Sovereignty is the most used and abused concept in international relations. The Qing dynasty in China, comprising ethnic Manchus, conquered Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, and today China resents any talk of human rights violations in these regions and calls it a violation of its sovereignty. Russia has been pounding Ukraine for the last two months saying the sovereignty of Ukraine is a fiction. China gave loans to Sri Lanka to create a port and other infrastructure using Chinese manpower and supplies. Now, when Sri Lanka is unable to repay the loans as the infrastructure did not produce the promised revenue stream, China says it is sovereign debt that can be paid with sovereign assets as was paid earlier with the 99-year lease of the Hambantota port to a Chinese company. Of course, China refused to pay the sovereign debt incurred by the Qing rulers when they issued Railways bonds, most of which are held by Americans. Yet, the Treaty on Hong Kong signed by the same Manchu rulers was found by China to be enforceable as the 99-year lease held by the UK neared its end. So, sovereign promises are always binding except when one party decides that these are not binding but sovereign annexation of territory is certainly a windfall for the successor as has been the Crimea for Russia. Crimea was a part of the Ottoman Empire and was seized by Imperial Russia by force and has been again seized by Putin by force in the name of historical sovereignty.
An 11-dash line was drawn on a map of the South China Sea by the geographer Yang Huairen for the Nationalist Kuomintang government of China in 1947 when at the end of the WW II, with the defeat of Japan, there was a power vacuum in this area. Mao erased two dashes in 1952 to give up China’s claim over Tonkin in favour of Vietnam and the Nine-dash line was born. Now, Xi Jinping claims that it gives China sovereign rights over almost the entire South-China Sea, even over islands hundreds of miles away from the Chinese coast and next door to other littoral states of South-east Asia. Non-intervention in internal affairs is a primary attribute of sovereignty as is its negation – the right to wage war. Wars take place when the aggressor develops an interest in the territory or an ethnic or linguistic group in the victim state. The aggressor decides that this has ceased to be the internal affair of the victim.
Multilateral intervention too is based on the conclusion that the events have ceased to be purely internal affairs and hence justify international action. When the Hutus and the Tutsis started hacking each other in Rwanda in 1994, the world decided that it was a human rights crisis and so international forces descended on Kigali, enforced a truce and subjected complicit leaders to trial. One would think that with each passing decade there would be reduced tolerance for such neighbourhood massacres. Yet, three decades later, Ukrainians, whose capital Kyiv can lay claim to the birth of Russia and Russians, are being massacred in their thousands with Ukrainian civilians and soldiers and foreign fighters contributing their share of abuses and killings. In this episode the method of choice for handling the massacre is diplomacy and dialogue with world leaders making a beeline for “talks” as cities are levelled, ships are sunk and more than half a million women and children flee and become refugees. The concept of sovereignty is relatively new in comparison to the long history of wars and massacres. It found roots only with the Treaty of Westphalia and within a few centuries it was weakened by the concept of having five permanent members of the UN Security Council, negating the UN preamble of “We, the peoples of the United Nations”. Four of the permanent members – the US, the UK, France and Russia have less than 15 percent of the population of the world while India, that has 20 percent, is not in that group. The combined GDP of the UK, France and Russia is about $8 trillion, 10 percent of the world’s total. In terms of area, France and the UK are at number 49 and 80 in the world.
Thus, nations that can ride roughshod over the will of the rest of the world through their Veto power are not all there by virtue of their size, population or economy. Yet, the remaining nations of the world are less sovereign than these five. Global trade further compromises sovereignty by opening the gates of a nation to foreigners. When we are an exporting country in a competitive market, we cater to the needs of the buyer nations and bend backwards to please them to buy from us. Nothing in the world is in short supply if we ignore the price factor. Since most of the time this is not ignored, sovereignty becomes dependent on the price differential. Nations like China that decide to offer artificially low prices, make a dent in the sovereignty of the buyer nations. Primary producers do the same by withholding supplies to punish those who assert their sovereignty. Josep M. Colomer in his 2007 book “Great Empires, Small Nations: The uncertain future of the sovereign state” concludes that “It is the large-scale markets and public goods provided by vast empires that make small nations viable” and that “in many cases in Africa, Latin America and the Arab region, the very idea of ‘state’ is frustrated since governments have not attained an internal monopoly nor external sovereignty”. This statement hides a possibility that these nations may attain “external sovereignty” at some time in the future. Yet, there are 75 nations in the world that have a population of less than one million and are still endowed with the fiction of sovereignty with equal voting rights in the UN General Assembly and other international bodies. For such countries, there is not even a hope that they shall ever achieve the expected degree of external sovereignty.
In this scenario of make-believe sovereignty of a large number of nations, are they doomed to live under the shadow of larger nations, whether the shadow is benign or not? Is the concept of sovereignty a cloak hiding under which the powerful nations can determine the fate of smaller nations without ever having the responsibility for the humanity living in such nations? Are the recent migrations from war zones a price the powerful nations have to pay for their power without burden? We shall explore answers to these questions in this column next week?