China’s Belt and Road, Questions over Concepts of Nationality and Sovereignty

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The frontispiece of the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes “Leviathan”, depicting the concept of sovereignty as a massive body wielding a sword and crosier and composed of many individual people

While not directly aimed at re-structuring thoughts concerning globally important ideological issues, China’s Belt & Road Initiative is shaping up, as part of it’s political impact, to be provoking some interesting debate about the nature of what constitutes sovereignty, and the underlying issues of this concept.

Sovereignty is broadly described as being the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity. It is a basic principle underlying the dominant Westphalian model of state foundation. Westphalian sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation-state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. External powers should not interfere in another country’s domestic affairs. Each state, no matter how large or small, has equal rights to sovereignty. The principle underlies the modern international system of sovereign states. The United Nations Charter which was agreed upon and signed off on by UN members States in 1945, states that “nothing should authorize intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”

However, this principle has been challenged on numerous occasions and by many of its signatory members as and when it suits them to do so, not least the United States, China, Russia and many other nations. China’s Belt & Road Initiative, due to the very nature of its massive cross-border and geo-political reach, is however now starting to raise important questions with far-reaching implications about how the world views such concepts. China itself has apparently taken the view that once born a Chinese national, that status exists forever. That this appears so can be seen in the Chinese detention of people of interest, which typically include people that have become politically embarrassing. This extends to people who are technically nationals of other countries, yet who were born in China, such as the Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who was detained while travelling with diplomats on a train in China and is now imprisoned with no Swedish consular support being allowed. Clearly, Beijing views him and is treating him as they would a Chinese national. His Swedish passport has become a matter of some irrelevance. There are several similar examples. As this Wall Street Journal article points out, for Chinese born detainees, a foreign passport provides few protections.

The same is also true in the current Sergei Skripal case playing out between Russia and the United Kingdom. Skripal was a double agent, caught spying for the UK and subsequently sentenced to prison for treason in Russia, then exchanged in return for Russian spies imprisoned in the UK. The UK are now stating he is a British national. In doing so, they are accusing Moscow of the attempted murder of a Briton. Moscow however continues to regard him as a traitor, even though he was pardoned upon extradition to London. It seems Sergei Skripal in Russia at least, is still regarded as Russian, with the majority of Russians regarding him as traitorous and beneath contempt. The more serious aspect of the incident, the use of chemical weapons in public in the UK, is being watered down among the arguing of the extent of his Russian or Britishness.

These two incidents, different in nature, do however point out the inconsistencies in approach when it comes to regarding individuals nationality and where their ultimate sovereign responsibilities lie. In the case of China and Russia, it would seem to indicate that once born and having grown up in these countries as an ethnic citizen, one is tied to that concept for life, irrespective of any changing of passport.

It is interesting to note that the UK sometimes gives citizenship to foreign spies and agents. Traditionally such individuals were regarded with contempt, as they had already broken a solemn swearing of sovereignty allegiance and were considered traitors. In the times of Chinghhis Khan, traitors crossing over to Chinghhis’s army were cross-examined for intelligence, then routinely executed for their dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness, even to the Khan’s own enemies. One has to question the British policy of allowing what are high-risk foreign nationals, considered traitors elsewhere, freedom to live in the UK, and to give them citizenship. In the case of Skripal, it has obviously caused inherent national security problems which were not adequately addressed or understood at the time of granting him such status. That intelligence or protocol gap has now been exposed as a serious flaw, with or without Moscow’s culpability in the Salisbury incident.

This greying of what it means to take on another nationality also extends beyond the individual to now include the blurring of what is meant by sovereign territory. China and Russia again both have cases to consider in this regard. China has taken effective control of large areas of the South and East China Seas by building structures on previously uninhabited, and even underwater reefs and shoals scattered throughout these waters. Technically recognized internationally as being in “international waters” and claimed by several nations, China has merely ignored these protocols and taken possession, claiming they are historically Chinese. Often quoting the infamous “Nine-Dash Line“, a previously obscure, Mao era reference dating back to 1947 and occasionally amended.

China subsequently fell foul of a United Nations ruling of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which it is a signatory, in 2016 following a request for a ruling and clarification over the Nine Dash Line by the Philippines. The UN ruled that China’s stance was illegal and the area remained international waters. China has simply ignored this, and threatened to leave Unclos. They would not be the only major power to do so – in fact the United States has never signed up to it. Such behaviour by both Washington and Beijing effectively undermine international agreements – which turn out not to actually be so, and are in any event unenforceable. This challenges the current understanding of what is meant by sovereignty. In the case of Beijing, it means possession and the establishment of a national rule of law over a specific territory it administers.

Russia too has come under the spotlight – and to the same conclusions when it comes to sovereignty, yet unlike China has been hit by sanctions for its troubles. Annexing the Crimea in 2014 followed a revolution in Ukraine, partially caused by political unrest created by political moves to include Ukraine into the European Union and become part of the West’s NATO alliance. The problem for Kiev was that the Crimea has very strong Russian ties, is largely Russian-speaking, and had been part of Russia since 1783. Prior to that it had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. With the Crimea being pro-Russian, Kiev had not funded or supported the region especially well, creating local discontent. Moscow meanwhile was very much against having NATO expand to include the Ukraine. The end result has been predictable, a NATO supported, de facto Ukrainian civil war with Russia. Moscow did in fact initiate a Crimean referendum on voting for or against a return to Russia, with the vast majority voting in favor. That referendum was declared illegal by Kiev, however it did not prevent Russian troops moving in to “return” Crimea to Russia, and be restructured under the laws of the Russian Federation, a situation that still exists today. Russia has in fact been injecting billions of dollars into the Crimea, something that had been lacking under the Kiev regime. Again, the same situation applies, albeit with the involvement of a vote among the local people. Sovereignty exists when possession, rule of law and administration applies.

Crimea is not the only example of this. The United Kingdom declared war on Argentina and fought over the possession of the Falkland Islands under the same premises, while the United States invaded Grenada after a local Government took power and adopted a communist philosophy. The invasion was followed by the re-installing of a democratic government funded by and more to Washington’s tastes.

Meanwhile, Estonia has developed the concept of “e-residency“, which offers members certain rights, (mainly related to commerce) but not the right of abode. Again, a more fluid interpretation how nationality and sovereignty can be described.

These instances demonstrate that the concepts of nationality and sovereignty are in fact somewhat fluid and dictated often by political and military will rather than democracy. The fact that both the West, and the East get up to the same jiggery-pokery in justifying their involvement in other nations sovereignty, and are prepared to act contrary to the UN Charter itself, which states “nothing should authorize intervention in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” shows that these remain just words.

Sanctions can be used as a weapon, essentially by the West upon the East when it considers it politic to do so, however I suspect that the reach of the Belt & Road will mean that China especially will have to deal with the question of what constitutes sovereignty and how to address this over the course of the next couple of decades. It remains a currently open debate with an increasingly fluid and diverse amount of opinion over what it is, how to define it, and how to react if it doesn’t work out as desired. The Belt & Road by default, will lead to the closer examining of these concepts over time. The countries involved might like to take a closer look at how to determine their own sovereignty over their own administrative possessions, as potential questions about them may in future be asked.


About Us

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates and a Professor of Practice at Russia’s Higher School of Economics. His firm provide business consultancy across China, Russia, India, ASEAN and the Belt & Road nations. To contact Chris, please email


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