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Beijing is getting a bad rap in South China Sea disputes

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Beijing gets a largely undeserved bad rap over its efforts to claim and develop islands in the South China Sea — the Spratly and Paracel island groups especially. China has long historical links with the area. And the critics forget that in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty between Japan and the Allied Powers, Article 2(f), states: “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands.”

This renunciation of the two island groups, and of Taiwan itself, was confirmed in the U.S.-brokered 1952 peace treaty between Japan and the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC), then recognized by the United States and Japan as the sole legitimate government of China. So if this meant the ROC had the right to Taiwan then in all logic it also meant the ROC had the right to claim the other islands Japan had renounced in the 1952 treaty — a right which the Beijing-based Peoples Republic of China (PRC) would then normally have been able to claim as a successor government.

The ROC did in fact move to claim the Paracels and until 1950 occupied some of its islands. In 1975 it also claimed sovereignty over all the extensive Spratly island group.

True, others have since made their claims over some of these islands. Taiwan has long been in conflict with the Philippines over largest of the Spratly islands, Taiping or Itu Aba. Malaysia and Brunei also claim ownership of some islands in the group. Towards the Paracels, Vietnam has long had strong claims.

But today the main criticism of Beijing is over the furious pace with which it is dredging and constructing to expand the areas of some of the small islands, rocks and submerged reefs it controls. It is also criticized for then claiming 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial zones and sometimes 200 nm exclusive economic zones (EEZ) around them. The U.S., Japan, and others say these activities deny freedom of the seas. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore late last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter demanded that China immediately halt its “unprecedented” land reclamations in the South China Sea.

Unprecedented? Then what is Japan doing with the tiny Okinotorishima reef area 1,700 km south of Tokyo that it claims as its territory? This “island” originally consisted of no more than two rocks above the water level, each the size of a bed. But it has now been dredged and concretized to create an 8,000 square meter “island” allegedly deserving of not just a 200 nm EEZ but continental shelf rights as well. If the EEZ claim was allowed Japan could control a sea area of more than 400,000 square kilometers, larger than the total land area of Japan itself. If its continental shelf claim was allowed (it is challenged by China and South Korea) it would control three times more. The “island” lies astride important navigation routes and it is touted as helping to deny China’s access to the Pacific. It sustains no economic activity (such activity is a condition for claiming an EEZ) but Tokyo has arrested and fined Taiwanese fishing boats in the claimed EEZ area.

And its reclamation was begun in 1987, well before Beijing’s alleged land grab activities.

Consistency has never been a strong point in U.S. policies. But this contradiction glares a lot more than most.

Some see the problem more in Beijing’s much criticized nine-dash line that effectively claims for China not just the Spratlys and Paracels but almost all the other islands and reefs in the South China Sea. But here too China is following an example set by others — the 11-dash line claimed by the ROC in 1947 before it was replaced by the PRC in 1949. If Beijing is being expansionist in the South China Sea then so was the ROC, strongly supported by the U.S. Elsewhere the ROC was much more land hungry than the PRC in its claims toward Myanmar, India, Mongolia and Japan. Concessions offered by Beijing were often criticized bitterly by the ROC.

Today we see a Beijing less caught up in internal problems, more aware of its economic and military strength and less inclined to make concessions. India’s foolish rejection in 1962 of a very generous frontier offer, for example, has led Beijing to revive earlier and much harsher ROC demands, something we are also seeing in the South China Sea. But in the South China Sea, Beijing also has the excuse of insistent U.S. air, sea and communications monitoring along its coastlines. The U.S. does this under the pretext of exercising air and sea freedom of movement but it only makes sense in the context of the U.S. preparing for possible clashes with China. As others point out, how would the U.S. react if China was behaving the same way in the Gulf of Mexico.

In short, if Beijing has been behaving badly, then so too have others. Even so, it would cost China little to be more compromising. While it often has history on its side, others can claim geography. Toward the Philippines over the Spratlys and toward Vietnam over the Paracels, it could have recognized that they are much closer than is China and they have some rights also. Toward the Philippines especially, Beijing has lost a possible friend in the area by its abrasive criticisms and confrontations.

A situation where Beijing continued to claim and develop areas of interest but allowed others to do likewise in other areas would hardly harm China’s security. In fact it would add greatly to security to the extent that it deprives ex-Cold War warriors in the U.S., Japan and Australia of excuses for muscle flexing and taking advantage of others’s discontent.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat who specialized in China. Long involved in Japan, he has served as a professor, president and vice president in three Japanese universities.

  • iwishitweretrue

    Funny how this article makes a fool of the US’s China containment plans!! The US has wasted 5 years through it’s ill conceived US Asia pivot which revolves around trying to stir up trouble for China in the South China Sea, so as to arouse opposition amongst the countries that surround China so as to alienate China. Had the US studied the history properly in the first place, they would have taken a far more beneficial and constructive approach. Hillary Clinton pushed for the tough militant approach which has backfired, and which she will hopefully dith if she gets into office. Japan, China, and South Korea need a peaceful and stable environment in which to continue growing their economies and not oit of touch people like the US secretary of defense Ashton Carter travelling around Asia trying to make trouble.

    • AlfredvonTirpitz

      Spoken like a true 50-center!

      And what would a “more beneficial and constructive approach” to China look like? Here, take the Senkaku islands, here take the Paracels and Spratleys; sure, they have been China’s territory for 16,000 years. Sure, build another 50 warships per year or so. We welcome China’s “peaceful rise.” Take Okinawa too, why not. It’s on an ancient Chinese map.

      • forsetiboston

        Well in China, Chinese and Chinese apologists eyes these are all Chinese territories from before the continents split. So yes, that would be a more peaceful view. Give us everything so we can “develop it” and then blackmail you for the rest of time.

        The pivot didn’t need to work, to even suggest the U.S. is trying to stir up trouble comes completely from a pro PRC standpoint. China stirred this up on her own and in typical Beijing fashion she is trying to point fingers and play the victim. Great for internal propaganda, doesn’t fool anyone who can read, watch and travel in the area.

      • CLJF

        Agree 100%. China loves to provoke, bully and blame others for its own aggression.

      • You forgot Hawaii. ☺

      • iwishitweretrue

        Pity you are not very erudite!!

        George Soros agrees with me!! Take a read:

        “The United States needs to befriend China or else all hell is going to break loose, argues George Soros in a new article for The New York Review of Books.
        “Both the US and China have a vital interest in reaching an understanding because the alternative is so unpalatable. The benefits of an eventual agreement between China and the US could be equally far-reaching,” he writes.

        “The US government has little to gain and much to lose by treating the relationship with China as a zero-sum game. In other words, it has little bargaining power,” he continues. “It could, of course, obstruct China’s progress, but that would be very dangerous.”

        Soros writes that if Xi Jinping’s market-oriented reforms fail, “he may foster some external conflicts to keep the country united and maintain himself in power” – which could lead to a Sino-Russo military and political alliance (whereas right now they’re mostly just cooperating financially.)

        “In that case, should the external conflict escalate into a military confrontation with an ally of the United States such as Japan, it is not an exaggeration to say that we would be on the threshold of a third world war,” writes Soros.

        Soros adds, however, that he believes it would take at least a decade for a Sino-Russo military alliance that’s ready to take on the States to come together.

        “Rivalry between the US and China is inevitable but it needs to be kept within bounds that would preclude the use of military force,” he writes.

        Soros acknowledges that a strategic partnership between China and the US won’t be easy, and details various differences between the two countries including:
        – The two powers have “fundamentally different” political systems. The US is founded on the principle of individual freedom, while China has a more hierarchical structure.
        – “In recent years the US has led the world in the innovative development of social media, while China has led the world in finding means to control it,” he writes.
        – China, like Russia, considers itself a victim of America’s aspirations to world domination.
        – Conflicts with the US – and others – in the South China Sea, as issues over cyberwarfare and human rights.
        – “The US would like China to adopt its values but the Chinese leadership considers them subversive.”
        “Fully recognizing these difficulties, the US government should nevertheless make a bona fide attempt at forging a strategic partnership with China,” Soros writes.

        “This would involve identifying areas of common interest as well as areas of rivalry. The former would invite cooperation, the latter tit-for-tat bargaining. The US needs to develop a two-pronged strategy that offers incentives for cooperation and deterrents that render tit-for-tat bargaining less attractive.”

        As an note near the end, Soros adds that the US would only be justified in building a strong partnership with China’s neighbors that the growing Sino-Russo alliance “would not dare to challenge by military force,” if and only if a “bona fide” attempt at working with China fails.

        “A partnership with China’s neighbors would return us to a cold war, but that would still be preferable to a third world war.”

      • forsetiboston

        Really we are using Soros here? Good choice.

    • zer0_0zor0

      The US needs to sign UNCLOS.

      • iwishitweretrue

        Yes – it does. But then again, when is the US ever not completeley hypocritical?

  • bob

    A couple of typhoons and these Islands are gone, need to start all over. Good Job creation tactic though…

    • 3xposed

      That depends on the level of fortification the structures built will be using. But keep in mind, all these outposts of various claimant countries have been there for decades so the issue of storms and typhoons have already been experienced and accounted for.

      • bob

        They are building on semi submerged reefs. short of solid concrete anything else will wash away in no time. From the pictures I see they simply packing dirt on top of dirt. Even WITHOUT severe storms it will last no more than a decade.

  • AlfredvonTirpitz

    This article is seriously distorting and misleading.

    Japan might have relinquished the Paracel and Spratley islands (Japan only conquered them in the 1939’s), this does not mean that Vietnam and the Philippines (both colonies at the time) have to recognize this treaty. In fact, both countries have arguments and documents against China’s and Taiwan’s claims.

    The author is correct to say that China is not the only one reclaiming land, but to compare what China is doing in the SCS with Japan and Okinotorishima is ridiculous. No other country claims Okinotorishima. Japan is not building multiple naval and air bases in the middle of a disputed and highly sensitive area, which is what China is doing.

    “But here too China is following an example set by others — the 11-dash line claimed by the ROC in 1947 before it was replaced by the PRC in 1949. If Beijing is being expansionist in the South China Sea then so was the ROC, strongly supported by the U.S. ”

    This too is willfully distorting. The author is correct to point out that if China’s claims in the SCS are expansionist then too is the ROC (their claims being largely the same), but the U.S. does NOT recognize the ROC/Taiwan’s claims any more than it does China’s! The U.S. simply asks all to refrain from escalating the situation and does not take an official position on the disputed islands.

    “The U.S. does this under the pretext of exercising air and sea freedom of movement but it only makes sense in the context of the U.S. preparing for possible clashes with China.”

    Are you serious?

    • Starviking

      I was just going to post on the very-same points.

      Well-made!

    • forsetiboston

      I have a feeling the author of the article with a surname of “Clark” has an agenda. This article as you so eloquently state has no foundation in reality. But good job trying to dupe JT readers into joining the pro PRC side.

    • 99Pcent

      China should dismantle their “pretend” islands immediately.

    • zer0_0zor0

      The points about Okinotorishima would appear to be about the unallowable claims for an EEZ and continental shelf rights, which is even more ludicrous.

  • michaelturton

    Why does this publication continue to take utter nonsense from PRC apologist Gregory Clark? Consider only this:

    “”””So if this meant the ROC had the right to Taiwan then in all logic it also meant the ROC had the right to claim the other islands Japan had renounced in the 1952 treaty — “”””

    Neither the US nor Japan ever gave Taiwan to the ROC. To this very day the position of both is that Taiwan’s status is undetermined. The US One China policy does not include Taiwan. Since Clark asserts the opposite, readers can choose whether Clark is a lying shill or Clark is a raging incompetent. In neither case should he be permitted space in a major East Asian paper of record.

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

    • forsetiboston

      Good point, I spend some time in the ROC and I felt like this article was endorsing China’s claims based on Taiwanese treaties. Taiwan is Taiwan not China nor does it belong to China. This guy is nothing more than a wolf in sheeps clothing promoting propaganda from Beijing.

      Beijing gets a bad rap because Beijing is asking for a bad rap. There is no other story to be told here.

    • 99Pcent

      Taiwan is not part of China. CCP can never rule Taiwan.

      • forsetiboston

        Totally agree and sometimes have to be careful. There is a clear disconnect between the CCP and the PLA, the two have very different agendas. One has to wonder who is controlling who.

      • forsetiboston

        PS did you or I mention Taiwan is TAIWAN! A great country with great people. If Taiwan could do for China what it has done for Taiwan watch out world.

    • zer0_0zor0

      Nonsense, you are the shill, and you have a lot of company here…

      • forsetiboston

        So an opinion that doesn’t mesh with Propaganda makes us all shills? Interesting, please do tell us more since a one liner does not a coherent comment make.

      • zer0_0zor0

        You are a shill working for an intelligence agency and spreading propaganda.

      • forsetiboston

        Right my intelligence was gained through studying the issues. However I thank you for the compliment.

        Speaking of propaganda I wonder just where your passion comes from? Couldn’t be that you are a Chinese expat or sitting in the mainland somewhere could it?

      • forsetiboston

        Too right, how did you figure that out?

  • MeTed

    “But in the South China Sea, Beijing also has the excuse of insistent
    U.S. air, sea and communications monitoring along its coastlines. The
    U.S. does this under the pretext of exercising air and sea freedom of
    movement but it only makes sense in the context of the U.S. preparing
    for possible clashes with China. As others point out, how would the U.S.
    react if China was behaving the same way in the Gulf of Mexico.”

    If someone flew around The U.S., the Americans might not like it, but there’s nothing they can do about it. The Russians have for a long time flown military aircraft around Japan for the purpose of listening in. Even with their many bases I haven’t seen America get too annoyed with that.

    • forsetiboston

      I might add that Russian (now) and in the day Soviet subs park off the 14nm limit 24/365. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean the U.S. does not know they are there. However as stated above there isn’t much we can do about it.

      We could pull a flying Beijinger and decide to extend the 14nm limits. Or we could continue to be big boys and watch them like hawks.

    • 99Pcent

      The US is in the area because the Philippines, Vietnam and other SEA claimants want the USA there. These SEA nations depend on resources and ancient sea lanes to survive. China is disrupting this on false made up history. USA can fly around this area, it does not belong to China.

      • zer0_0zor0

        You should at least read about the history before making stuff up.

      • forsetiboston

        If the history is factual as I have said before China should go to the international courts and prove its case. Not because she has to, but because it would show good faith and cooperation. It would not show a large nation pushing people around and doing as it pleases without any regard for others.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Nonsense, the US hasn’t even signed UNCLOS.

        Bu the US indirectly supports the absolutely bogus position of Abe and other Japanese right-wingers on the Diaoyu/Senkakus (nondispute).

      • forsetiboston

        So instead of taking the high road and acting as a country that respects laws China repeatedly chooses her road. If you want to revisit the SF Treaty lets do it, I agree China was left out because the Brits and Yanks couldn’t agree on who to invite. Aggression is not the way gentlemen settle disputes. That is clearly lost on you but I digress.

      • forsetiboston

        I thought I replied to this. If China considers Senkaku a non dispute follow the rule of law and lay the claim. I agree that Beijing were left out of the San Francisco treaty because the Brits and the Yanks could not agree on whether to invite Chiang Kai-Shek or Mao. So let’s reopen the treaty petition through the legal framework and just finish it.

        The other option is to aggressively intimidate everyone in the region and make old enemies new ones. Certainly doesn’t seem in line with a peaceful, law abiding society.

      • forsetiboston

        I might add, this is not about the U.S. only concern she has is navigation of the seas. China are the only nation with an excessive territorial waters claim. I can imagine the outrage if the U.S. instead of 14NM went out to 500.

      • zer0_0zor0

        blah, blah, blah, Black Sheep…

      • forsetiboston

        So, that is your response? First you attack me as some type of intelligence agent. I try to explain to you I do business in Asia and you again play the victim. It seems to me that your behavior models that of a particular large nation making its own rules in Asia. Nicely done sir.

  • 99Pcent

    Oh My!! Mr Gregory Clark, have thou fallen so far as to be fed by those “reds”?

  • 99Pcent

    LOL…….whatever happened to the peaceful rise of China???

    • CLJF

      It never existed.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Try studying defense spending figures between the US and China.

  • zer0_0zor0

    “Japan’s claim of its continental shelf based on Okinotori Atoll was not acknowledged by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. China welcomes the decision,” the Xinhua News Agency quoted China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying Wednesday.

    And your point is?

    • Asean Unite

      China is two faced. while protesting Japan’s enhancement of Okinotorishima,. It uses it as an example to force it’s own claims. Hypocrite! While it espouses UNCLOS against japan in the east China Sea. It won’t follow UNCLOS in the SCS.

  • zer0_0zor0

    An informative piece by Mr. Clarke, despite the fear-mongering hypocrites and anti-China propagandists.

  • Bel Rick

    Yeah, something called intelligence tells decent people that PRoC has only existed for less than 70 years.
    “China has long historical links with the area”

    Whatever country you are thinking of, it isn’t PRoC

    • CLJF

      Both “long” and “links” are ill-defined and unsupported by any evidence that would stand up in an international court of law. That’s why China cowardly refuses to respond the Philippines’ law suit – it knows it doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on and the Philippines will win.

      • zer0_0zor0

        Maybe that is the case with the Spratlys, but there are many countries with conflicting claims there, including Taiwan, so it is not cut and dry.

        It is not the case with respect to the Paracels, though.

      • forsetiboston

        Oddly enough Taiwan chooses not to intrude and disrupt a mostly peaceful region.

        Take it to court and show you are a peaceful nation with the rule of law as a major consideration. Or, take matters into your own hands – stir up animosity and deal with the consequences. (Which will be blamed on the evil Western governments no doubt.)

      • zer0_0zor0

        You are obviously a shill working for an intelligence agency and spreading propaganda.

      • forsetiboston

        Takes a lot of intelligence to do frequent business in Taiwan and talk to the locals. Try it sometime you will be mortified at what they say about the beloved mainland. Those of us traveling Asia for business know all too well what people think. Here in Japan they are all too happy to tolerate and take the money.

      • forsetiboston

        Or obviously someone who does business in Asia and listens to concerns about Beijing. Either or, you choose.

  • Ah Ee Tan

    The author and commentor Iwishitweretrue have put up a comprehensive and BIG picture of this issue’ WELL , Geoge Soro ‘ a financial strategist’s analysis, is as good on this political strategy…he is well quality to run for” US Presidency”. I just pray that the peaceful rising CHINA, will not be forced to turn into Urgly War Monger!….a sleeping Giant who has not been enjoying peace since a hundred odd years ago…either raped and torn by advanced countries ALLIANCE or Japaese warlords. And ,it looks like these history is going to repeat… from the current scenarios…SIGH! It is not a joke! that after the Nuclear 3rd world war, the following 4th world war will restart with sticks and stones like 30,000 years ago. Albeit, US has approximate 1655 nuclear warheads, Russia has appro. 1656, China has approx. 800 and Japan has 4.5 tonnes of nuclear material and come 1000 warheads in 6 months time!

    • forsetiboston

      Did you forget all about the Mao and all the people he slaughtered? Peaceful indeed, the meek shall inherit the earth. But nuclear war is a bit far fetched, our economies are way too intertwined and the richest 2% would not want anything to bother their golf games.