Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Book: War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America's Most Decorated Soldier

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
Smedley D. Butler


Many of the South's largest cities, and much of its human and material resources, were destroyed during the Civil War by the Union armies.


- Describe the devastation wreaked on the South by the Civil War


- Much of the livestock and farming supplies of the South were also destroyed.
- The South transformed from a prosperous minority of landholders to a tenant agriculture system.
- Many of the recently freed slaves could only find jobs in unskilled and service industries.
- One in four white Southern men of military age was killed during the war.
- After emancipation, the entire economy of the South had to be rebuilt on a different basis.

Reconstruction played out against a backdrop of a once prosperous economy in ruins. The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with a combined population of 835,000; of these, 162 locations with 681,000 total residents were at one point occupied by Union forces. Eleven were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and Richmond, Virginia. These eleven contained 115,900 people in the 1860 census, or 14% of the urban South. The number of people who lived in the destroyed towns represented just over 1% of the Confederacy's combined urban and rural populations. In addition, 45 courthouses were burned (out of 830), destroying the documentation for the legal relationships in the affected communities.

Farms were in disrepair, and the prewar stock of horses, mules and cattle was much depleted, with two-fifths of the South's livestock killed. The South's farms were not highly mechanized, but the value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million and was reduced by 40% by 1870. The transportation infrastructure lay in ruins, with little railroad or riverboat service available to move crops and animals to market. Railroad mileage was located mostly in rural areas and over two-thirds of the South's rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were in areas reached by Union armies, which systematically destroyed what they could. Even in untouched areas, the lack of maintenance and repair, the absence of new equipment, the heavy over-use, and the deliberate relocation of equipment by the Confederates from remote areas to the war zone ensured the system would be ruined at war's end. Restoring the infrastructure—especially the railroad system—became a high priority for Reconstruction state governments.

The enormous cost of the Confederate war effort took a high toll on the South's economic infrastructure. The direct costs to the Confederacy in human capital, government expenditures, and physical destruction from the war totaled $3.3 billion. By 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to massive inflation, and people in the South had to resort to bartering services for goods, or else use scarce Union dollars. With the emancipation of the southern slaves, the entire economy of the South had to be rebuilt. Having lost their enormous investment in slaves, white planters had minimal capital to pay freedmen workers to bring in crops. As a result, a system of sharecropping was developed where landowners broke up large plantations and rented small lots to the freedmen and their families. The South was transformed from a prosperous minority of landed gentry slaveholders into a tenant farming agriculture system.

The end of the Civil War was accompanied by a large migration of new freedpeople to the cities. In the cities, African Americans were relegated to the lowest paying jobs such as unskilled and service labor. Men worked as rail workers, rolling and lumber mills workers, and hotels workers. The large population of slave artisans during antebellum had not translated into a large number of freemen artisans during the Reconstruction. Black women were largely confined to domestic work employed as cooks, maids, and child nurses. Others worked in hotels. A large number became laundresses.

Over a fourth of Southern white men of military age—meaning the backbone of the South's white workforce—died during the war, leaving countless families destitute. Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the South was locked into a system of poverty. How much of this failure was caused by the war and by previous reliance on agriculture remains the subject of debate among economists and historians.

Broad Street, Charleston, South Carolina

This photograph of Broad Street, in Charleston, South Carolina, taken in 1865, shows the devastation of the South following the Civil War.

Source: Boundless. “Devastation in the South.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 19 Jun. 2015. Retrieved 23 Jun. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/textbooks/boundless-u-s-history-textbook/reconstruction-1865-1877-19/the-aftermath-of-the-war-138/devastation-in-the-south-733-6732/

Monday, June 22, 2015


That the South in these postwar years desperately needed the best thought the country could give was only too apparent. The South had been broken by the war. Lands were devastated.  Proud plantations were now mere wrecks.  Billions of economic value in slaves had been wiped away by emancipation measures without that compensation which Lincoln himself had admitted to be equitable.  Difficult social problems presented themselves in the sudden elevation of a servile race to the status of free laborers and enfranchised citizens. Accumulated capital had disappeared.  Banks were shattered; factories were dismantled; the structure of business intercourse had crumbled.  In Atlanta, Columbia, Mobile, Richmond, and many other places great havoc had been wrought by fire.
        The interior of South Carolina, in the wake of Sherman's march, "looked for many miles like a broad black streak of ruin and desolation--the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown by weeds, with here and there a sickly looking patch of cotton or corn cultivated by negro squatters. In the city of Columbia . . .a thin fringe of houses encircled a confused mass of charred ruins of dwellings and business buildings, which had been destroyed by a sweeping conflagration."  The Tennessee valley, according to the account of an English traveler, "consists for the most part of plantations in a state of semi-ruin, and plantations of which the ruin is for the present total and complete. . . . The trail of war is visible throughout the valley in burnt up gin-houses, ruined bridges, mills, and factories, of which latter the gable walls only are left standing, and in large tracts of once cultivated land stripped of every vestige of fencing. . . . Borne down by losses, debts, and accumulating taxes, many who were once the richest among their fellows have disappeared from the scene, and few have yet risen to take their places."
        Many of the people had no homes. "From Winchester to Harrisonburg scarce a crop, fence, chicken, horse, cow, or pig was in sight. . . . Extreme destitution prevailed throughout the entire valley. All able-bodied negroes had left; only those unfit to work remained. The country between Washington and Richmond was . . . like a desert." Southerners were without adequate currency. They had put their wealth into Confederate bonds or had given their produce for such bonds; now these securities, together with Confederate money, were utterly worthless. Prominent men, including Confederate generals, were "asking what they could do to earn their bread." The city of Richmond may be taken as an example.  A Federal relief commission was formed; the city was divided into thirty districts; and house-to-house visiting was instituted.  By April 21, 1865, rations to the number of 128,000 had been issued; and it was estimated that 15,000 persons had been given relief.  A report of the time stated that 35,000 persons in the region near Atlanta were dependent for subsistence upon the Federal government, and that in Atlanta itself there were 15,000 recipients.  Many Confederate soldiers, just discharged from Northern prisons, were given rations. A Southern soldier remarked that "it must be a matter of gratitude as well as surprise, for our people to see a Government which was lately fighting us with fire, and sword, and shell, now generously feeding our poor and distressed. . . . There is much in this that takes away the bitter sting . . . of the past."
        The war, as already noted, killed a quarter of a million soldiers of the South. The number of civilians that perished as a by-product of the struggle cannot be estimated.  What had taken place was the collapse of a civilization.  In one community in South Carolina, wrote a contemporary observer, "lived a gentleman whose income, when the war broke out, was rated at $150,000 a year. . . . Not a vestige of his whole vast property of millions remains today. Not far distant were the estates of a large proprietor and a well-known family, rich and distinguished for generations. The slaves are gone. The family is gone. A single scion of the house remains, and he peddles tea by the pound and molasses by the quart, on a corner of the old homestead, to the former slaves of the family, and thereby earns his livelihood."
        A Louisiana citizen told a United States senator of a postwar visit to sugar plantations on the Bayou Teche -- the "garden spot of Louisiana." In prewar days, he said, with the "Devil of Slavery" in the land, this region presented a picture of fully cultivated fields, neatly whitewashed cabins for the hands, and sugar houses of the best construction, making the whole scene a "paradise to the eye." Now, with the devil of slavery gone, sugar houses had been destroyed, fences burned, weeds and brush were taking possession, and not a plantation was in decent order. Planters were without money or credit, could not borrow, and had no means of hiring or maintaining hands. A Louisiana planter who in 1861 had a sugar crop worth $125,000 was brushing his own shoes and dispensing with house service in postwar days. From High Shoals, North Carolina, came an eye-witness account of conditions in that state: "almost thorough starvation from the failure of the last years crop"; "ten beggars here to one in Washington"; "whole families ... coming in from South Carolina to seek food and obtain employment"; "agriculturists . . . entirely stripped by the Confederacy and . . . forced into the ranks to return to their poor wives and children destitute and unable to get any work." Summing up the situation, this writer said: "A more completely crushed country I have seldom witnessed." "The great majority," he added, "are as loyal to the Union as I could wish to see them."
        Areas lately within the Confederacy were treated as conquered provinces and Federal troops were kept in occupation of the principal towns. The presence of these Federal soldiers, many of them Negroes, at a time when Southern armies had been disbanded and the wearing of the Southern uniform prohibited, was referred to by the Alabama legislature as "a constant source of irritation to the people . . . [which had] doubtless provoked at various times unpleasant collisions." It was not merely that violence and even death resulted from clashes between the soldiers and ex-Confederates; the white people felt shocked and insulted by Negro troops in their midst, being "jostled from the sidewalks by dusky guards" among whom they recognized, in some cases, their former servants.
        Transportation, meager and primitive enough before the war, was now in a pitiful state after the destruction incidental to military operations. Roads had fallen into disrepair; horses and mules, and the food to support them, became "scarce and dear"; "wagons and ambulances were about the only vehicles which remained fit." On Mississippi's main north-and-south line "the stations were burned, the rolling stock had disappeared, and most of the roadbed and the bridges had been destroyed." The thoroughness of railroad destruction in Georgia has already been noted. The Charleston and Savannah road was "a mere wreck; every bridge and trestle was destroyed, including the magnificent and costly bridges over the Ashley, Edisto, and Savannah rivers; the depot in Charleston was burned, as well as the depots and buildings at eleven of the way stations, and nearly the whole track torn up." The close of the war found the Greenville and Columbia Railroad a sad victim not only of Federal invasion but of requisition by the government at Richmond, as compensation for which the road "had the bonds and notes of a fallen government." These instances were but typical of conditions throughout the South. Railroad facilities were in need of thorough rebuilding; but "unstable political conditions, fraud, mismanagement, trade conditions, and lack of financial resources" made the work of rehabilitation slow and difficult.
        If space permitted, it would be of interest to note the reaction of particular individuals in the South to the changed situation after Appomattox. To some the outcome was not a shock at all, but a relief. "I was not disappointed at the result of the war [wrote H. V. Johnson of Georgia]--I feared defeat and disaster from the beginning--I believed slavery would fall with the Confederacy. . . " In an address to his fellow citizens in September, 1865, Alexander H. H. Stuart of Virginia stated his position. He had been "inflexibly opposed" to the secession of Virginia and refused to change his vote cast in convention against the ordinance. After hostilities opened he voted to ratify the ordinance, he said, "not because I approved it, but because I believed that [otherwise] . . . we should have an internecine war added to the civil war which had already been inaugurated." During the war he usually abstained from public affairs; and "all assistance I gave to the Confederate cause [he declared] was by feeding the hungry" and otherwise assisting in soldier relief. His sympathies were, however, naturally with his own people and he was proud of their wartime gallantry and honor. After the surrender of Lee he prepared and signed a call for a mass meeting in Augusta County in order to facilitate restoration; later in the same year he was chosen by his district for membership in the Federal Congress in a campaign in which he urged his opposition to secession as a reason for his choice in the hope that it would appeal to conservative men in the North.
        There were many Johnsons and Stuarts; but on the other hand there were conspicuous cases of Southerners to whom defeat seemed unbearable. General Early first betook himself to Mexico; then he went to Canada; after that he sought unsuccessfully to promote the emigration of ex-Confederates to New Zealand. The scientist Matthew Fontaine Maury sought after the war to bring about a similar colonization of former Confederates in Mexico; J. P. Benjamin, escaping through Florida and the Bahamas, made his way to England, where he became Queens counsel and practiced law with distinction. Breckinridge departed to Europe via the Florida Keys and Cuba. Edmund Ruffin, bequeathing unmitigated hatred of Yankees to Southerners yet unborn, ended his life by a pistol shot. 
Source:  "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by J.G. Randall and David Herbert Donald



Richmond, Virginia in ruins.
Richmond, Virginia in ruins.

The North had to thoroughly defeat the South to claim victory in the Civil War. As the conflict wore on, the Southern army suffered depravations, but refused to surrender. President Lincoln knew he had to leave no doubt that the South had been defeated. The Union armies marched through the region destroying everything useful for the war effort. In the aftermath, the region lay in ruins. It took a century for the South to recover from the destruction wrought by the Union armies.
The Union armies destroyed four major southern cities. Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond lay smoldering at war’s end. Seven other major urban centers burned. Overall, over 50% of urban areas were destroyed. This destruction hampered southern industrial strength, but only represented about 1% of the total population.
Most southerners lived in the country, but were not spared the Union’s wrath. The war decimated the rural south. Most of the able-bodied men fought in the war. Around 200,000 died and thousands others wounded and maimed. On top of this, emancipation further reduced the workforce. Moreover, thousands of farm animals died or were confiscated further restricting the food supply and labor.
Union armies confiscated whatever they needed, including animals, as they marched through the South. They destroyed what was not needed and torched farmland. Even if a farm survived unscathed, the destruction of the southern transportation infrastructure made travel to market impossible. In the end, the destruction totaled over $3 billion as the Confederate dollar became worthless.
In 1865, few southerners held American money. A system of barter and sharecropping developed. Income declined by over 30%. Meanwhile, many African Americans migrated to the cities to look for work. They mostly took low paying menial labor jobs, which further depressed wages. Others returned to their old masters to work as sharecroppers. By the early 20th century, the South was locked into a cycle of poverty. Despite attempts at Reconstruction, the region did not fully recover until the latter half of the century.
The Civil War decimated the South. The region lost its manpower, animal power, infrastructure, and labor force. As a result, income and wealth plummeted drastically. The North moved to reconstruct the region, but failed. In the end, it took a century for the Old South to recover from the war and emerge as the “New South.”


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Mohan Malik - Historical Fiction: China’s South China Sea Claims

he Spratly Islands—not so long ago known primarily as a rich fishing ground—have turned into an international flashpoint as Chinese leaders insist with increasing truculence that the islands, rocks, and reefs have been, in the words of Premier Wen Jiabao, “China’s historical territory since ancient times.” Normally, the overlapping territorial claims to sovereignty and maritime boundaries ought to be resolved through a combination of customary international law, adjudication before the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or arbitration under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While China has ratified UNCLOS, the treaty by and large rejects “historically based” claims, which are precisely the type Beijing periodically asserts. On September 4, 2012, China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, told US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that there is “plenty of historical and jurisprudence evidence to show that China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.”
As far as the “jurisprudence evidence” is concerned, the vast majority of international legal experts have concluded that China’s claim to historic title over the South China Sea, implying full sovereign authority and consent for other states to transit, is invalid. The historical evidence, if anything, is even less persuasive. There are several contradictions in China’s use of history to justify its claims to islands and reefs in the South China Sea, not least of which is its polemical assertion of parallels with imperialist expansion by the United States and European powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Justifying China’s attempts to expand its maritime frontiers by claiming islands and reefs far from its shores, Jia Qingguo, professor at Beijing University’s School of International Studies, argues that China is merely following the example set by the West. “The United States has Guam in Asia which is very far away from the US and the French have islands in the South Pacific, so it is nothing new,” Jia told AFP recently.
China’s claim to the Spratlys on the basis of history runs aground on the fact that the region’s past empires did not exercise sovereignty. In pre-modern Asia, empires were characterized by undefined, unprotected, and often changing frontiers. The notion of suzerainty prevailed. Unlike a nation-state, the frontiers of Chinese empires were neither carefully drawn nor policed but were more like circles or zones, tapering off from the center of civilization to the undefined periphery of alien barbarians. More importantly, in its territorial disputes with neighboring India, Burma, and Vietnam, Beijing always took the position that its land boundaries were never defined, demarcated, and delimited. But now, when it comes to islands, shoals, and reefs in the South China Sea, Beijing claims otherwise. In other words, China’s claim that its land boundaries were historically never defined and delimited stands in sharp contrast with the stance that China’s maritime boundaries were always clearly defined and delimited. Herein lies a basic contradiction in the Chinese stand on land and maritime boundaries which is untenable. Actually, it is the mid-twentieth-century attempts to convert the undefined frontiers of ancient civilizations and kingdoms enjoying suzerainty into clearly defined, delimited, and demarcated boundaries of modern nation-states exercising sovereignty that lie at the center of China’s territorial and maritime disputes with neighboring countries. Put simply, sovereignty is a post-imperial notion ascribed to nation-states, not ancient empires. 
China’s present borders largely reflect the frontiers established during the spectacular episode of eighteenth-century Qing (Manchu) expansionism, which over time hardened into fixed national boundaries following the imposition of the Westphalian nation-state system over Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Official Chinese history today often distorts this complex history, however, claiming that Mongols, Tibetans, Manchus, and Hans were all Chinese, when in fact the Great Wall was built by the Chinese dynasties to keep out the northern Mongol and Manchu tribes that repeatedly overran Han China; the wall actually represented the Han Chinese empire’s outer security perimeter. While most historians see the onslaught of the Mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan in the early 1200s as an apocalyptic event that threatened the very survival of ancient civilizations in India, Persia, and other nations (China chief among them), the Chinese have consciously promoted the myth that he was actually “Chinese,” and therefore all areas that the Mongols (the Yuan dynasty) had once occupied or conquered (such as Tibet and much of Central and Inner Asia) belong to China. China’s claims on Taiwan and in the South China Sea are also based on the grounds that both were parts of the Manchu empire. (Actually, in the Manchu or Qing dynasty maps, it is Hainan Island, not the Paracel and Spratly Islands, that is depicted as China’s southern-most border.) In this version of history, any territory conquered by “Chinese” in the past remains immutably so, no matter when the conquest may have occurred.
Such writing and rewriting of history from a nationalistic perspective to promote national unity and regime legitimacy has been accorded the highest priority by China’s rulers, both Nationalists and Communists. The Chinese Communist Party leadership consciously conducts itself as the heir to China’s imperial legacy, often employing the symbolism and rhetoric of empire. From primary-school textbooks to television historical dramas, the state-controlled information system has force-fed generations of Chinese a diet of imperial China’s grandeur. As the Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé points out, “For decades Chinese education and propaganda have emphasized the role of history in the fate of the Chinese nation-state . . . While Marxism-Leninism and Mao Thought have been abandoned in all but name, the role of history in China’s future remains steadfast.” So much so that history has been refined as an instrument of statecraft (also known as “cartographic aggression”) by state-controlled research institutions, media, and education bodies.
China uses folklore, myths, and legends, as well as history, to bolster greater territorial and maritime claims. Chinese textbooks preach the notion of the Middle Kingdom as being the oldest and most advanced civilization that was at the very center of the universe, surrounded by lesser, partially Sinicized states in East and Southeast Asia that must constantly bow and pay their respects. China’s version of history often deliberately blurs the distinction between what was no more than hegemonic influence, tributary relationships, suzerainty, and actual control. Subscribing to the notion that those who have mastered the past control their present and chart their own futures, Beijing has always placed a very high value on “the history card” (often a revisionist interpretation of history) in its diplomatic efforts to achieve foreign policy objectives, especially to extract territorial and diplomatic concessions from other countries. Almost every contiguous state has, at one time or another, felt the force of Chinese arms—Mongolia, Tibet, Burma, Korea, Russia, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan—and been a subject of China’s revisionist history. As Martin Jacques notes in When China Rules the World, “Imperial Sinocentrism shapes and underpins modern Chinese nationalism.”

If the idea of national sovereignty goes back to seventeenth-century Europe and the system that originated with the Treaty of Westphalia, the idea of maritime sovereignty is largely a mid-twentieth-century American concoction China has seized upon to extend its maritime frontiers. As Jacques notes, “The idea of maritime sovereignty is a relatively recent invention, dating from 1945 when the United States declared that it intended to exercise sovereignty over its territorial waters.” In fact, the UN’s Law of the Sea agreement represented the most prominent international effort to apply the land-based notion of sovereignty to the maritime domain worldwide—although, importantly, it rejects the idea of justification by historical right. Thus although Beijing claims around eighty percent of the South China Sea as its “historic waters” (and is now seeking to elevate this claim to a “core interest” akin with its claims on Taiwan and Tibet), China has, historically speaking, about as much right to claim the South China Sea as Mexico has to claim the Gulf of Mexico for its exclusive use, or Iran the Persian Gulf, or India the Indian Ocean.
Ancient empires either won control over territories through aggression, annexation, or assimilation or lost them to rivals who possessed superior firepower or statecraft. Territorial expansion and contraction was the norm, determined by the strength or weakness of a kingdom or empire. The very idea of “sacred lands” is ahistorical because control of territory was based on who grabbed or stole what last from whom. The frontiers of the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties waxed and waned throughout history. A strong and powerful imperial China, much like czarist Russia, was expansionist in Inner Asia and Indochina as opportunity arose and strength allowed. The gradual expansion over the centuries under the non-Chinese Mongol and Manchu dynasties extended imperial China’s control over Tibet and parts of Central Asia (now Xinjiang), Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Modern China is, in fact, an “empire-state” masquerading as a nation-state.
If China’s claims are justified on the basis of history, then so are the historical claims of Vietnamese and Filipinos based on their histories. Students of Asian history know, for instance, that Malay peoples related to today’s Filipinos have a better claim to Taiwan than Beijing does. Taiwan was originally settled by people of Malay-Polynesian descent—ancestors of the present-day aborigine groups—who populated the low-lying coastal plains. In the words of noted Asia-watcher Philip Bowring, writing last year in theSouth China Morning Post, “The fact that China has a long record of written history does not invalidate other nations’ histories as illustrated by artifacts, language, lineage and genetic affinities, the evidence of trade and travel.” Unless one subscribes to the notion of Chinese exceptionalism, imperial China’s “historical claims” are as valid as those of other kingdoms and empires in Southeast and South Asia. China laying claim to the Mongol and Manchu empires’ colonial possessions would be equivalent to India laying claim to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Malaysia (Srivijaya), Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka on the grounds that they were all parts of either the Maurya, Chola, or the Moghul and the British Indian empires.
China’s claims in the South China Sea are also a major shift from its longstanding geopolitical orientation to continental power. In claiming a strong maritime tradition, China makes much of the early-fifteenth-century expeditions of Zheng He to the Indian Ocean and Africa. But, as Bowring points out, “Chinese were actually latecomers to navigation beyond coastal waters. For centuries, the masters of the oceans were the Malayo-Polynesian peoples who colonized much of the world, from Taiwan to New Zealand and Hawaii to the south and east, and to Madagascar in the west. Bronze vessels were being traded with Palawan, just south of Scarborough, at the time of Confucius. When Chinese Buddhist pilgrims like Faxian went to Sri Lanka and India in the fifth century, they went in ships owned and operated by Malay peoples. Ships from what is now the Philippines traded with Funan, a state in what is now southern Vietnam, a thousand years before the Yuan dynasty.”
And finally, China’s so-called “historic claims” to the South China Sea are actually not “centuries old.” They only go back to 1947, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government drew the so-called “eleven-dash line” on Chinese maps of the South China Sea, enclosing the Spratly Islands and other chains that the ruling Kuomintang party declared were now under Chinese sovereignty. Chiang himself, saying he saw German fascism as a model for China, was fascinated by the Nazi concept of an expandedLebensraum (“living space”) for the Chinese nation. He did not have the opportunity to be expansionist himself because the Japanese put him on the defensive, but cartographers of the nationalist regime drew the U-shape of eleven dashes in an attempt to enlarge China’s “living space” in the South China Sea. Following the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in the civil war in 1949, the People’s Republic of China adopted this cartographic coup, revising Chiang’s notion into a “nine-dash line” after erasing two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1953.

Since the end of the Second World War, China has been redrawing its maps, redefining borders, manufacturing historical evidence, using force to create new territorial realities, renaming islands, and seeking to impose its version of history on the waters of the region. The passage of domestic legislation in 1992, “Law on the Territorial Waters and Their Contiguous Areas,” which claimed four-fifths of the South China Sea, was followed by armed skirmishes with the Philippines and Vietnamese navies throughout the 1990s. More recently, the dispatch of large numbers of Chinese fishing boats and maritime surveillance vessels to the disputed waters in what is tantamount to a “people’s war on the high seas” has further heightened tensions. To quote commentator Sujit Dutta, “China’s unmitigated irredentism [is] based on the . . . theory that the periphery must be occupied in order to secure the core. [This] is an essentially imperial notion that was internalized by the Chinese nationalists—both Kuomintang and Communist. The [current] regime’s attempts to reach its imagined geographical frontiers often with little historical basis have had and continue to have highly destabilizing strategic consequences.”
One reason Southeast Asians find it difficult to accept Chinese territorial claims is that they carry with them an assertion of Han racial superiority over other Asian races and empires. Says Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines law school: “Intuitively, acceptance of the nine-dash line is a corresponding denial of the very identity and history of the ancestors of the Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Malays; it is practically a modern revival of China’s denigration of non-Chinese as ‘barbarians’ not entitled to equal respect and dignity as peoples.”
Empires and kingdoms never exercised sovereignty. If historical claims had any validity then Mongolia could claim all of Asia simply because it once conquered the lands of the continent. There is absolutely no historical basis to support either of the dash-line claims, especially considering that the territories of Chinese empires were never as carefully delimited as nation-states, but rather existed as zones of influence tapering away from a civilized center. This is the position contemporary China took starting in the 1960s, while negotiating its land boundaries with several of its neighboring countries. But this is not the position it takes today in the cartographic, diplomatic, and low-intensity military skirmishes to define its maritime borders. The continued reinterpretation of history to advance contemporary political, territorial, and maritime claims, coupled with the Communist leadership’s ability to turn “nationalistic eruptions” on and off like a tap during moments of tension with the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines, makes it difficult for Beijing to reassure neighbors that its “peaceful rise” is wholly peaceful. Since there are six claimants to various atolls, islands, rocks, and oil deposits in the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands disputes are, by definition, multilateral disputes requiring international arbitration. But Beijing has insisted that these disputes are bilateral in order to place its opponents between the anvil of its revisionist history and the hammer of its growing military power.
Mohan Malik is a professor in Asian security at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu. The views expressed are his own. His most recent book is China and India: Great Power Rivals. He wishes to thank Drs. Justin Nankivell, Carlyle Thayer, Denny Roy, and David Fouse for their comments on this article.