FEATURED | Chinese Construct of Sovereignty by Amrita Jash

FEATURED | Chinese Construct of Sovereignty by Amrita Jash

By Amrita Jash

Who Rules?” or rather “Who gets What, When and How” are interrogatives that play a very vital role in the understanding of the dynamics of the International System. This attribute is closely related to the concept of ‘Sovereignty’, which is the constitutive principle of International Relations. In its general understanding, sovereignty is viewed as supreme authority within a territory. It is widely accepted that the principle of sovereignty can be traced back to the ‘Peace of Westphalia’[1], which gave birth to the ‘Westphalian Sovereignty’. While, Hobbes in his book ‘Levithan’ conceived sovereignty as being above the law, as absolute, extending to all matters within its territory, unconditionally.

FEATURED | Chinese Construct of Sovereignty by Amrita Jash

Image Attribute: Globe and China Artwork / Source: fabiusmaximus.com

In this view, the concept of sovereignty is characterized by three main features- a holder of sovereignty possesses authority which provides legitimacy[2], has supremacy and territoriality.[3] Therefore, it is the character of the holder of supreme authority within a territory which is the most important dimension of sovereignty. It is the core elements of sovereignty, that is- territory, recognition, authority and control, which make the nation-states legal, absolute and unitary in the international system. This constitutive principle of the existing international system is also enshrined in the UN Charter which entails political independence and territorial integrity[4], making sovereignty an important international norm that needs to be guided in international relations. Thereby, any kind of intervention is seen as curtailment of sovereignty.

In the words of Kantorowincz, sovereignty can be defined as “a single, unified one, confined within territorial borders, possessing a single set of interests, ruled by an authority that has bundled into a single entity and held supremacy in advocating the interests of the polity. The modern polity is known as the state and the fundamental characteristic of authority within it, sovereignty”. While, Stephen Krasner defines sovereignty as “Westphalian” as “institutional arrangement for organizing political life that is based on two principles: territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from the domestic authority structures”, thereby, “sovereignty is violated when external actors influence or determine domestic authority structures.”

Given this framework of understanding of sovereignty, this paper tries to assess the Chinese construct of sovereignty.

In Chinese terminology, ‘Sovereignty’ is defined as ‘Zhuquan’. In their understanding, the Chinese perceive that an ‘independent state’ is one which has sovereignty and sovereignty is the supreme power of a state in display of its internal affairs and the independence of a state in external relations. Due to the shadow of the past loss of Chinese sovereignty during the ‘century of humiliation’ in the hands of foreign invaders, China as a state projects itself as a great advocate of the idea of sovereignty- as an absolute power within the state’s territorial borders. This distinct Chinese conception of sovereignty can be attributed to three characteristics- sovereignty bound thinking, sovereignty inviolability and, the emphasis on reciprocity and mutuality (Wenhua: 2008).[5] 

It can be said that the Chinese construct of sovereignty is greatly influenced and is embedded in the concept of ‘middle-kingdom’ that can be called as the ‘Sino-centric idea of sovereignty’. There is also an impact of the Confucius concept of ‘Son of Heaven’ or Tian zi.[6]. It is in this view; China asserts that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the sole legitimate government of all China, which means that PRC regime is the sole authority against any foreign interference to decide everything in the territories that it claims to be under its rule. This is clearly reflected in Mao’s thought as to “Clean up the house before inviting the guests” which clearly identifies PRC as the legitimate ruler of China and refrains all forms of extraterritorialities and “Set up a new Kitchen”-  that is Communist Party of China led PRC is the sole representative of the Chinese and not Kuomintang/Nationalist (KMT) led Republic of China (ROC). 

With this thinking, China’s claims over its core sovereignty issues vis-a-vis Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and recently, the South China Sea and East China Sea- can be understood in this framework . In these vital issues of territorial claims, China seems to be trying to extend and consolidate its sovereignty rather than protect it by means of consolidating and defending its historical claims. Therefore, sovereignty has become a mandate with which the PRC national rulers are fully authorized to define China’s national interests against both external and bottom up internal factors which are involved in the configuration of legitimate power.

What can be argued is that, for China, it is the quest for absolute sovereignty. It is thus, the idea of sovereignty that is fundamental to China’s peaceful settlement of disputes, observance of treaties, special privileges and immunities in foreign relations and it is basic to the concepts of non-interference and mutual non-aggression. Therefore, this is what makes the Chinese idea of sovereignty distinct which can be called as ‘Sovereignty with Chinese Characteristics’.
Premier Wen Jiabao at the FPPC’s[7] celebration in Beijing in 2004 stated:

“Sovereignty is the birthmark of any independent state, the crystallization of its national interests and the best safeguard of it holds dear.….No country has the right to impose its will on others, nor can it undermine or deny other countries sovereignty……China will firmly safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity, tolerating no one to interfere in its internal affairs…”

Therefore, the fact lies in China’s staunch attitude towards the idea of sovereignty in the sphere of the international system, which is one of the important characteristics that defines China in world politics.

About The Author:

Amrita Jash (K-5665-2015) is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, INDIA


[1] Peace of Westphalia comprised of three treaties- the Treaty of Osnabruck, the Treaty of Munster and the Treaty of Pyrenees signed between the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France and their respective Allies on October 24, 1648. It concluded the Thirty Years’ War and established the modern concept of sovereign statehood and changed the way nation-states interacted with each other forever.  It is also known as the Treaty of Westphalia.

[2] Authority is understood in terms of the right to command and correlatively the right to be obeyed. As R.P. Wolff says, what is important here is the term ‘right’, which means legitimacy.

[3] Territoriality specifies by what quality citizens are subject to authority- their geographic location within a set of boundaries. It is within a geographic territory that modern sovereigns are supremely authoritative.

[4] In the UN Charter, Article 2(4) prohibits attack o political independence and territorial integrity and Article 2(7) sharply restricts intervention.

[5] Sovereignty bound thinking- is that Chinese officials publicly express their positioning about their right to act in their territory accordingly to what they believe to be necessary. While, ‘reciprocity and mutuality’ is reflected in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

[6]  The concept of ‘Tian zi’ or ‘Son of heaven’ is based on the principle that ‘just as there are not two sons in the sky, so there are not two sons of Heaven on earth’. Therefore, the Emperor is not just the ruler of China but the sovereign of all-under-Heaven.

[7] Wen Jiabao, Carrying forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (FPPC) in the promotion of the peace and development speech at a rally commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in 2004- Chinese Journal of International Law, 3: 363-365.


1.  Carlson, Allen (2004), “Helping to Keep the Peace (Albeit Reluctantly): China’s Recent Stance on Sovereignty and Multilateral Intervention”, Pacific Affairs, 77(1): 9-27.

2.  Carlson, Allen (2011), “Moving Beyond Sovereignty? A brief consideration of recent changes in China’s approach to international order and the emergence of the tianxiaconcept”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20(68): 89-102.

3. Guogang, Wu (2007), “Identity, Sovereignty, and the Economic Penetration: Beijing’s responses to offshore Chinese democracies”, Journal of Contemporary China, 16(51): 295-313.

4.   Hurtgen, James R. (1979), “Hobbes’s Theory of Sovereignty in Levithan”, Reason Papers, 5: 55-67.

5.   ISN, International Relations and Security Network, “Treaty of Westphalia; October 24, 1648”, URL: http://www.isn.ethz.ch.

6.  James, Alan (1999), “The Practice of Sovereign Statehood in Contemporary International Society”, Political Studies, XLVII: 457-473.

7. Ogden, Suzanne (1977), “The Approach of the Chinese Communists to the Study of International Law, State Sovereignty and the International System”, The China Quarterly, 70: 315-337.

8. Straumann, Benjamin (2008), “The Peace of Westphalia as a Secular Constitution”, Constellations Volume, 15(2): 173-188.

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