The US Navy claims this image shows Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in 2015. Photo: US Navy via Reuters

Most international scholars dismiss as baseless China’s Nine-Dash Line which demarcates almost the entire South China Sea as being Chinese territory. The international arbital tribunal in The Hague agreed that there were no legitimate grounds for China to claim “historic rights” to the territory.

But Bill Hayton writes for Nikkei Asian Review that Western countries have to take China’s claim seriously, not for the purpose of conceding its validity, but for the purpose of challenging it.

While China’s strategic interests such as defending lines of communication and defending against seaborne attacks are clearly important to Beijing, Western observers place too much emphasis on these factors. China’s actions in the region are based on a very real sense of entitlement to the territory. This feeling is informed by an obsession with ending the country’s “national humiliation” suffered at the hands of Western colonial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This sense of entitlement to the territory means that Beijing will only grow more assertive, especially in the face of military confrontation. If other nations want to balance China’s interests in the region they must first understand China’s objectives.

Hayton argues that, while China’s strategic objectives for the defense of its coast, sea lanes and nuclear deterrent, will endure, the flawed historical narratives on which its claims are based can and should be challenged.

There may be some validity to this argument, but if China continues to erode regional challenges to its claims, as it seems to be doing in the Philippines, then the US, Japan and other Western powers will have little grounds for pushing back, regardless of how historically accurate their argument is.

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