Sovereignty / 主权,国权

Sovereignty / 主权,国权


The concept of state sovereignty can be defined as the exclusive right of states to govern within their own territory. In China, sovereignty should be understood as absolute and perpetual state power, where the state is governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Moreover, it is intimately linked to China’s emphasis on mutual non-interference in domestic affairs, as outlined in the (1954) Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.

China is a principled defender of a strong normative understanding of sovereignty and includes state sovereignty as one of its non-negotiable “national core interests”, of which the overarching interest is the Communist Party’s continued monopoly on power. From the Communist Party’s perspective, sovereignty includes the exclusive right of the government of a sovereign nation to exercise control over issues within its own borders, including, for example, its political, economic, cultural, and technological activities. The CCP includes the territory within China’s de jure borders, as well as its territorial claims, in its concept of state sovereignty. As such, Taiwan and land formations in the South China Sea, for example, set the outer geographical boundaries of its claims to state sovereignty.


China bases its concept of state sovereignty on selective historical territorial claims. For example, the CCP claims to have sovereignty over Taiwan dating back to the Qing empire (1644-1911). While it does not claim parts of present-day Mongolia, which were once ruled by the Yuan empire (1271-1368) (and later the Qing empire), Beijing argues that parts of the South China Sea were under Chinese jurisdiction during the same period and should therefore be recognised as its sovereign territory. Despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 finding that China’s “historical” claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis, Beijing continues to maintain this position.

In 2009 China apparently won support from the United States for its sovereignty and territorial claims when a joint statement issued by the Obama-Hu Jintao summit included language suggesting that the parties have agreed to respect one another’s “core interests”. As China’s core interests include its sovereignty over Taiwan, the statement could be interpreted as a recognition that Taiwan is a part of China, which would have been a major shift in America’s China policy. The term “core interests” did not appear in the joint statement for the second Hu-Obama summit.[1]

China’s adherence to Westphalian norms of sovereignty is another strong influence over its posture in the international human rights debate. China insists that a country’s level of development, culture and values has to be taken into account, which places strict limits on international human rights monitoring and enforcement. China tends to regard humanitarian intervention with great suspicion, arguing that it could serve as a pretext for Western countries to interfere in the domestic affairs of other states, thereby threatening their sovereignty.

Cyber sovereignty should be understood as referring to China’s efforts to control the flow of information available to internet users in China in order to ensure social stability and regime legitimacy, while playing a leading role in the global governance of cyberspace. As such, “cyber sovereignty” constitutes a pushback against ideas that cyberspace should be a free, open and global platform governed primarily by a bottom-up approach.

Cultural sovereignty can be defined as the state’s right to promote its cultural interests independently, i.e., without external interference. The CCP claims jurisdiction over issues relating to Chinese culture in other countries, when official narratives are challenged. In October 2020, for example, the Chinese authorities attempted to censor an exhibition on Genghis Khan at a Museum in Nantes, France. According to the museum, Chinese officials wanted to rewrite the history of Mongolia.

Religious sovereignty is rarely invoked in Chinese discourse, but the fact that the Chinese Communist Party asserts sovereignty over religious affairs outside its borders makes it worth mentioning here. For example, Beijing claims to be the highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism, despite the Party’s secular nature. While the 14th Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual authority in Tibetan Buddhism, resides in India, the CCP insists that it has the sovereign right to identify and appoint the next Dalai Lama.

[1] R.C. Bush, ‘Unchartered Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations’, Washington, D.C., The Brookings Institution, 2013, p. 222.