South China Sea: China Breaks From a Century of Humiliation
“Unless one is intimately aware of this Chinese historical experience, one cannot comprehend what motivates China today in the South China Sea.”
On July 1st, 1997 Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), accepted the return of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom. After a century and a half under British control, Chinese leaders reasserted dominance over one of the largest ports and economic centers in eastern Asia, thereby “wiping out the century-old humiliation caused by its occupation.” This Century of Humiliation from 1842 to 1949 and the contemporary discourse around it are a driving narrative of contemporary Chinese history, foreign policy, and militarization of its surrounding regions like the South China Sea. The expansion of the Chinese navy in numbers, mission, and aggression is directly fueled by China’s previous weakness and exploitation at the hands of western nations.
The Century of Humiliation was marked by foreign powers dominating and dividing a technologically, economically, and militarily inferior Qing Dynasty which failed to unite a fractured domestic population or mount any significant resistance against foreign domination. The narrative argues that over the course of 107 years, the West—to include Japan—imposed unfair and unequal treaties upon Nanjing, the Qing capital of Imperial China. Only the CCP’s victory over Chinese nationalist forces in 1949 allowed Mao Zedong to declare, “The Chinese people have stood up!” China could then reemerge into its rightful place atop an international hierarchy as a reunified state, led by what Henry Kissinger described as an “assertively nationalist form of Communism.”
China’s modern history of humiliation at the hands of Western powers, reinforced and interpreted to fit the CCP’s needs, is a predominant driver of Beijing’s actions in the international arena today, primarily in the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing has demonstrated that its military decision-making is driven by the desire to avoid any chance of embarrassment at the hands of Japan, the United States, or other Western institutions. The growth of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) and China’s increased naval aggression indicate that China has learned from its history, and the oceans will be its battleground of choice in the future.,
The Century of Humiliation
The British extracted additional capitulations from Nanjing during the second Opium War. After declaring that the Qing emperor failed to meet his requirements in the previous treaty, the western powers coerced four distinct Treaties of Tianjin in 1858. In an attempt to quell Chinese antagonism, the British and French destroyed the Old Summer Palace, the traditional home of the Qing emperor. The act humiliated the Chinese by “teaching the Qing a lesson they would never forget.” When war broke out in 1894 between Japan and China over the fate of Korea, both nations rushed to establish their authority over the peninsula. The Japanese won decisive battles near Seoul and Pyongyang and pushed further, crossing Qing borders and capturing Lushun (Port Arthur), a major port on the Liaodong Peninsula. Submitting to Japanese treaty demands was more humiliating than Europe. The 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki transferred oversight of Korea to the Japanese, paid indemnities to Tokyo for war expenses, and forfeited Taiwan, the Pescadores, and Liaodong to Japan.
Protesting the weakness of the Chinese state, the Boxer Rebellion emerged five years later, wielding banners which declared “Revive the Qing and destroy the foreign.”  They attacked missionaries, Christian converts, diplomats, and other foreigners throughout China. While some western history analyzes the eight-nation intervention as an early form of coalition cooperation, the Chinese history records it quite differently., The Boxer Rebellion chapter in a prominent Chinese textbook is titled, “Deep Humiliation of the Boxer Uprising: Allied Forces from Eight Powers Invade China.” The victorious western armies (including Japan) imposed the 1901 Boxer Protocol upon Nanjing. Now, not only was the Chinese government unable to control which foreigners entered the country and what they did, but China was forced to destroy its military forts and allow foreign troops to remain stationed in – i.e., occupy – China.
The Boxer Protocol was the dying Qing dynasty’s last breath. The Chinese revolutionary and nationalist Sun Yat-Sen established the Republic of China in 1911 in an attempt to reverse China’s fortunes. Immediately thereafter, a newly empowered Japan gave China its Twenty-One Demands, secret requirements imposed on China such as recognizing Japan’s control over provinces like Manchuria, allowing Japan to build facilities in China, and appointing Japanese advisors into senior Chinese government positions. China attempted to work with the U.S. and oppose Tokyo, but Washington agreed to the Lansing-Ishii Agreement in 1917 which officially recognized Tokyo’s “special interests” in China. The Chinese government became even weaker as a republic then it was under imperial rule. Warlords divided the country, and a four-decade civil war ensued. The Japanese army took advantage of these conditions and invaded China in 1937 which they occupied until the end of WWII.
These six events encompass the full period between 1842 and 1949. China lost almost one-third of its land, its imperial dynasty was overthrown, and tens of millions of Chinese were killed.  To restore its international position, China had to reunite its lost territories to prevent Western powers from reaching Chinese soil in the future. Thus, Beijing’s principal aims include restoring its historical borders and influence in East Asia through the buildup of its navy.
A Modern Policy of Humiliation
To generate public support for these goals, the CCP fosters a carefully scripted history of this period. The Century of Humiliation is enshrined in the Chinese national mind through education, propaganda, and politics. According to popular Chinese history, a benevolent China ruled Asia with the Mandate of Heaven prior to the First Opium War. This history is an artificial past created by the CCP. As one China expert explains, “Most countries … probably didn’t see China that way. Instead, they sent missions to China and pretended to submit to China as a survival strategy.” While China’s introduction to European colonial systems disadvantaged Nanjing, China was certainly not a benign and caring regional hegemon.
Current Chinese leaders invoke the Century of Humiliation to ensure it remains in the forefront of China’s attitude towards foreign policy. The CCP presents a continuous argument that the country must be “strong and unified” against “foreign incursions, whether territorial, economic, political, social or cultural.” Speaking in 2017, Xi Jinping described the era: “China was plunged into the darkness of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression; its people were ravaged by wars, saw their homeland torn, and lived in poverty and despair.” This narrative of foreign abuse is used to frame how Beijing interacts with Japan, the United States, and other western nations.
The narrative is also invoked with regards to the CCP’s interactions with its domestic population and western concepts. To redirect negative responses from the CCP’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protestors, Chinese leaders rewrote textbooks “to emphasize China’s victimhood at the hands of the West and Japan.” Throughout the 1990s, the Chinese nurtured and expanded this victimization narrative which, “lays the blame for China’s suffering firmly at the feet of the West.” The state-owned textbook publishing agency ensures these events are taught throughout the country.  By doing so, Chinese leaders attempted to explain China’s problems, empowered the CCP, build support for its foreign policy, and create a domestic consensus for military expansion.
Two additional themes emerge from this history which shapes China’s maritime policy. First, the CCP does not trust western states and institutions. China remembers its past experiences with international law and treaty agreements as tools for European, American, and Japanese domination. The faction of Chinese leaders who most favor competition with the United States, who Michael Pillsbury refers to as the Chinese hawks, frequently invokes events from the Century of Humiliation to remind China why Washington cannot be trusted.  As modern Chinese thinkers wrestled with big questions about why their country was weak, debates eventually merged into a widespread belief that, “the problem [was] not with China but with the West.” Foremost in this belief is the hypocrisy Nanjing saw in the European-created international system. Since colonial Europe justified its actions through the use of international law while simultaneously promising China it would gain acceptance into a new, fair international system—acceptance which never came—Chinese leaders resolved themselves to believe any Western system would never accept their state. Such distrust undoubtedly plays a factor in China’s reluctance to cooperate, negotiate, or accept international arbitration on a myriad of issues today such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Also emerging from the CCP’s narrative into modern Chinese foreign relations is the view of Japan as a member of the Western imperialist nations.  Japan played a significant role in China’s humiliation and, without question, committed heinous war crimes. However, Qing China viewed Japan as its “younger brother,” and the shock of repeated suffering under Tokyo’s hands is often in the forefront of discussions about China’s past.  Original discussions about Chinese “national humiliation” emerged in 1915 in response to Japan’s demands, and the slogan “Never Forget National Humiliation” appeared on walls, stationery, and newspapers.  Despite efforts at rapprochement, the long-standing rivalry between Japan and China is unlikely to change in the near future, further fueling naval competition in the Pacific.
The Coming Years
Each humiliation China suffered – its loss of territory, ports, trade, and sovereignty – only occurred due to the ability of foreign militaries to control Chinese territory. The fear of these events repeating themselves, no matter how unlikely, motivates China’s drive for regional power and maritime expansion.  Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream is fueled by trade and commerce, which in turn requires both mercantile and naval power to command the sea.  China, having now reasserted itself as a land power in Asia, is expanding into the surrounding seas for the same reasons as other historical maritime powers: the protection of its sea lines to secure economic prosperity. Indeed, four of China’s main strategic problems today are maritime in nature: Taiwan’s independence, China’s economic center of gravity along its east coast, territorial disputes with Japan in the East China Sea, and unsettled claims in the South China Sea. Each of these challenges is also intricately linked to America’s naval supremacy in the Pacific.
China has based its approach to territorial security on two principles: reunify China and prevent foreign incursions. Both require a strong navy. China’s histories and maps of national humiliation, which depict the carved-up Qing Empire, refer to lost regions as “Our Hong Kong,” “Our Burma,” “Our Siam [Thailand],” and “Our Annam [Vietnam]." It has already secured its land powers and lost adjacent territories on the continent. China regained control of Tibet in 1950, Manchuria in 1969, and Hong Kong in 1997. It also fosters close relations with border states such as North Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and Pakistan.
Beijing now seeks to restore sovereignty and power along its maritime borders, and lessons from the Qing dynasty support these naval ambitions. As Robert Kaplan argues, this “urge for an expanded strategic space is a declaration that it never again intends to let foreigners take advantage of it, as they did in the previous two centuries.” Chinese military leaders acknowledge that neglect of naval forces in the past was a strategic mistake. Prominent Chinese naval theorists argue that a weak Qing navy fueled China’s humiliation. They advocate instead for the Mahanian theory of a large merchant fleet to expand a nation’s economy and a powerful navy to protect it.
Only Taiwan remains as an example of Western influence over Chinese lands, and as the DIA recently reported, Beijing retains the eventual desire to reunify it with the mainland. While economic and political lines of effort have brought the island nation closer to Beijing, the growth of the Chinese military, especially the PLAN, helps China avoid encirclement while increasing its influence over Taiwan. The PLAN’s technological and policy modernization efforts are largely oriented towards Taiwan and its independence. China learned from the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis that U.S. aircraft carriers and their accompanying fleets must be neutralized for any Chinese plan to succeed.  As an added benefit, the growth of the PLAN also supports China’s military expansion in the South China Sea. China’s entire anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) strategy is premised on preventing access or maneuver in the seas claimed by China.
China’s naval growth is advancing quickly enough to change Beijing’s focus from controlling the surrounding seas to the development of large ocean-going fleets for international missions., Specifically, the foreign technologies which China relied on for the development of its aircraft carrier program – required for “far-seas operations” – were viewed as modern examples of national humiliation. In contrast, China now parades its navy 124 years after the Sino-Japanese war as a display of domestic pride.
China appears intent on reforming Asia into the hierarchal model of its narrative historical past. CCP leaders claim that the party has expelled foreign antagonists, re-established internal unity, and restored national pride. Now, with a growing navy to expand its influence and protect its trade, China’s century of humiliation drives its pursuit to become a “true maritime power.”  This firm determination to right the wrongs committed during the Century of Humiliation, combined with America’s commitment to maintaining its position of power in the Pacific, means that the tools of future diplomacy, posturing, and interaction in the region will be naval.
Christian Heller is an active duty intelligence officer in the United States Marine Corps. He is an honors graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Oxford University, and a Rhodes Scholar.
The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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