The US Wants It Both Ways

There is rarely any pretense that a country’s foreign policy is made on the basis of anything other than a combination of domestic and economic priorities and the pressure of often unrepresentative but influential lobbies and interest groups. As a consequence inconsistency is the norm in diplomacy and inter-state relations and is therefore generally ignored.

However, 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 potential risk of avoidable conflict.

US foreign policy towards the contrasting claims by China and Israel that their historic right to land or 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 respectively both legitimate and unreasonable.

Washington’s challenge to Beijing's historically-based 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 which took power a year later have made any other 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 in such a basis alone have little validity in international law for a variety of often obvious and logical reasons.

The mere presence, for example, of Chinese made porcelain or worked stone objects simply reflect the fact that minerals tend to outlast wood and other fibers - the materials used by the indigenous communities that have occupied to South China Sea littoral 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 - shipwreck or piracy, for example, are a random basis for a claim to sovereignty.

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 that belief can trump legal technicalities.

Unlike Israel, however, China’s claim is unsupported 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 US, thwarted elsewhere, now seeks to reassert its authority and influence in Asia through increased diplomatic, political and above all military engagement.

From China’s perspective, the willingness of the US to accept Israel’s claimed precedent of prior historic ‘ownership’ as the basis for occupation and Washington’s rejection of Beijing’s demand that its sovereignty over much of the South China Sea be universally recognized may readily construed as deliberately provocative.

Regardless of intent in either Washington or Beijing, the South China Sea is one of the few arenas where China and the US 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 in the Middle East and beyond.