But there are instances when the acceptance of one state’s demands and the rejection of another’s similar demands for legitimacy undermine any sense of rational self-interest, often at great cost and the risk of avoidable conflict.
US foreign policy toward the contrasting claims by China and Israel that their historic right to territory settled by others or within an internationally agreed framework that defines national ownership is a pertinent example of how such exceptionalism may be viewed simultaneously as both legitimate and unreasonable.
Washington’s challenge to Beijing’s argument that it has a sovereign right to much of the South China Sea stands in marked contrast to its ready acceptance of Israel’s broad claims of sovereignty over much of Palestine and de facto control over the areas not actually settled or occupied.
The basis of the two claims differ in detail but little in perspective. Neither the 19th century Zionists who began the process that led the foundation of Israel in 1948 nor the Chinese Communist Party that took power a year later have made any claims to territory without a strong historical narrative they see as supporting and justifying their claims.
Both claims are based on precedent; discovery in the case of Beijing’s South China Sea claims and settlement in the case of Israel’s claim to much of Palestine. What is striking, of course, is that countless similar claims to territory can be made by countless national, ethnic, religious or political groups. Most of those that are made are ignored, ridiculed as frivolous or delusional, or actively opposed through national or international sanction or force.
The Zionist movement based its claim for a Jewish state in what it defined as the territory once occupied by that faith’s tribal ancestors. The Zionist argument, unremarkable among numerous other political, religious, ethnic and linguistic groups, was made truly exceptional by other events.
The Holocaust provided the Zionist project with the dimension of historical exceptionalism at the precise moment when Britain’s mandate over Palestine could (under considerable pressure from the United States as the dominant global power) be effectively handed over to the new state.
Israel’s foundation was therefore based less on any reading of international law than the rapid response to the aftermath of a genocidal event by powerful patrons able to offer the survivors a conciliatory national base, not least to partly assuage their shared liability through inaction or prejudice for the plight of Europe’s Jewish population.
It is extremely unlikely, in other words, that Israel would have been created without the collision of the Holocaust, Britain’s ability as the imperial power to dispose of territory without recourse to any form of legal arbitration on behalf of the indigenous population and the overwhelming support of the US government.
Beijing’s South China Sea claims appear as fervent as those of the Zionist movement, but without any of the historical confluence of events and actors that ensured Israel moved beyond a millenarian dream into a national entity.
China’s claims are predicated on usage rather than settlement and based primarily on the “discovery” of artifacts of Chinese origin scattered among the vast maritime region’s hundreds of atolls, islets and reefs. Territorial claims made on such a basis alone have little validity in international law for a variety of often obvious reasons.
The mere presence, for example, of China-made porcelain or worked stone objects simply reflects the fact that minerals tend to outlast wood and other fibers; the materials used by the indigenous communities that have occupied the South China Sea for millennia. Further, such resilient objects may be traced to the point of manufacture but not their ownership at the point they arrived on the contested territory.
Further, as with Israel, China’s appears to view its claim over the disputed sea as inviolate and somehow prescribed by a different measure than the legal criteria broadly accepted by most other nations.
As with Israel, such a view (reinforced in China’s case with the need to match its economic strength against a lethal mixture of self-perceived military prowess and the ever-present sirens of nationalism) means belief can trump legal technicalities.
Unlike Israel, China’s claim is not supported by a specific historical context, an accommodating imperial power and allies or patrons able to smooth the way from aspiration to realization.
Indeed, the opposite is the case. China’s rise over the past two decades has removed most vestiges of Western guilt for that country’s past humiliation and exploitation and the United States, thwarted elsewhere, now seeks to reassert its authority and influence in Asia through increased diplomatic, political and above all military engagement.
Regardless of intent in either Washington or Beijing, the South China Sea is one of the few arenas where China and the United States can test their respective nerve under what amounts to laboratory conditions. It is hard to imagine the outcome in what must be viewed by both protagonists as a zero-sum game will add to the stability of the region, any more than the earlier creation of Israel achieved stability in the Middle East and beyond.
Gavin Greenwood is a security adviser with the Hong Kong-based security risk management consultancy Allan & Associates.