Language of law, Chinese and English

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Bill Hennessey is a retired professor of law, including international law and the law of the sea, at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.  He wondered whether I have been following the Law of the Sea issues surrounding the building of Chinese bases on shoals in the South China Sea (SCS).  (I call it the Southeast Asian Sea [SEAS].)  I certainly have been following China's building of artificial islands on coral shoals in contested waters far from its own shores, but much closer to the shores of other countries.  I have not, until now, thought about the linguistic aspects of the legal issues.

Bill explains:

It has to do with the authority or status of the "speaker" and "audience" in public statements on the SCS by China, its neighbors, and the United States. This week in Singapore, China accused the US of “fomenting dissension” by challenging the building of airbases on shoals in the SCS. My readings of the online comments (particularly at the South China Morning Post and Bloomberg News) suggest that there are two entirely different contexts behind this diplomatic language debate.

"China Says Carter's Sea Comments ‘Foment Dissension'" (5/30/15)

"China Says It Could Set Up Air Defense Zone in South China Sea" (5/31/15)

The equality of states is a fundamental principle in the language of the UN Charter. My query thus has to do with the default position of who is "fomenting dissension" from whom. And the semantic difference between "dissension" and "disagreement". It occurs to me that the Chinese Foreign Ministry is using the word "dissension ( fēnzhēng 纷争 or jiūfēn 纠纷)" in a completely different context than normally used in diplomatic discourse.  Merriam-Webster defines "dissension" as "disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief ."  But the "international legal system" is (at least for the moment) distinct from the "Chinese legal system." So which system's rules apply?

In a related issue, Secretary of State Kerry has publicly complained that a state cannot "build sovereignty" over international spaces.  But the Chinese Foreign Ministry appears to have short-circuited that position by merely stating it considers its acts in the SCS as an "internal matter." Thus, arguably, within its internal "system." (It reminds me of the soon to vanish yīguóliǎngzhì 一国两制 ] "one country two systems"] in Hong Kong.)

It seems to me that China's government is now attempting to export it's authoritarian justifications of its own conduct in domestic challenges to its authority over its own subjects to the international sphere, such that any challenge to its position is "fomenting dissension".

So in conclusion, assuming that the "sovereign states" of the US, China, and the ASEAN countries are of equal status in international law (as set forth under the UN Charter), can what the US is "fomenting" accurately be called "dissension"? Has the "international legal system" now become a subset of the "Chinese legal system"?

Bill has raised a whole series of fascinating legal, diplomatic, and linguistic issues pertaining to the events that are unfolding in the SCS / SEAS.  It would be wonderful if clarity regarding one or more of these spheres would result in a decrease of tension in the region.


  1. rgove said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 8:48 am

    The Chinese attitude is already perfectly clear. They assert that the SCS is, and always has been, Chinese property, and thus not part of the "international sphere" at all. Unfortunately that's not an attitude that is likely to result in a decrease of tension in the region.

  2. other one spoon said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 10:30 am

    VM, could you be drawn out as to why you decided to call it the "Southeast Asian Sea", out of all the alternatives? It seems to me that "South China Sea" would be the default choice, given that the overwhelming majority use that term and that it also is pretty much guaranteed to be understood/recognized. "East Sea" (or "East Vietnam Sea") and "West Philippine Sea" are both obvious statements of political affiliation (and the latter technically refers to a smaller area, rather than being just another name for the SCS). Wikipedia also cites "Champa Sea" and "Sea of Cham" as historical names for the body of water. Is SEAS also a political statement, and if so what do you intend to convey by your consciously conspicuous use of it?

  3. Bean said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 11:21 am

    @VM: Count me also as curious about the reason for your choice of name. Especially given that the official (International Hydrographic Organization) name is still South China Sea.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    The name "Southeast Asian Sea" (SEAS) was not something I dreamed up. Many representatives from nations surrounding that huge body of water have proposed adopting it as a more neutral designation than "South China Sea" (SCS), especially considering the rising tension in the region. I believe that the strongest calls for such a name change have come from Vietnam.

    See here for some articles on this topic.

  5. K Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

    Those who don't read Tom Clancy or Dale Brown type technothrillers may not be aware of ASEAN, Association of SouthEast Asian Nations, which was formed in 1967 with signing of Bangkok Declaration by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Later, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia joined (in that order).

    China is playing brinkmanship (or should I use the egg corn: blinksmanship?) as well as inscrutability, i.e. "What (the fuck) are you talking about? SCS was always Chinese territory. You're just encouraging these young whippersnappers making an ass of themselves, but I'm too nice to say it, so I'll just make a 'pithy observation' instead."

  6. cameron said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    Is there a better translation for fēnzhēng 纷争 or jiūfēn 纠纷 than "dissension"? Is there a difference of connotation between those terms?

  7. Eidolon said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

    The sea in question is bordered on the north by China and on the other three sides by Southeast Asian countries. I don't think Southeast Asia Sea is especially politically neutral, given that Southeast Asia is regarded as a group of geopolitical entities eg ASEAN, which stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and does not include China. Certainly I don't see China accepting such a name change because they'd regard it in favor of designating the sea as "fundamentally Southeast Asian."

    Then again, the best solution – politically speaking – is to simply have different names in different countries. China is called Zhongguo in China, China in the Anglophone world, and Kitai? in Russia. With the current state of political nationalism around the world, the safest option is for international bodies eg the UN to simply list all names, rather than settle on one.

  8. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:30 pm

    @Cameron — I've always translated the two as more like "controversy" or "dispute" rather than dissension. IMHO the former is more of the verbal kind, while the latter may have gotten physical i.e. "conflict".

    This may be a case of "diplomatese", as they don't want to use a word that may indicate "dispute" or "conflict", so they use the most "neutral term" they got: dissension, which also made the Chinese look high and haughty, which is probably unintended side effect.

    Dissent implies there's a majority and a minority (and dissenters are in the minority), IMHO, and that has a very different connotation to democracies than a more authoritarian regime.

  9. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:31 pm

    Actually, it would be interesting to find out WHO did the translation "fomenting dissent". Was it China's Foreign Ministry? And what was the original Chinese expressions used?

  10. Michael Rank said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    I have never heard of it being called anything but the South China Sea even if VHM and a few SE Asian officials and their lackeys and running dogs (sorry if my language is a little anachronistic) have been known to call it something else. That proves that it is part of China and always has been and always will be and anyone who disagrees hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.

  11. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    @Eidolon — different names didn't work out too well for itty-bitty islands in dispute with Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, and so on.

    In the "north" of Taiwan you have Senkaku / Diaoyu / Diaoyutai

    In South China Seas you have Spratly Islands, aka Nansha Qundao, aka Kepulauan Spratly, aka Kapuluan ng Kalayaan, aka Quan dao Troung Sa … depending on who you ask. Obviously, these *are* the islands in dispute in the SCS / SEAS

  12. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:55 pm

    @Michael Rank — to be pedantic, China itself does NOT refer to SCS as SCS. Their term for it is simply South Sea (南海) unless they need to invoke the SCS name. In fact, the term South China Sea appears to be a Japanese invention when Japan renamed it in 1941 "Minami Shina Kai" 南支那海, which translates to South China Sea.

    Trivia note: in 2004 Japan switched to Hiragana 南シナ海 rather than original Hanzi. Subtle protest?

  13. Scott Mauldin said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

    I think if China invaded and annexed Japan tomorrow, it would simply say "Japan has always been a part of Chinese civilization, and thus we consider this affair in internal matter". The internalization of external conflicts seems to be a dangerous hallmark of Chinese foreign policy.

  14. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

    FYI, here's a reporter's account on visiting one of the "garrisons" by Filipino Marines in the Spraylys. Seems every once in a while Chinese "coast guard" will harass them with water cannons.

  15. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

    Spratlys has been used many times in technothrillers. Tom Clancy's SSN (both the game and the novelization) was centered on China invading the Spratlys over discovery of oil. Dale Brown's Sky Masters dealt with an outright Chinese invasion of Philippines with backroom deals with Vietnam and other countries offering to split up the Spratlys if they stay out of the little war. There was a scene in Sky Masters where the Chinese negotiator was using the Chinese name and Vietnamese delegate intentionally used the Vietnamese name "Thank you for returning Quan dao Troung Sa to our rightful sovereignty…" or something like that.

  16. AntC said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    @K.Chang Dissent implies there's a majority and a minority (and dissenters are in the minority) … a la Bolshevik/Menshevik.

  17. Rubrick said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 5:38 pm

    I can't tell if Michael Rank is a troll or a sarcast….

  18. V said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    Pretty clearly sarcasm to me.

  19. julie lee said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 6:46 pm

    @ K. Chang says

    "In 2004 Japan switched to Hiragana 南シナ海 rather than original Hanzi."

    Shouldn't that be "switched to Katakana" (シナ for 支那)?

  20. K Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    @Julie Lee — thanks for the correction. I don't speak Japanese so I guess I picked the wrong term.

  21. K Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

    I also seem to remember that incident where there's a mid-air between our Orion and one of the Chinese fighters and their fighter went into the drink and the Orion was forced to land on Chinese airfield and we only got it back in pieces… And Clinton had to apologize?

    Seem to remember Chinese media was abuzz over whether the apology was 道歉 or 抱歉

  22. Akito said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 12:34 am

    in 2004 Japan switched to Hiragana [now corrected to katakana] 南シナ海 rather than original Hanzi

    Wikipedia merely says "as of 2004" official documents employ katakana for that part of the name in question, so it is quite possible the switch took place immediately following the Gendai Kanazukai of 1946 or the Gairaigo no Kakiarawashikata of 1954. One atlas I still use was published in 1985 and has that part of the name in katakana.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 6:55 am

    The transcription of the name "China" in kanji is an extremely sensitive issue. For those who are interested in it, I strongly recommend reading the learned comments to this post, together with the links in them:

    "The transcription of the name 'China' in Chinese characters" (6/17/12)

    By way of update to the important discussion on Shina 支那 in the comments to that post, I should mention that this designation for "China" was still commonly used in China, especially by Chinese Buddhists, in the first half of the 20th century. And even in the second half of the 20th century, I would still come upon it from time to time in various circumstances. I vividly remember reading a whole Chinese poem about "Shina 支那" which attempted to recover its past glories, but which — if I recall correctly — recognized that the word had been abused by some in modern times.

    I highly recommend this scholarly treatment of the use of this name in history:

    Joshua A. Fogel, "New Thoughts on an Old Controversy: Shina as a Toponym for China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 229 (August, 2012), 1-25.

    The second set of comments to the post mentioned at the beginning of this note is a very vigorous discussion of the term guānggùn 光棍 (lit., "bare branch[es]; ruffian[s]; bachelor[s]).

  24. Bean said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    @K Chang: I had forgotten about that incident; thanks for linking to the story as I found it very interesting. A great combination of military aviation, intelligence gathering, and international law as it relates to territorial waters and the airspace above them.

    Obviously, names of seas and oceans have a direct effect on perception on who has rights to access where and when for what purposes – still very controversial pretty much anywhere in the world and not just southeast Asia. Just ask the Canadian and US governments whether the Northwest Passage is "Canadian internal waters" or "international waters"…

  25. Mark Metcalf said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    Interestingly, the Arabs and the Iranians have an ongoing dispute about whether the body of water between Iran and the Arabian peninsula should be called the "Arabian Gulf" or the "Persian Gulf". Here's a wiki summary of the timeline:
    Unlike the current SCS/SEAS situation, however, the Gulf debate is not about a claim of sovereignty. Just national/ethnic pride.

  26. cameron said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    @Victor Mair

    Would it be accurate to say that the use of "Shina 支那" in written Chinese would be a "poetic" name for the country? Something analogous to referring to Great Britain as "Albion"?

  27. julie lee said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 4:31 pm

    @Victor Mair's post, re. Bill Hennessey on "speaker" and "audience" in public statements:

    I've always felt Chinese to be a more moralistic language than English. In English you say "Sino-Japanese War" or "World War II", in Chinese it is usually "the War of Resistance Against Japan" or "The Resistance War" (kangzhan 抗戰). In English you don't call WWII "The War of Resistance Against Germany".

    In English you don't say we sent an army to fight "the Taliban bandits" or "the Al Queda bandits" but an official term for the Chinese Communists, frequently used by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan, was "the Communist Bandits" (共匪gongfei). In English we say "the Iraq War" , but the war against the Chinese Communists was frequently and officially called, by Chiang's government, "Exterminating the Bandits" (剿匪jiaofei).

  28. Eidolon said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    @K. Chang "South Sea" sounds neutral/harmless enough, but is problematic as an international name because it isn't *specific* enough – ie "south" of what? South China Sea has the benefit of telling you where the sea is. Same with Southeast Asia Sea.

    It's unfortunate that the "sea between China and Southeast Asia" is such a wordy and awkward phrase in English, else it'd be perfect, being both politically neutral and geographically exact. Language is so prickly at times.

  29. Geoff Wade said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

    Further on Shina here

  30. K. Chang said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 7:23 pm

    @Julie Lee — while what you say is true, it's also reflective of the overall situation. US wasn't invaded (except for the Aleutians) in WW2 and US did see WW2 as a bit of a "great crusade" (source: Eisenhower) against "the Huns and the Japs" so it's easier for the US to be detached… because it was detached.

    IIRC, the Russians called WW2 "Great Patriotic War" (Velíkaya Otéchestvennaya voyná). So it's not that different from the KMT term "八年抗戰“ (Eight Year Resistance War) with in the same context… getting invaded and all that. The tone can be inferred by the context, not necessarily language.

  31. Bathrobe said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

    The choice of names always runs the risk of being ethnocentric.

    Take World War II (or the Second World War). This name was bestowed due to the perception that there were two world wars in the 20th century. The first was the Great War, which was rechristened 'World War I'; the second was World War II. And there is no doubt that the second war was in many ways a continuation of the first.

    But this obscures other perspectives. WWI was primarily a European war; it was only a 'world war' because of the involvement of the Americans and European colonies (which did, of course, cover much of the world). WWII took place not in one but in two huge theatres, Europe and Asia. And as far as the Chinese were concerned WWII started well before 1939. So from a certain point of view, the names WWI and WWII really do represent a particular perspective on the two conflicts, a perspective that we take for granted and is frozen in place by the naming.

  32. Bathrobe said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 8:34 pm

    I've always found it curious that some proponents of Chinese claims to the South China Sea so easily slip into arguments like "it's known as the South China Sea so it belongs to China". Would the same people advocate that the Gulf of Mexico belongs to Mexico or the Sea of Japan belongs to Japan, or the Gulf of Thailand belongs to Thailand?

  33. K. Chang said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 9:53 pm

    @Bathrobe — probably because they don't realize that it's the Japanese that named it. Once Chinese learned that, they're gonna be ambivalent.

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 10:12 pm

    Funny you should mention the Sea of Japan as if the name were uncontroversial . . .

  35. Bathrobe said,

    June 4, 2015 @ 10:49 pm

    Of course they're all controversial. But basing claims on naming is plainly ridiculous. I could have included the Norwegian Sea, the Fiji Sea, the Gulf of Guinea (several thousand miles away from the country of Guinea), the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal (which don't line up cleanly with any country names). And the Persian/Arabian Gulf which someone has already mentioned.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 5, 2015 @ 7:50 am

    I guess the so-called "Indian Ocean" could be the basis for the most sweeping territorial claims . . .

  37. Nicki said,

    June 5, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

    Another term I've been seeing in use quite a lot by Chinese authors writing in English is Nanyang, by which they seem to mean Southeast Asia, or the South China Sea, or both. Of course it's just the pinyin (without tone marks) for 南洋 but it allows them to neatly sidestep the issue of what to call it in English (or perhaps it's simply lazy translation).

    Here's an article in which Nanyang is defined as "the term for Southeast Asian countries and regions such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia".

    This one also seems to use Nanyang to refer to SE Asia:

    I've seen it used to refer to the South China Sea in several recent articles discussing fishing routes (look, see, local Chinese have always fished these waters, we have a historical claim) published in English by Hainan based magazines, which are unfortunately not available online at present.

    Personally, as an American who has built a life in Hainan for the past ten years, I do hope that these disputes remain in the realm of academia, rather than full blown military conflict.

  38. Bathrobe said,

    June 6, 2015 @ 5:15 am

    Yes, Nanyang is a rather old word for Southeast Asia. It's actually covered at Wikipedia. The term is used in naming a number of schools and universities in Singapore.

  39. Bill Hennessey said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 11:11 am

    In an interesting development, the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC is today (June 11) calling for an end to "microphone diplomacy" on this issue. (I am beginning to wonder if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the PLA know each others' phone numbers!)

    [VHM update 7/23/15: Comments have been closed on this post, but another specialist on Chinese law sent this in today, so I'll add it here.]

    I find Hennessy’s analysis extremely qiānqiǎng 牵强 ("forced"). The Chinese government did not, of course, use the word “dissension”. They used a Chinese word. To draw weighty conclusions from an analysis of the subtle nuances of the English word used by a news agency to translate the Chinese word is going way too far.

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