Dislocation in ungoverned urban spaces


Rapid urbanisation, especially in lower and middle-income countries, is creating areas where public service provision and economic opportunity are low, and susceptibility to external security threats is high. Transnational organised crime, flows of illicit goods and violent ideologies, all benefit from the relative weakness of public institutions, as well as social and economic marginalisation.

While working at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), I helped organise a meeting in Panama of Central American law enforcement professionals and municipal authorities. Some of the key issues raised in this meeting and two similar ones that were held in South Africa and Thailand, were the strong relationship between crime and social and economic dislocation, as well as how difficult it has been for city governments to plan and manage the inclusion of communities while cities expand at a rapid pace. This issue has received increasing international attention, not least during the  the third International Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (‘HABITAT III’), held in Quito in October 2016. The conference made declarations on, among other things, the economic and social exclusion that is both a cause and consequence of urban poverty. Despite declarations and a new urban goal in the Sustainable Development Goals, there is still a wide gap between commitments made at the international level, and the attention paid by municipalities to disadvantaged communities and populations. As Central American city and police officials made clear in Panama, the key to the long-term health of cities lies in finding ways to support broad-based development that counteracts the risk of community fragmentation and dislocation.

Improved human development through better urban life

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. This urban population currently produces 80% of global GDP and is likely to grow by an extra two billion individuals by the middle of this century. The majority of this population growth will occur in lower and middle-income countries, with Africa and especially Nigeria seeing some of the most rapid urbanisation .

Cities favour economic development through the existence of so-called ‘agglomerative economies’ – clustering of related economic activities in a single area. Economic specialisation, reductions in transaction costs, increased knowledge transfer, and economies of scale are all facilitated by urban growth. However, growth puts increasing demands on city resources, infrastructure, as well as governance and service provision.

Even where growth is not a significant factor, poor or inadequate housing, infrastructure, public services, and international connectivity can all serve to restrain a city’s potential to provide economic and social opportunities for its inhabitants. Furthermore, when population growth is rapid and unplanned, potential investors and trading partners may see these restraints as evidence of civic dysfunction, potentially perpetuating cycles of low investment and limited economic opportunity.

The OECD’s report ‘Fragile States 2016’ connects low levels of economic opportunity with fragility at the country level, highlighting areas where there is insufficient capacity in local communities and authorities to mitigate or else manage risk exposure.  Many of these risks connect local social and economic opportunity, as well as and effective governance, to broader regional or global trends such as the expansion of international criminal networks or the increasing effects of climate change. This interconnected view of vulnerabilities echoes recent discussions in development circles on ‘policy coherence’ - the rather obvious idea that programmes in different departments or levels of government should be mutually reinforcing, or at the very least not in open conflict with each other. As cities look to reduce their overall vulnerability to risk, they will increasingly need to look at how to work with a range of actors across policy domains, both nationally and internationally.

Cities in lower and middle income countries tend to suffer from higher levels of vulnerability to risk, but also higher resource constraints. Though population concentration should make service provision both more economical and logistically feasible, even modest levels of investment may be difficult for civic leaders to manage. In rapidly-urbanising sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, a lack of opportunities for new urban residents may already be creating new threats to citizens’ security and fragile urban zones of weak government authority.

In fragile city zones with reduced avenues of economic opportunity and weak or ineffective civic and security institutions, what has been referred to as ‘criminal governance’ may take the place of the state. Criminal governance actors are criminal groups that successfully impose their own sets of rules and norms on local communities. These actors regulate local markets through the control of licit or illicit trade, or through the provision of services to the local population where criminal actors demand ‘protection’ payments from local communities. One of most well-known examples of this is the Sicilian Cosa Nostra however, the ‘privatization’ of local security governance in the hands of criminal actors is a common phenomenon in areas where state governance is weak.

In certain cases, illicit groups may enjoy some level of support from local communities or segments of the population - either for their ability to provide protection services - or through their self-promotion as ‘defenders’ of otherwise marginalised groups. Such connections have been observed, for example, with the Primeiro Comando da Capital group in Sao Paulo, that appears to exert control over levels of criminal violence in the city.

Illicit flows and illicit economies

Already fragile zones in cities can provide spaces where international flows of illicit goods can be managed by criminal actors without state interference - further exacerbating local vulnerabilities. As economies grow around illicit activity, segments of the local population may begin to see illicit flows as a source of economic opportunity. In some cases, they may even become the primary means to improve standards of living.

City fragility and threats from illicit flows and economies bring together issues that are traditionally handled at different levels of government. In mitigating these threats, both municipal authorities and national policy-makers would gain from increasing coordination and cooperation. At the national level, this means greater attention given to understanding migration flows that are driving urbanisation, and provision of support to municipal authorities that are dealing with rapid change, including small and medium sized cities.

Support would include cooperation between central policing and security agencies and local municipal authorities. Failure can further undermine fragile communities by allowing international criminal elements to exploit highly localised areas of weak state authority. Moreover, an inability to address social and economic exclusion in cities risks creating areas where criminal elements can assert their dominance. Improved transport links to areas of economic activity, expansion of basic service provision to impoverished and informally settled areas, and efforts to build local democratic accountability have all shown some success in reducing community exclusion. While not all of these interventions will be relevant in every local context, they highlight a key finding of debates in reducing security risk and improving livelihoods in urban areas - that effective responses may involve rethinking existing governance structures at local, national and international levels, and taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding urban exclusion and dislocation.

How the Muslim Brotherhood redefined Middle Eastern politics


At the start of 2018, the governments of the Middle East and North Africa face as much uncertainty as ever, even where they are not fighting civil wars. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to win elections in March but, marked by the suppression of opposition candidates, these elections are unlikely to bolster his international image or domestic standing. Qatar stands isolated from her Gulf neighbours, while Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing radical liberalisation coupled with political repression. In each country, an organisation known as the Muslim Brotherhood has had a greatly underappreciated impact in bringing about the current state of affairs.

To understand how the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved such international relevance it is important to understand the nature of the Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928, in Egypt, by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. Inspired by the works of older Islamic thinkers, al-Banna developed an ideology combining a belief in Islam as the foundation of just government with the principles of social justice, as well as whole-hearted rejection of the Western imperialism present throughout the Middle East at the time. Although he aspired to political power, he sought it through democratic means, and focused initially on working for the poor of Egypt, such as in running schools and hospitals. This approach, appealing particularly to the lower middle classes, helped the party grow rapidly, exceeding half a million members by 1948. However, al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, apparently by secret police, and in the wake of the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, where the secular military overthrew the monarchy, the Brotherhood was banned and its adherents imprisoned and executed or exiled.

Such a cataclysm would have spelled the end for many movements, but the Brotherhood’s adaptability has allowed it to expand its influence. One way this has been achieved is through inspiring international Islamist groups. Through charities and institutions set up by adherents abroad, the Brotherhood has founded sister parties across the Middle East, most notably Hamas. Its offshoots have also played major political roles in Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Jordan, among others. In addition to these direct offshoots, al-Banna is widely credited as the father of political Islam, among the first to argue for Islamic government as an alternative to oppressive, Western-backed regimes. This ideology inspired countless other influential Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, and even the leaders of the Iranian Revolution. In fact the current supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the first to translate into Persian two works by the prominent Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb, influenced he he was by Qutb’s preaching of the necessity of a truly Islamic state and of removing Western influence from the Islamic world.

It is crucial to note that since the 1960s, and at times during the preceding decades, the official attitude of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been one of non-violence, though their exception for ‘defensive jihad’ allowed them to reconcile this with support for Hamas and the Afghan Mujahideen. Many offshoots have accepted this non-violent approach, as in Morocco and Jordan, where they have pushed for democratisation. Elsewhere, however, offshoots and affiliated groups have ignored this precept. This is possible because while the Muslim Brotherhood is a label that covers many groups, there is no unified international control. Attempts to organise internationally have been rejected by most related groups, who prefer an ideology that adapts to local circumstances. Though the Egyptian Brotherhood is the most influential branch, its influence stems only from the prestige accrued through age and size.

In fact, the tendency of the Brotherhood to foster wide ideological divisions among its membership has been a major reason for international opposition, as it has allowed extremists to emerge from the group. One member stands out here, the aforementioned Sayyid Qutb. As the Egyptian Brotherhood’s foremost thinker, he was imprisoned alongside then-leader Hassan al-Hudaybi after the 1954 crackdown on the group. While many members were imprisoned and tortured by the regime, Qutb’s thinking swiftly diverged from al-Hudaybi’s while in prison. Already contemptuous toward Western society after spending time in the United States in the late 1940s, he reasoned that the guards who tortured devout Muslims could not be true Muslims themselves. From this arose the idea of takfir, declaring self-professed Muslims to be apostates (Muslims who have rejected Islam, a serious crime in Islamic law). Whereas al-Hudaybi stuck to the idea of Islamism, a political approach to enshrining religious law in national law, Qutb embraced the idea of jihad through takfir, declaring that the guards and the regime who employed them, and other similar regimes, were apostates and enemies of Muslims. In Qutb’s eyes they were therefore legitimate targets for jihad (religiously justified war).

The influence of Qutb’s thought on all subsequent jihadist groups is hard to overstate. How this influence has been exerted can be illustrated by two key members of al-Qaeda: Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Qutb personally influenced al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who joined the Brotherhood at 14 in 1965. The following year, Qutb was executed by the state on charges of plotting a coup, leaving al-Zawahiri with a determination to fulfil his goal of an Islamic state. He soon joined the group Egyptian Jihad. After work in Pakistan, where he met bin Laden, he merged his group with al Qaeda, and became al Qaeda’s leader after bin Laden’s death. The radicalisation of bin Laden followed a different, more trodden path. After the Brotherhood was first banned in Egypt, thousands of members fled to Saudi Arabia. Here, the state ideology of conservative Wahhabi Islam and the recent establishment of a public education system helped many well educated, pious Muslim Brothers to gain jobs in the educational establishment. This allowed them huge influence over the minds of young Saudis. Among these youths was Osama bin Laden, the son of a construction tycoon, who may have been taught by, among others, Muhammed Qutb, brother of Sayyid. After spending time fighting in and financing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets, he returned to Saudi Arabia, where frustration with the government led him to pursue global jihad and to propel the idea of jihad into the global consciousness on September 11, 2001.

The future of the Muslim Brotherhood is as unclear as that of many of the regimes still standing in the Middle East. Members have been imprisoned en masse in Egypt and elsewhere, and the Trump administration has considered proscribing it in the US. However,  history shows such efforts have done little to prevent it from attaining a place of leadership in both political Islamist and violent Jihadist circles. The willingness of various Middle Eastern regimes to permit political expression over the coming years will be decisive in determining whether the Brotherhood’s democratically-inclined leaders gain control, or whether it is the Jihadists who win out. Whatever happens, it seems likely that the Brotherhood and its past leaders will continue to play a vital role in Middle Eastern affairs for many years to come.

Warsaw’s Shift Eastwards: the Dislocation of Polish Identity


Poland has always strived to define itself against the East-West dichotomy; a struggle common amongst Eastern European societies.  Even though globally the North-South distinction continues to rise in relevance, this division is still – often implicitly – popularly embraced and mapped onto the understanding of world politics, and remains exceedingly important in the Polish context.

Amongst the most common criticisms of the East-West dichotomy is its difficulty in capturing hybridity, cultural interpenetration, and contamination – everything that makes the concept of a rigidly delineated border seem somewhat irrelevant and easily substitutable by the concept of borderland. In the light of a vast amount of easily accessible testimonies and simple logic, it would be naïve to cherish a vision of the world whereby the membership in a certain cultural circle was a dummy variable. Admittedly, states and nations form communities focused around shared values, norms, and practices, but at the same time their cultural constitution is dynamic and open to multiple influences.

Sławomir Mrożek (Slahvomir Mrozhekh), a Polish absurdist novelist and playwright, famously characterised his fatherland as being “to the west from the East and to the east from the West.”. Being in the peculiar grey zone between the two traditionally defined spheres has clearly translated into the political realm. Perpetual uncertainty surrounding the construal of Self against the Other, which could underlie national identity, generated scepticism towards the Other per se. It contributed to the purchase of a martyrized theory of national history and it made Poland swing between recognising and embracing its Slavic origins and looking up to the developed Western Europe.

The roots of Polish insecurity concerning its place in the global-political landscape can be traced back to the state’s foundations. The earliest recorded milestone in the country’s history is 966 AD, when Mieszko I, the first known Polish ruler, adopted Christianity as the state religion through his personal baptism. By the standards of the era, this was a politically momentous act which effectively integrated Poland with the community of established European states centred around the Catholic Church. Borne by the incoming religious current, the wave of Western legal, political, and administrative influences profoundly shaped the young and consolidating Polish state. Even nowadays, 966 remains a date - one which most Poles associate with the foundational act of their homeland.

 Jan Matejko Christianization of Poland (1889)  Matejko was a Polish painter living in 18th-19th century, famous for documenting momentous historical events. His artistic output earned him an informal title of a “national painter”

Jan Matejko Christianization of Poland (1889)

Matejko was a Polish painter living in 18th-19th century, famous for documenting momentous historical events. His artistic output earned him an informal title of a “national painter”

To give an opposite example, forced into the Soviet sphere of influence throughout the Cold War era, Poland was associated with the world’s East. Its capital was enshrined in the name of the communist defence alliance forged as a counterpunch aimed at NATO; the USSR exercised a nearly unconstrained control over its political and economic life; imported Marxism-Leninism took the place of the ideological paradigm. Wretched by the war and too weak to decide for itself, in a game between great powers, the country was forced into the Eastern camp with no realistic prospects of changing sides in foreseeable future.

Some news, however, soaked through the iron curtain and the dense clouds of official propaganda. It soon became obvious that the degree of freedom, welfare, and prosperity enjoyed by Western societies vastly exceeded that of the ordinary Polish resident. The West, neither for the first nor last time, became a model looked up to - despite the communist authorities’ desperate attempts to play down Western appeal.

The chance to cross the line and join the Western community came in 1989 with the breakdown of communist authoritarianism in the aftermath of the upsurge of the Poland-based Solidarity movement - a source of national pride. A series of events took Warsaw, shaking off the authoritarian grip and centrally planned economy, closer and closer to the West. Joining NATO in 1991 and the European Union in 2004 marked two major steps in its political shift westwards. By 2014, a Pole became the President of the European Council, which was widely dubbed a success and sign of recognition from the West.

However, the rise to power of the incumbent Law and Justice (PiS) party abruptly broke the steady Polish integration with Western Europe. PiS wasted no time. Just after the electoral results were announced, they started passing multiple illiberal policies, politicising the Constitutional Court, seizing state media, and later concentrating considerable power over the judiciary in the hands of party-nominated Minister of Justice. Nearly overnight, relations with Western Europe were severely damaged. PiS dignitaries did not wish to initiate dialogue with the West - let alone step back. The language they used to justify their political actions was exceedingly divergent with the language of Western liberal democracies.

 PiS’ PM Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference; EU flags removed from the background.

PiS’ PM Mateusz Morawiecki during a press conference; EU flags removed from the background.

This discontinuity manifested itself in the way the authorities altered the state narrative about the EU. Just a few months before PiS took power, the official commemoration of the end of World War II involved a choral performance of the Ode to Joy alongside the national anthem. Soon after the seminal parliamentary elections, the Prime Minister tellingly decided to remove EU flags from the background of her press conferences. These gestures went hand in hand with a startling change in words. Polish ever-growing participation in the European community used to be presented as a source of pride; Western liberal democracies were posited as partners and, in many respects, models to follow. Since 2015, instead, government officials have exhibited a tendency to construe Europe as part of the Other rather than the Self – to talk about Poland as opposed to Europe rather than as being part of it. It is enough to read a few headlines of state media to notice that “Brussels” is identified with a foreign agency, embracing an inferior socio-political model, misguided and misinformed by inimical media, and threatening to punish legitimate defiance with sanctions.

Luminaries of the ruling elite have openly questioned values cherished by Western democracies. The overtone of notions such as “political correctness”, “liberal left”, or “feminism” has been rendered either ironic or simply pejorative. A prominent PiS’ MP, Krystyna Pawłowicz, called the EU flag a “rag”, expressing contempt towards European axiological system. The idea of liberal democracy came under attack: the then-Foreign Minister openly declared in a BBC interview that his party seeks to establish a “democracy without adjectives”. Kaczynski, the leader of PiS who effectively runs the state from behind the scene, notoriously deplored “legal impossibilism” – the obstacles posed by the system of checks and balances, which prevents winner-takes-it-all political outcomes.

The dismantling of checks and balances took the form of legislation. A series of ruthless reforms set the grounds for executive dominance known from most non-Baltic post-Soviet states. The goal of the process was simple – putting power over law and removing the obstacles which tie the hands of the rulers. The ideological shift extends to personal freedom and plurality, which were marginalised for the sake of order and homogeneity.

In his brilliant essay, John Plamenatz of All Souls College distinguished between Eastern and Western nationalism, listing the features where they are different. “Eastern nationalism” – writes Plamenatz – “is also illiberal (…). Leaders or rulers who take it upon themselves (…) are impatient of any opposition. Their task, they think, is urgent, and they will not tolerate obstructive criticism, taking it for granted that it is for them to decide when it is obstructive”.

Clearly, since the 2015 elections, there is an observable change in how Polish identity is officially construed. The authorities not only brutally criticise, but also seem to deny the legitimacy and relevance of current Western European politics and values. Whereas they don’t dare to argue for “Polexit” – surveys suggest over 80% of Poles are supportive of the EU – their rhetoric, absorbed by the exposed population, alienates and stigmatises the West. They seek to deeply alter the political structures based upon Western examples and embrace arrangements increasingly resembling Eastern hybrid systems. Given the popularity of their narrative, this can mean that the new vision of politics will be here to stay – unlikely to be reversed in the nearest future.




The Anti-Terrorism Law of 1984, which allowed the government to detain dissidents indefinitely without evidence, was one of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s preferred political tools. Current president Michelle Bachelet is greatly acclaimed for her achievements in gender equality and human rights, yet a strand of continuity from the decades of dictatorship can be found in her use of the Anti-Terrorism Law, amongst other draconian measures, against indigenous Mapuche protesters.

Political dissent is the expression of opposition to government actions from within the society it claims to represent, a means of renegotiating the contract between state and society. This paradigm is complicated significantly in the case of indigenous peoples, who do not have their own contract with the state, but are instead a footnote to the broader relationship between state and society, a relationship that they have no official means of influencing. The complexities of how the state is to be held responsible for the needs of indigenous people, and how these people can express demands without resorting to violent dissent, is being felt particularly strongly in Chile at present, but is a dilemma that applies to governments across the world.

The relationship between the Chilean government and Mapuche people is a particularly uneasy one. Mapuche ancestral lands, mostly located within the southern region of Araucanía, were never conquered by the Spanish, but rather by the newly-independent Chileans in the early nineteenth century. When Mapuche protesters speak of decolonisation, they mean it in the literal historical sense. Protest groups like Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco even today challenge the Chilean state’s authority over them, fighting for national liberation. The possibility of a broader Mapuche separatist movement is complicated by the fact that they are a minority even within Araucanía, but there is widespread support in the Mapuche community for greater autonomy, allowing them ownership of their land at the very least.

Bachelet is no tyrant, and she long pledged not to use anti-terrorist legislation against Mapuche dissidents, but an escalation of protests since the start of 2016 saw her pressured into doing so, most notably by former president Sebastián Piñera, the favourite to win re-election in November 2017. Mapuche dissent has been carried out most prominently through arson attacks on trucks belonging to the companies occupying their land, with 60 such attacks in 2016, and 89 in the first eight months of 2017. This is what prompted the arrest of eight Mapuche leaders on 23rd September 2017, under the anti-terrorism legislation Bachelet long promised not to abuse. Tensions rapidly escalated, and on 9th October a 5000-strong Mapuche rights march was put down in Santiago by armed police. International organisations have also weighed in, with UN experts condemning the ‘stigmatization of the indigenous community’, asserting that the context of ‘social protests by Mapuche peoples seeking to claim their rights’ was in no way tantamount to terrorism.

This forced Bachelet to rescind the terrorism charges, but a resolution to the state’s inability to fulfil its responsibilities to indigenous people is no closer. The paradox of the government’s joint responsibility to broader Chilean society, whose interests they claim are best served by the exploitation of native land and resources, and Mapuche society, who fundamentally dispute the state’s authority over them and their ancestral property, is deeply entrenched. This scenario is not unique to Chile, and while violent Mapuche dissent has brought this particular case into the spotlight, the broader question of how governments can meet the needs of indigenous peoples is one that the international community must urgently address.

It is just possible, however, that we need not look too far from Chile to find the first step towards a potential solution. Just to the north lies Bolivia, where 41% of the population trace their origins to one of the country’s 36 indigenous groups. It is therefore unsurprising that they have been pioneers in the fair treatment of indigenous communities. In 2005, Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first indigenous president, and the 2009 Constitution saw the country take the official name ‘Plurinational State of Bolivia’. This was not merely symbolic, but set in motion a process of cultural, legal, and institutional reform intended to allow multiple societies to coexist and cooperate within a single state.

Morales has condemned ‘post-nationalism’, often the preferred solution of liberal internationalists, as the continuation of a neoliberal ideology that, in practice, serves only to erase indigenous culture by imposing a homogenous identity based overwhelmingly on white, Western norms. Plurinationalism recognises the differences between communities, but creates a system whereby indigenous rights can be demanded through constitutional channels, without need for violent dissent. It responds to the paradox of contradictory interests by encouraging co-operation between peoples, with the state no longer merely the servant of the majority, but an impartial arbiter of its plural societies.

The common goal behind these reforms has been the creation of spaces for indigenous politics, allowing people to assert a positive vision for their future. The system for allocating land to indigenous communities has been decentralised to eliminate interference from the private sector; ‘plural justice’ recognises the equal standing of community and state justice systems; in January 2017 the Guaraní people formed Bolivia’s first autonomous indigenous government, with others set to follow this example. Indigenous dissent in Bolivia has not been eliminated, and is often still violent: what has changed is that the state is now obliged to listen to this dissent. The plurinational reforms mean that the indigenous peoples of Bolivia can express dissent in a constructive manner, through legal mechanisms and political representatives.

Chile remains at the opposite end of the spectrum, as the only country in Latin America yet to constitutionally recognise the specific rights of indigenous people. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, a human rights NGO, have described how indigenous rights have been ‘gravely threatened’ by state-sponsored extractive and industrial projects, while the ‘criminalization of Mapuche social protest’ remains an essential part of this strategy for economic development. However, there is growing consensus even in Chilean mainstream politics on the need to address these constitutional deficiencies, and already one presidential candidate, Beatríz Sanchez, has emphasised the need to apply the logic of plurinationalism to this process. The creation of official channels for negotiation between the Chilean state and Mapuche society would facilitate a more constructive form of dissent, while a formal system for allocating land ownership might lessen the need for such dissent in the first place.

Plurinationalism is a concept in its infancy, and is no panacea to the struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples. In countries like Chile, where indigenous populations are far more of a minority than in Bolivia, it will be more difficult for the state to take up this role as arbiter of plural societies. The diversity of states and societies around the world means that meeting indigenous needs will require specific, situational solutions. And yet, the paradox of a state that can only serve its primary society by rejecting its responsibility to other societies is a near universal problem. Plurinationalism offers a basic framework through which complex solutions can be built. It is a paradigm that might just defy the paradox.


Patrick Swire

On the 12th of July 2016, a Hague tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines over a complaint regarding China’s claims to territorial sovereignty over 80% of the South China Sea, as demarcated by the so-called “nine-dash line.” Stating that ‘there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources,’ the tribunal asserted that attempts to exert such control ‘had no legal basis.’ Within hours, this ruling had created a global media storm. Xinhua and the People’s Daily, mouthpieces of the Chinese government, declared that it had “trampled” on international law and norms in contradiction of “basic truths,” whilst Western media outlets assumed a predictable tone of veiled mockery; chiding China’s inadequate comprehension of the letter and spirit of international conventions, and the absurdity of the historical reasoning behind its claims.

This condescension essentially misses the contextual implications hidden within the furious bluster of Chinese state pronouncements on the issue. The ‘historical rights’ that are invoked by the CCP as official basis for its claims of absolute sovereignty over the region, and which are so frequently ridiculed by the foreign press, are only designed to carry weight at a domestic level; the hollowness of these claims in terms of international law is intended to express disdain for that very institution, and the unequal and anachronistic world order that it underpins. This dissenting position reflects China’s desire to disrupt and destabilise the systematic restraints that prevent it from gaining geopolitical standing commensurate with its vision of itself as a newly ‘powerful nation’ (qiangguo).

The precise justifications for the Chinese state’s claims over the South China Sea range from the logically dubious to the downright bizarre. The key articulation of these aspirations is the much touted ‘nine-dash line’, which was first drawn up by the Nationalist government of Republican China in 1947. Reportedly arising from Chiang Kaishek’s fascination with Hitler’s taste for lebensraum, the line (initially eleven dashes long), originally stood as a loose articulation of the claims of the Chinese state over the region after the hegemonic grip of the Japanese Empire collapsed. The South China Sea is host to vast fisheries and oil reserves, and sees over 30% of global maritime trade pass through it, with a value to the tune of $5.3 trillion. These claims have naturally not gone uncontested. The Republic of China (Taiwan) echoes its founder’s ambitions to the entire region, while Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam all view particular regions within the line as their sovereign territory - generally as defined by the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) stipulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China’s claims over the region can be divided into three main categories: sovereignty over the islands within the line; the corresponding rights and jurisdiction over water as defined by UNCLOS; and exclusive “historic rights” over fishing, navigation and resource development of the entire region. China has sought to shore up the first of these two claims by occupying disputed features and ‘modifying’ them in order to turn them from ‘rocks,’ which do not qualify for EEZ status, into habitable ‘islands,’ which do. Subsequently, attempts have been made by China to legitimise these claims within the legal framework of UNCLOS. By contrast, no formal clarification has been put forward with regard to the exact basis upon which ‘historic rights’ to sovereignty have been asserted, which the Chinese government maintains has existed ‘continuously, peacefully and effectively’ since ‘ancient times’. Scholarly and popular justifications for this range from pottery shard finds and navigational handbooks to the mythical adventures of 4th century itinerant monks. Regardless, historic rights as justifications for sovereignty are almost without exception invalid under UNCLOS, which was in part designed to resolve the ambiguities arising from such claims.

The lines of reasoning employed by China in staking these claims appear at best insincere and at worst simply facetious. Arriving at contested features and occupying them by any means necessary, dumping sand on them to give the impression of habitability, and then claiming that they and the adjacent waters have always been ‘Chinese’ with vague gesticulations towards ‘history’, do not represent sincere attempts to play by the rules of international law. They are in fact expressions of contempt for this very system, rendering almost laughable The Hague’s conclusion that ‘the root of the disputes lie in different understandings of… respective rights under the Convention,’ and its hope that the clarification of these rights would lead to their resolution.

What, then, is the source of this recalcitrance? Not, as it might at first seem, a dissenting view of one particular strut of international law, but rather a dissenting view of the very edifice itself. Whereas the officially stated purpose of the international legal system is to preserve peace and stability via the observation of clearly demarcated regulations, the Chinese government (along with various other post-colonial states) views it as a preservative for a world order built by force, in which Japan and the West elevated themselves to a position of superiority via strength of arms, and to this martial superiority added that of the moral kind as a further bulwark to their position. To China the international community does not appear as a fraternity of nations, but rather an anachronistic muddle of competing states seeking to gain and preserve advantage over others by any means necessary.

Jia Qinguo, of Peking University’s School of International Studies, suggests in fact that China’s attitude towards South China Sea is not one of dissent, but rather one of compliance with international norms. “The United States has Guam in Asia which is very far away from the U.S. and the French have islands in the South Pacific, so it is nothing new.” The fact that these geopolitical privileges were gained in what is generally considered ‘a different era’ by most of the West is of little consolation to China; a nation that was in no position to gain such privileges for itself at that particular time – a fact that the Chinese people, thanks to the narrative of ‘a century of national humiliation’, are frequently reminded of. According to this narrative, China’s entry into the international system – beginning with the Opium War debacle in 1839 – came at a time when China had been brought low by a series of domestic crises. Over the next century, predatory foreign forces exploited this continuing weakness, to the effect that China was unable to stake any real claim in the post-War international order. Over the course of the Cold War, the US policy of ‘containment’ compounded this, and the legacy of this state of affairs – chiefly the ‘steel circle’ of American military bases dotted along rim of the South China Sea – continues to this day to prevent China from reaching its full ‘potential’. This ‘potential’ essentially reduces to regional hegemony and great-power status, arising as the natural consequence of China’s latent economic, territorial – and in the eyes of some, cultural – strength and superiority. The institutions of international law are viewed as the tools by which China’s historic enemies seek to prevent it from actualizing this state of affairs.

The ‘historic rights’ that China asserts, therefore, do not in truth relate to lonely spikes of sand dotted throughout its neighbouring waters. Rather, they refer to the discrepancy between China’s actual economic, political, cultural and territorial status on the international stage, and that to which China perceives itself to be entitled – a discrepancy concretised and represented by the present international order. Since Deng Xiaoping’s renunciation of Communism in the 1980s, the Party’s key legitimating narratives have relied chiefly upon a form of developmental nationalism. This has been articulated specifically in terms of its ability to make China ‘strong and wealthy’ (fuqiang); an ambition dating back to mid-19th century, when China was ravaged by the forces of Western and Japanese imperialism. Vital to fulfilling this promise is the robust defence of China’s interests on the international stage, the elevation of its position to one commensurate with its newfound economic clout, and the corresponding rectification of perceived historical slights and deprivations. The Party will not neglect these duties lest it should become target to accusations of ‘selling out the nation’ (maiguo) – accusations that were levelled against numerous of its predecessors, with devastating and terminal effect. In the meantime, it seems likely that the world will have to deal with the reality of an expansionist and ambitious China, and the disruption of the status quo that this will entail. In the words of China’s former foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, ‘China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’