Commentary / World

Beijing is getting a bad rap in South China Sea disputes

by Gregory Clark

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.