The South China Sea dispute is one of the critical security dilemmas confronting the Asia-Pacific today. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia all claim various territories in the Sea, the most notable being the Paracel and Spratly Islands. With frequent confrontations, naval stand-offs and nationalist pandering over sovereignty, it is widely believed that the dispute is one of the likeliest to provoke multilateral conflict in the region.
Because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows for overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, complainant states have sought other avenues by which to justify their claims. China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. This assertion rests heavily on historical legitimacy, namely that Chinese sailors, including the famed Zheng He, first discovered the plethora of small islands and cays during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Vietnamese similarly rely on the Emperor Gia Long’s 1816 claim of sovereignty over the Paracel Islands as proof that the territory was theirs first.
All these overlapping historical and legal claims are worrying enough. However, until well into the twentieth century other great powers had their eyes on the strategically-important, and potentially resource-rich, islands and sea lanes of the South China Sea. In the early 20th century the French, then colonial overlords in Indo-China, laid claim to “all islands, islets and reefs” situated between the 7th and 12th degrees of north latitude in the South China Sea.
Their initial design was on the rich guano and potash extracts to be found on the islands. By 1933, French troops occupied Spratly Island, Amboyna Cay, Itu Aba and various other islets as they looked to flex their imperialist muscle. Despite rumours to the contrary, the French did not relinquish their claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea islands to Vietnam in 1956. Despite the last French nationals having been evicted by the invading Japanese in 1939, Rene Coty’s government still desired for the islands to become a French overseas possession, such as Reunion and Guadeloupe are today.
Japan may well have persisted with its own claim over the South China Sea, having annexed many of its islands during WWII. However, the Allied-imposed San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 renounced Japan’s claims over the territory. This is not to say that, under renewed conservative LDP leadership, Japan will not revive this claim in the near future. With frustration mounting over China’s opposition to Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the Japanese may strike a retaliatory posture in the South China Sea, particularly with the recent announcement that its defence budget will be increased.
A more unlikely former claimant is Great Britain. A Law Office report in 1932 stated that “His Majesty’s claim to sovereignty over Spratly Island and Amboyna Cay in April 1930 was of so doubtful a nature that it could only be laid before the Permanent Court of International Justice with a faint prospect of success”. Despite this warning, the British government proceeded with its claim over the two islands despite having little justification to do so. With hopes of building a plane refuelling station on one of the islets, the British opposed the Japanese annexation on the grounds that since “most of the territory covered by the claim consists of rocks the majority of which are to our knowledge incapable of effective occupation and therefore, according to our view of international law, not annexable”. What this logic said about the British claim is difficult to fathom. Commonwealth officials maintained their claim into the 1950s, suggesting that the strategic importance of the islands meant ownership by the Philippines, China, Taiwan or Japan would be highly undesirable. Only the competing French interest prevented a more forceful British stance on the issue.
The interesting thing about territorial claims is that, once they have been made, they can be resurrected at any moment. Additionally, new historical justification for such claims can always be found. Whilst the possibility of Britain, France or any other far-flung power having contemporary designs over the South China Sea may seem preposterous, there are many examples of overseas territorial possessions even in this post-colonial era. The Falkland Islands would be a perfect example, and Britain’s unyielding sovereignty still infuriates the Argentines today. Should China ever overreach itself in the South China Sea, what is to stop the Americans and their allies from wheeling out old territorial claims to put a halt on Chinese expansion? Unlikely, perhaps, but always a possibility. Indeed, for a time in the 1930s, the USA subsumed the Filipino claim for sovereignty over the South China Sea during the period in which it dictated its foreign policy.
We should be perhaps thankful therefore that, with frequent eruptions of disquiet amongst the Asian contestants over the rightful ownership over the islands in the South China Sea, that the former Western colonial powers have refrained from resurrecting their dubious claims to this most delicate stretches of water.
Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office Papers, National Archives