International Law and the Politics of Neutrality in the Sino-French War, 1884–85

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton)
Jonathan Chappell, New York University Shanghai
The war between France and China over influence in northern Vietnam is one of the most overlooked incidents in the turbulent history of western relations with Qing China in the nineteenth century. Yet other nations in China, particularly Britain and America, had to respond to the conflict to protect their citizens residing in the conflict zone and defend their trading interests. What followed appears to contradict much of the traditional narrative about China’s exemption from consideration under international law until she met a European-defined ‘standard of civilization’ in the twentieth century. Despite this, during the war British, American, Qing and French officials indulged in a series of legal disputes on topics ranging from what constituted a declaration of war, how many ships made up an effective blockade and which items could be considered munitions of war.

This paper uses British, French, American and Qing correspondence during the Sino-French war to explore these legal controversies and their implications for our understanding of the development of international law in the extra-European world. China, like the Ottoman Empire, but unlike formal colonies, was not subject to domination by one European power but rather had to negotiated with several powers at once. In the case of the Sino-French conflict this dynamic led to a negotiation of legal rights and precedents that involved Qing actors as much as Europeans and Americans. The need for European consuls and military officials to act within the confines of internationally recognised norms when dealing with other European powers created space for Qing officials to participate in international legal discourse.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>