For many outside observers, the Great Wall of China is a symbol of ancient China's strength, military might and power. The Xi Jinping Administration is currently undertaking land reclamation in the South China Sea, which has been dubbed by some as the 'great wall of sand'. Could the Great Wall of the past shed light on the current wall of sand?
When the Great Wall was first built, and until the 20th Century when it was adopted as a national symbol by Sun Yat-sen, most Chinese perceived it as a sign of despotism, political failure and suffering due to a loss of national 'greatness'. It was European settlers in China who crafted the notion of a 'Great Wall of China' – an invention consequently adopted by Chinese rulers in the 20th Century as a nation building tool.
One of the key narrative shells of Merriden Varrall's Chinese world views is the notion of history as destiny – China was once great and will be great again. Viewed in this light, the Great Wall is a symbol of China's former greatness. Ergo, the construction of a new wall — the wall of sand — is evidence that China has again become a leader in Asia and is a symbol of its emerging military power and might.
The Great Wall, as we know it, started to emerge under the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). Building this wall was seen as the ultimate solution to minimizing the threat of invasion from the nomads. Its construction followed failed attempts at diplomacy and economic inducements. Construction eventually proved to be a costly solution to what could have been likely solved with other methods of diplomacy (such as trade). As the eminent Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans observed in his 1996 Boyer Lectures, once a civilization "feels a defensive need to surround itself with walls in order to keep the outsider world at bay its very survival becomes problematic."
Given the need to understand history when observing China, what can the construction and myth-making of the original Great Wall teach us about the wall of sand in the South China Sea and the current political situation within China?
First, the objectives of the two walls are similar. Like the Great Wall, the wall of sand is designed to keep other claimants to the South China Sea out of China's perceived territory. With the sand wall, China has chosen construction of a 'wall' and rejected other diplomatic measures such as multilateral negotiations and greater economic and trade inducements.
Second, the sand wall is not proving to be an immediate success. The Great Wall of China was ultimately a futile attempt to keep invaders at bay. Despite construction over hundreds of years, the Mongols overcame the wall, defeated the Ming dynasty and established the Qing dynasty – the first dynasty which was not ethnically Han Chinese. Prior to this defeat the wall was already showing signs of cracking. The wall was not continuous and it contained many gaps. For nomads wishing to get through, there were plenty of ways.
Similarly, the sand wall built to shore up China's claims to its nine-dashed line hasn't led other claimants to throw up their hands in defeat. Instead, claimants have found other ways to make claims to what they see as rightfully theirs. The Philippines has taken China to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to argue that Beijing must abide by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Other claimant states have sought to strengthen their military alliances with stronger states, including the US and Japan, to balance themselves against China.
Finally, land reclamation efforts are having a backlash. In ancient China wall building backfired as a means to subdue and pacify the nomads. Denying them access to necessities they needed (such as grains and metal tools) made them more aggressive, leading to an increase in raids.
Likewise, China's current efforts with its land reclamation efforts have led to greater aggression from its neighbors and even fears of an arms race in Asia. The past week has seen tensions between China, Indonesia and Vietnam increase following claims by both countries that Chinese fisherman were illegally trolling in their waters. The US has also started carrying out freedom of navigation exercises in and around the sand wall, aggravating relations between the two countries. The sand wall, far from boosting China's claims in the South China Sea. has instead led to growing concern about its motives.
What can the similarities between the two walls teach us about the current political situation in China? The fact that China now feels the need to build walls to protect itself from the outside world suggests it is feeling increasingly threatened from within. As China now feels the need to surround itself with a protective border suggests a certain loss of confidence in its own natural resilience. Recent events in China such as an growing crackdown on dissent and increasing controls over censorship indicate that an external show of force (such as a wall) are masking an internal loss of control. Whether or not the regime that built the sand wall will go the same way as the rulers who built the Great Wall remains to be seen. What is clear is that history in China has an uncanny habit of repeating itself.
This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here.