

So where did Australian traders fit in all this?  Colonial merchants sent ships every year from Sydney and Hobart for tea.  They never carried opium, because the sources of opium (India and Turkey) were not on their route.  Instead, the Australian tea ships sailed north, gathering exotic Pacific products en route – tortoiseshell, pearl shell, sandalwood, sharks fin – that found a ready market in Canton.

advertisement for sharks fin

Advertisement for Shark's fin, Sydney Gazette, 5 February 1804

So when the standoff between Lin and the British merchants began, the Australian traders were out on a limb.  They might be British by birth and sympathy, but they wanted to go on with their lucrative – and perfectly legal – trade with China.  When the boycott began, one of the Sydney traders, Robert Towns, sailed his ship right through the naval blockade against the orders of the British navy.

As far as I know, this is the first recorded occasion in which Australian foreign and economic interests have diverged from those of whatever ‘great and powerful friend’ happens to be in the ascendant.  In 1839, that ‘friend’ was Britain.  Today, it is still – just – the United States.

But today, as then, Australia’s balance of trade with China is both healthy and legitimate, while that of our American ally is not.  One day soon, I fear we may have to make a choice between a profitable trading relationship, and our position within a declining American empire.  One day, perhaps, Robert Towns might be viewed as an exemplar of independence from foreign control – just as Commissioner Lim is in China today.