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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office papers from the National Archives