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

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Putin & Abe Unlikely to Resolve Kuril Dispute: sovereignty, nationalism and history combine for toxic mix

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Friday, with the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands set to dominate proceedings...at least from the media’s point of view.

The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very 'constructively'
The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very ‘constructively’

No agreement over the islands was expected to arise from the summit, hampering the potential for the signing of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities between the two nations, an issue left unresolved since World War Two (WWII).

Stretching some 750 miles between the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Kurils are thought to have first been settled by the indigenous Ainu people. Coming under semi-administrative control of the Japanese during the Edo period, the only economic activity of note relating to the islands was fishing and, later, whaling.

The changing borders of the Kuril Islands
The changing borders of the Kuril Islands

In the 19th century, Russia lay claim to the Kurils and in 1855 the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed giving Japan control over the southernmost islands and Russia over the northern ones. In 1875 this was overwritten by the Treaty of St Petersburg which gave full control to the Japanese in return for their relinquishing of any claims to Sakhalin, which came under sole Russian authority.

The Japanese retained control over the Kuril Islands until towards the end of WWII when, with their defeat almost secured, the Soviet Union finally entered the war in the Pacific Theater. Stalin had avoided opening up a second major front during the preceding years due to the ferocity of the fighting during the repulsion of the Nazi invasion. Despite frequent attempts by the Allied forces – particularly the Chinese whose very existence was threatened by Tokyo’s expansionist foreign policy – Stalin had no intention of spreading his forces too widely. He was, however, a ruthless opportunist and Japan’s capitulation offered the prospect of new territory in the Far East.

In 1946, the Soviet authorities expelled the approximately 17,000 Japanese citizens from the Kurils and resettled them with Russians. Despite vociferous protests ever since, the Tokyo administration has never regained any of the islands, which continue to give Russia a strategic foothold on the very threshold of Japanese territory.

Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians
Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians

Commensurate with his rather assertive foreign policy, Putin has in recent years ordered the strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the Kurils, including the construction of new operations bases and missile defence sites. This has understandably not been received with fanfare in Tokyo, particularly given the nationalist tendencies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and of Abe himself. With the Prime Minister intent on creating a more ‘normal’ Japanese foreign policy – essentially allowing Japan to take part in more than just self-defence operations, as prescribed by its post-WWII constitution – territorial disputes such as this remain a potential flashpoint.

Both the East China Sea and, more significantly, the South China Sea have received extensive press attention for the myriad arguments over sovereignty and economic rights, with the Chinese effectively seizing control of the latter with their land reclamation projects and military re-alignment. The Kuril Islands receive less coverage, yet the failure to reach any long-term resolution on the dispute means that it too is a potential cause for inadvertent conflict between the some of the world’s superpowers.

America naturally comes into the equation. It was Roosevelt whose determination to encourage the Soviets to enter the Pacific War led to a promise at the Yalta Conference that Stalin would receive the Kuril Islands. However, when it came to signing the Treaty of San Francisco to secure a lasting peace between Japan and the wartime Allies, Stalin accused the Americans of reneging on their promise at Yalta to recognise Soviet sovereignty over the Kurils. For their part, the Americans stated that the agreement at Yalta only related to the northern Kuril Islands, not the four large southern islands that the Japanese continue to claim. The lasting historical enmity over this supposed duplicity – in addition to Cold War antagonisms – has only increased Soviet obstinacy on the Kuril issue.

With Russia and China both militarising some of the most contentious territorial disputes in the Pacific, and refusing to even acknowledge any counter-arguments to their stated positions, the prospect for an ‘incident’ to occur between two major powers cannot be overlooked. Given the nature of geostrategic power politics in the region, such an incident would likely involve more than the two belligerents.

The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential
The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential

Nationalist tension is undoubtedly high and it is fuelled by history. It would be comforting to think that a meeting between two of the most powerful heads of state may lead to an easing of diplomatic anxiety, yet the reality is more sombre.

Analysts continue to assess the most likely source of a future war between great powers. They would do well to start by looking at the Pacific, a region often overshadowed by the disasters of the Middle East but with a history of violence that is almost comparable.