Commentary / World

The forces behind Beijing's South China Sea claims

by Yoichi Funabashi

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague handed down a ruling in July that China lacked a legal basis for its claim to “historic rights” across the “nine-dash line” territorial demarcation in the South China Sea. Particularly damaging to China was the international tribunal’s outright rejection of its claim to historic rights in the region.

Control of the South China Sea first became a contentious issue in the 1930s. Based on reports that Japan would take over the islands of the South China Sea, in 1933 French forces occupied Taiping (also known as Itu Aba) Island in the Spratly chain, forcing the evacuation of all Japanese nationals. Two years later, France transferred 30 Vietnamese to the island. At the time, Vietnam was still under French colonial rule and known as French Indochina.

The French government announced that these tactics signified its official occupation of the islands, and the Kuomintang-led government of China raised no objection: At the time, China viewed the Paracel Islands as its own territory, but not the Spratlys.

During the subsequent Sino-Japanese war, Japan began to project its military force into the South China Sea. After the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, Japan conquered Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore in succession, thereby establishing maritime control over the South China Sea.

In 1946, immediately after the end of the war, France deployed a minesweeper vessel to Taiping, the largest island in the South China Sea. The deployment was intended as a symbol of French sovereignty. Taiping occupies a strategic location, 1,600 km south of the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. In response to the French deployment, at the end of 1946, China’s Kuomintang government formally named the island after the battleship Taiping, and erected a stone monument there.

In fact, China’s nine-dash line is predicated upon the “11-dash line” originally proclaimed by the Kuomintang government in 1947. Taiwan has long emphasized its territorial sovereignty over the islands falling within this line, as well as the surrounding waters.

China does not recognize Taiwan’s legitimacy as the nation Republic of China. However, with regard to territorial sovereignty over the Spratlys, China maintains that the operation to reclaim Taiping Island by the Kuomintang warship Taiping represented an assertion of sovereignty by “all of China.” During the 1950s Taiwan Strait Crisis, however, China viewed the Taiping as a symbol of American imperialism and sank the warship in November 1954.

These facts comprise the sole basis for China’s claim to “historic rights” in the area.

Moreover, China’s assertion of sovereignty over the area depends on the Taiwanese “historic rights” claim: If China gives in to international pressure on this issue, it would come under criticism not only from its own “patriotic elements,” but also potentially from the Kuomintang nationalists in Taiwan. China would find it difficult to withdraw its territorial claims even if it wanted to do so.

Without making any attempt to resolve the root causes of its domestic governance crises (such as corruption), the Chinese government blames the country’s troubles on the “aggression” and “conspiracies” of “foreign enemies,” and redirects the public’s attention to external foes. China’s current claim to “historic rights” across the South China Sea is the product of the dynamics surrounding its politics and ideology of “national humiliation” at the hands of external forces.

The recent PCA ruling was a clear rejection of China’s such “national humiliation” ideology.

Twenty years ago, in November 1996, I covered the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings held in Subic, the Philippines. Five years earlier, in 1991, the Philippine Senate had rejected extending the treaty for U.S. bases in the Philippines. In short succession, the U.S. lost both Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base.

It was not long before the Chinese Navy stepped up its activities in the region: In 1995, it was discovered that China was building a structure on Mischief Reef, 126 nautical miles from Palawan Island in the Philippines. The Chinese government explained that the structure was merely intended as an “emergency shelter” for Chinese fishermen in the area.

Little did I know during my 1996 visit to the former Subic Bay Naval Base that the maritime conflict between China and the Philippines, which unfolded behind the scenes of the APEC conference, was gathering a destructive force capable of threatening the peace and order of East Asia.

Following the APEC summit, President Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese head of state to make an official state visit to the Philippines. During his meeting with Jiang, Philippine President Fidel Ramos again stressed that Mischief Reef belonged to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Jiang managed to stave off a crisis by proposing a joint development project in the area.

After the meeting between the two heads of state, Ramos enjoyed a night of karaoke with Jiang aboard a boat in Manila Bay. After both men had performed songs from their English-language repertoire, they concluded the evening with a joint performance of the Elvis Presley song “Love Me Tender.”

Two years after their duet, the world learned that China had in fact constructed a dock, helicopter landing pad and concrete barracks on Mischief Reef.

Following the recent ruling of the PCA, the government of the Philippines appointed Ramos as a special envoy in its negotiations with China. One can only hope Ramos will avoid performing a different Presley hit at the end of any future karaoke session with the Chinese: “Surrender.”

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju. The foundation has published a new book, “Sengo Hoshu wa Owatta Noka — Jiminto Seiji no Kiki” (“The End of Japan’s Moderate Conservatism”).