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17

Jul

2019

Is Sovereignty dead?

Written by: Maria Adele Carrai

 
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Today, as new theories of post-sovereignty and new world order emerge, China has been considered a stronghold of Westphalian sovereignty and, as an emerging global power, issues of sovereignty continue to preoccupy its mind. Author, Maria Adele Carrai explores more below.

 

Sovereignty has been a key concept in Western legal and political tradition since the mythical origin of an international order; an order based on equal states that do not recognize any superior with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. With Western imperialism and colonialism and the expansion of international law in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sovereignty has become a concept of global significance. It provides a conceptual framework by which its various actors have been conceiving of themselves in relation to the others in the international system.

Today, as new theories of post-sovereignty and new world order emerge, China has been considered a stronghold of Westphalian sovereignty and, as an emerging global power, issues of sovereignty continue to preoccupy its mind. As stated in the People’s Republic of China Constitution, the mission of the Communist Party continues to be the reunification of the motherland. The current territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, the reunification with Taiwan, and the difficulties with the autonomous regions are all related to the most recent definition of China as a sovereign state, and to the introduction of international law in the 19th century and the inscription within fixed sovereign borders of the Qing multiethnic and multi-normative empire.”

“As stated in the People’s Republic of China Constitution, the mission of the Communist Party continues to be the reunification of the motherland.”

Sovereignty in China by Maria Adele Carrai

Sovereignty in China by Maria Adele Carrai

If we look at history, the neologism “sovereignty” (zhuquan 主权) entered Chinese history together with “international law” understood as a world order, only after the Second Opium War with the first systematic translation of international law in Chinese. Since the introduction of it, it seems that a quest for sovereignty characterizes China’s modern history: charting an uninterrupted course since the nineteenth-century Opium Wars, it reflects the country’s tortuous journey within the history of international law. As China moves to become a great power and scholars start to propose alternative world orders, such as the revamp of the theory that would justify Chinese new imperialism of Tianxia (All Under Heaven) by the Chinese scholar Zhao Tingyang, or notions of Community of shared destiny, sovereignty is still something we should cherish.

Sovereignty has its own deficiencies. If we look at its history, sovereignty has been used to justify many different things: sustain independence, but also to promote the integration of various states; to protect the rights and the privileges of some, but to do the exact opposite for others. The reason for this is that the relationship between the concept of sovereignty and its reality is “historically open, contingent and unstable.” (Jens Bartelson). However, despite its shortcomings and its contested nature, sovereignty is a concept and ordering principle of international society that we should continue to safeguard because its myth continues to provide us a little spatial and temporal security in this quickly changing world, especially when with new countries like China are taking a lead in international affairs.

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About the Author: Maria Adele Carrai

Maria Adele Carrai is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and a Fellow at Harvard University Asia Center. She completed a Ph.D. in Law at the University of Hong Kong in 2016, where she received the Award for Outstanding Postgraduate Research Student for 2015–16, the Hong Kong Ph.D. Fellowship and the ...

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