Beijing Stands by Selective History and Rejects South China Sea Ruling

Tensions in the South China Sea continue their inexorable rise after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled Tuesday that China had violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines by building artificial islands around Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese have responded with typical defiance, reiterating their ‘legitimate’ claims to this entire swath of the Pacific Ocean, whilst also stating their right to create an air defence zone over the region should they so wish.

AFP
AFP

Of course, the South China Sea dispute does not merely revolve around China and the Philippines. Indeed, it is one of the critical security dilemmas confronting the Asia-Pacific today. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia also claim various atolls and islets in the Sea, the most notable being the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The West, and in particular the USA, also has more than a passing interest in the issue and has tentatively tested China’s resolve in recent months with freedom of navigation exercises in the immediate vicinity of Beijing’s man-made islands.

With increasingly frequent confrontations, naval stand-offs and nationalist pandering over sovereignty, it is perfectly conceivable that the dispute, if mismanaged, could one day lead to 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’s assertion of sovereignty over the entire sea rests heavily on historical legitimacy. Namely, the government asserts that Chinese sailors, including the famed Zheng He and his historic ‘star fleets’, 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.

The voyages of Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He are revered in China
The voyages of Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He are revered in China

These overlapping historical and legal claims are worrying enough. However, the situation could be even worse. Until well into the twentieth century other great powers had trained their eyes on the strategically-important, and potentially resource-rich, islands and waterways 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 Sea. Their initial design was on the rich guano and potash extracts to be found on several of the islands. By 1933, French troops occupied Spratly Island, Amboyna Cay, Itu Aba and various other rocky outposts 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 eviction of the last French nationals on the islands by the invading Japanese in 1939, Rene Coty’s government still held out hopes of regaining the territories as an 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 their sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the Japanese may strike a retaliatory posture in the South, particularly with the Abe government now in a position to amend the constitution.

Earlier this year, Japan sent a Hyuga-class destroyer to take part in naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea
Earlier this year, Japan sent a Hyuga-class destroyer to take part in naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea

A former claimant state less likely to renew its interest in the region 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 Beijing’s rhetoric in recent months, this sentiment must have been similar to that experienced by Xi Jinping and his ruling cabal when the Philippines lodged its complaint with The Hague.

Despite the Law Office 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, the British vehemently opposed the Japanese annexation of WWII. Their reasoning? “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 statement said about the logic of the British claim is difficult to fathom but it is an argument that has frequently been repeated in recent years. Are the splattering of outcrops in the South China Sea definable as islands? If not, then claims to surrounding territory on the grounds of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are bogus, which is why China has sought to artificially increase the land mass and habitability of many islets.

China has been brazen in its artificial extension of the South China Sea islets, including thestationing there of sophisticated military hardware
China has been brazen in its artificial extension of the South China Sea islets, including thestationing there of sophisticated military hardware

British Commonwealth officials maintained their belligerent if futile posture on the issue into the 1950s. Only the competing French interest prevented a more forceful riposte from London when unable to achieve its ambitions.

One interesting thing to note about territorial claims in general 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 disputes persisting into the post-colonial era. The Falkland Islands is just one example, and Britain’s unyielding sovereignty still infuriates the Argentinians to this day.

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 Beijing’s aggressive 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 Manila’s foreign policy.

We should perhaps be thankful, therefore, that with frequent eruptions of disquiet amongst the Asian contestants over the ownership of the islands in the South China Sea, the former Western colonial powers have refrained from resurrecting their dubious claims to this most delicate stretch of water.

Competing claimant governments have nationalised the South China Sea dispute for political gain
Competing claimant governments have nationalised the South China Sea dispute for political gain

What the USA will make of China’s continuing challenge to its domination of the Pacific Ocean will be a question for the near future…perhaps one to be resolved as soon as new footsteps cross the threshold of the White House.

Source

British Foreign & Commonwealth Office papers from the National Archives

The Wat Tyler of his time? Farage ascends but history serves him an important warning

So after a prolonged, divisive, fraudulent campaign, the British people have confirmed their gullibility by voting to ‘Leave’ the European Union. Heavily influenced by a baying tabloid press and their own xenophobia, 52% of the population has ignored reason and morality to serve a devastating blow to the continent as a whole.

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The disgraceful lies of the ‘Leave’ campaigners – particularly their spurious claims of £350m savings from the EU budget being re-diverted to the NHS – and the tabloids’ predatory insinuations about the potential for mass immigration should the UK retain the status quo, have proved significant. They were too strong for the ‘Remain’ campaign and its divided Tory leadership, the pitiful showing of Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour party’s misreading of their own supporters. Despite an overwhelming majority in Scotland and London favouring continued EU membership, most of the rest of the UK decided that it was time that Britain cut ties with its European neighbours. Even Wales, a former Labour heartland reliant on extremely generous subsidies from Westminster, voted ‘Leave’.

Of course throughout the entire build-up to the referendum, one figure stood above all: Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, a man compared by some political commentators as the ‘Wat Tyler of our time’.

Farage: an ordinary, decent bloke
Farage: an ordinary, decent bloke

On first glance it might seem odd to compare the back-stabbing, vituperative, unrepentant Farage to the 14th century leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. But a closer look reveals some intriguing similarities.

Like Tyler, Farage hails from Kent and has constantly been at pains to point out his status as an ‘ordinary, decent’ bloke, concerned only with the ‘true desires’ of ‘ordinary, decent people’. Tyler, too, was a self-styled man of the people, his obscure origins clouding just how ‘ordinary’ he actually was. Nevertheless, both men can undoubtedly be seen as political opportunists.

The Peasants’ Revolt ostensibly arose as an opposition to King Richard II’s implementation of a poll tax. Whilst certainly an extremely unpopular measure, the grievances of the peasantry were at this point in history many. Following the devastating Black Death of the mid-century, the economic conditions of an underpopulated realm were dire. Furthermore, their social and political prospects were non-existent, the elitist royal state more reminiscent of an oligarchy by the day, the pre-Magna Carta times relived even for those of ‘lesser’ noble blood.

The Black Death ravaged 14th century England, as it did much of Europe
The Black Death ravaged 14th century England, as it did much of Europe

Tyler united his peasant forces around the issue of the poll tax, even if this was just one facet of a class-wide dissatisfaction. Similarly, Farage almost exclusively campaigned on a single issue; immigration. This was a ruthless platform – accompanied by Nazi-style propaganda posters depicting an apocalyptic post-Turkey accession to the EU – harnessing the powers and immorality of the popular mass media to forge a xenophobic unity across vast swathes of the country.

However ‘inspirational’ such leaders at first appear to be, long-term success is far from guaranteed when trying to control a popular mass movement anathema to the ruling elite. And however many MPs, Lords and Ladies voted ‘Leave’, the vast majority of both Houses of Parliament will be infuriated by the results of the referendum.

Wat Tyler overreached himself in 1381, having been granted an unprecedented audience with King Richard at Smithfield. Chroniclers regale how Tyler spoke to the king with ill-disguised contempt, addressing him in overly-familiar terms that would have been heretical to his 14th century contemporaries. This after a panicked King Richard had agreed to concessions for the peasantry.

After being called ‘the greatest thief and robber in all Kent’ by a royal aide, Tyler went on the rampage, which included an attempt to stab the Mayor of London. In the ensuing melee Tyler was wounded, although he managed to briefly escape to a hospital for the poor on the outskirts of the city. His respite was brief, however, the damage already done. Dragged back to the Smithfield by the Mayor and his supporters, Tyler was publicly decapitated, his head stuck on spike and displayed on London Bridge as a warning to the rebels. King Richard reneged on his promises and the peasants left empty-handed to return to their lives of toil.

Wat Tyler meets his death at Smithfield
Wat Tyler meets his death at Smithfield

Farage is unlikely to meet such a grisly fate, although one would suspect that there are no shortage of people who would revel in seeing his grinning mug impaled upon a famous London landmark. However, to reach the top, Farage has alienated the majority of his past supporters and made promises to the electorate that he is either not in the position to keep, or were downright lies in the first place.

When Brexit takes affect and Britain’s economy goes into nosedive, when immigration continues at a steady pace and multiculturalism takes hold even more firmly in British cities, what then? Who will the people that voted ‘Leave’ blame for the false promises and the sugar-coated apparitions of a non-existent future?

Farage’s finest hour may belatedly have arrived but like Tyler it is not destined to last for time immemorial. The elite forces who steer the country will soon end their bickering and rally to preserve the status quo. Brexit may yet happen but the admittedly unforeseeable consequences are unlikely to satiate the demands of a rebellious, ill-informed electorate.

The Mayor of London’s sword is being readied, the spike atop London Bridge receiving a first coat of wax in anticipation of the coming storm. What remains to be seen is how Farage negotiates his own exit because, however convincing this master orator can be, his fall will duly come.

As with Tyler, his will be a legacy of futile rebellion.