Archive | UNCLOS

An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

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How a non-existent island became China’s southernmost territory – by Bill Hayton | The South China Morning Post

09 February 2013

Bill Hayton says records show that a translation error some 80 years ago may be to blame.

– by Bill Hayton | The South China Morning Post – Where is the “southernmost point of Chinese territory”? It’s a controversial question and the least controversial answer might be Hainan Island . More controversial options would be the Paracel (Xisha) islands or the Spratlys (Nansha). But officially the southernmost point is even further south – as far south as the James Shoal, about 100 kilometres from the coast of Borneo. What’s more surprising is that this piece of the motherland is actually invisible. There’s nothing there to see, unless you have diving equipment.

An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

An aerial view of the city of Sansha on an island in the disputed Paracel chain. Photo: AFP

The James Shoal lies 22 metres below sea. Yet this inconvenience doesn’t prevent PLA Navy ships visiting the shoal from time to time to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty over it. This ritual involves heaving a large piece of engraved stone over the side of the ship. There is now a small collection of Chinese stelae gathering organic encrustations on the sea floor, more than 1,000 kilometres from Hainan.

How did the Chinese state come to regard this obscure feature, so far from home, as its southernmost point? I’ve been researching the question for some time while writing a book on the South China Sea. The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.

In the 1930s, China was engulfed in waves of nationalist anxiety. The predation of the Western powers and imperial Japan, and the inability of the Republic of China to do anything meaningful to stop them, caused anger both in the streets and the corridors of power. In 1933, the republic created the “Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps” to formally list, describe and map every part of Chinese territory. It was an attempt to assert sovereignty over the republic’s vast territory.

The major problem facing the committee, at least in the South China Sea, was that it had no means of actually surveying any of the features it wanted to claim. Instead, the committee simply copied the existing British charts and changed the names of the islands to make them sound Chinese. We know they did this because the committee’s map included about 20 mistakes that appeared on the British map – features that in later, better surveys were found not to actually exist.

The committee gave some of the Spratly islands Chinese names. North Danger Reef became Beixian (the Chinese translation of “north danger”), Antelope Reef became Lingyang (the Chinese word for antelope). Other names were just transliterated so, for example, Spratly Island became Sipulateli and James Shoal became Zengmu. And this seems to be where the mistakes crept in.

But how to translate “shoal”? It’s a nautical word meaning an area of shallow sea where waves “shoal” up. Sailors would see a strange area of choppy water in the middle of the ocean and know the area was shallow and therefore dangerous. James Shoal is one of many similar features in the Spratlys.

But the committee didn’t seem to understand this obscure English term because they translated “shoal” as ” tan” – the Chinese word for beach or sandbank – a feature which is usually above water. The committee, never having visited the area, seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a piece of land and therefore a piece of China.

In 1947, the republic’s cartographers revisited the question of China’s ocean frontier, drawing up what would become known as the “;U-shaped line”. It seems that they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within the line. A non-existent island became the country’s southernmost territory.

But in a parallel process around the same time, the republic government gave new names to many of the sea features. Spratly Islands became Nanwei (the noble south), for example, and James Shoal was changed from a sandbank ( tan) into a reef ( ansha). Perhaps, by this time, the authorities had realised their mistake. Nonetheless Zengmu Ansha retained its official southernmost status.

By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.

This is more than a piece of historical trivia; James Shoal is a test of whether Beijing really is committed to the rule of international law in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land. James Shoal is over 1,000 kilometres from undisputed Chinese territory.

Last month, the Philippines government announced it would seek a ruling from an international tribunal about whether China’s claims in the sea were compatible with the UN convention. James Shoal would be a clear example of a claim that is not compatible. Perhaps this might be a good moment for Beijing to review how it came to claim this obscure piece of submarine territory in the first place.

Bill Hayton is writing a book on the South China Sea for publication later this year

(This article was originally published at The South China Morning Post)

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US lawmakers: China should face Phl before UN – by Pia Lee-Brago | The Philippine Star

30 January 2013

by Pia Lee-Brago | The Philippine Star – MANILA, Philippines – Six visiting US congressmen, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce of California, yesterday expressed support for the decision of the Philippines to seek assistance from the United Nations arbitral tribunal to resolve disputes with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for American Affairs Carlos Sorreta said the US congressional delegation that also includes Eliot Engel (D-New York), Gregory Meeks (D-New York), Vern Buchanan (R-Florida), Matthew James Salmon (R-Arizona) and  Thomas Anthony Marino (R-Pennsylvania) pledged support for the legal action of Manila to resolve the maritime dispute.

“Yes,” Sorreta said when asked whether the US delegation supports the Philippines’ legal action. The question was asked during the meeting of the lawmakers with Secretary Albert del Rosario at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

The American lawmakers arrived last Jan. 28 for a three-day visit.

“We conveyed  to them  our determination  to see this case  through and they have said that they support it,” Sorreta said.

He said the US congressmen  would  proceed  to  Beijing and were expected  to  raise  the  territorial  dispute with Chinese officials.

“I hope that they will discuss this. It is our hope that they will discuss  it with the Chinese when they go to Beijing,” Sorreta said.

The Philippines had earlier brought China before a United Nations tribunal to challenge its claim to most of the South China Sea.

Del Rosario said Manila had informed Beijing last Jan. 22 about the decision to take China to the UN  arbitral tribunal under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to attain a peaceful and durable solution to the dispute.

Assistant Secretary for Asia-Pacific Affairs Teresa Lazaro handed Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing a diplomatic note informing China that the Philippines had initiated arbitration proceedings on the sea dispute.

Ma maintained that the territorial row should be settled through direct negotiations and that China has sovereignty over the South China Sea and its adjacent waters.

According to Del Rosario, Beijing’s “nine-dash line” outlining its territorial claims over most of the sea, including waters and islands close to its neighbors, is illegal.

The Philippines also demands that China “desist from unlawful activities that violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines under the 1982 UNCLOS,” he added.

The country’s legal action is pursuant to President Aquino’s mandate to defend Philippine territory and maritime domain.

China’s territorial claims overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

“The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China. On numerous occasions dating back to 1995, the Philippines has been exchanging views with China to peacefully settle these disputes. To this day, a solution is still elusive. We hope the arbitral proceedings will bring this dispute to a durable solution,” Del Rosario said.

Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza is the country’s representative to the arbitral proceedings while the lead counsel is Paul Reichler of Foley and Hoag LLP.

The foreign secretary said the arbitral tribunal has jurisdiction to hear the Philippines’ notification and statement of claim under the UNCLOS.

The Philippines is hopeful that the UN tribunal will declare China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea invalid and contrary to UNCLOS.

Chinese maritime vessels confronted Philippine Navy ships last year in a months-long standoff over Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales.


In his earlier meeting with Del Rosario and Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia Jr. on Capitol Hill, Royce had also reiterated his support for the Philippines’ rules-based approach to the territorial dispute and the peaceful resolution of issues within the framework of international law.

The US government had always expressed support for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes.

Royce met with Del Rosario at the DFA. The US congressman will also meet with President Aquino, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., other Philippine officials, and local business leaders.

“We welcome the visit of chairman Royce and the congressional delegation to the Philippines. Chairman Royce is committed to a strong alliance between the Philippines and the US, and he has been a great friend of the Filipino community in the US,” Del Rosario said.

Cuisia joined Philippine officials in meeting with the US congressional delegation.

He said the inclusion of the Philippines in the first foreign trip of Royce as chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee reflects the value he accords to Philippine-US friendship.

Royce also supports President Aquino’s efforts in fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and promoting human rights.

“It is best that China joins the process so that we can move forward under international law,” Royce told the Associated Press after meeting Del Rosario and other diplomats at the DFA.

“We want to calm the tensions,” Royce said. “We want this approached from the standpoint of diplomacy, and that is what we are conveying because in that way we don’t create crisis which roils the markets or creates uncertainty.”

Meanwhile, former President Joseph Estrada said President Aquino should always protect the territorial integrity of the Philippines as head of state.

Estrada said this is the reason why he supported the Aquino administration’s decision to file a case against China before the UN.

Aquino earlier admitted that he consulted Estrada and former President Fidel Ramos before deciding to file a case against China before the UN. – With Jose Rodel Clapano, AP

 (Original version is available at The Philippine Star)

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Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

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Why Manila is taking China to tribunal – by Andrew Billo | CNN

28 January 2013

by Andrew Billo | CNN – Last week, the Philippines sought to increase pressure on China over its claims in the South China Sea by filing a legal claim against the country under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. While unprecedented, the Philippines knows that it cannot afford derailing the economic relationship with its third largest trading partner, China, and a verdict – to be issued several years down the line – will ultimately be unenforceable.

Why Manila is taking China to tribunal

Why, then, would the Philippines take this action now, given the irritation it might cause China, risks to economic relations, and the likely minimal impact it will have on altering China’s behavior?


One overarching reason is that in Asia, international relations, at least in the political sphere, are dictated largely by domestic affairs. The legacy of colonialism, and its associated web of international alliances, means that East Asian countries often distrust their neighbors and global powers as well. Distrust has created insular and highly nationalistic policies, a convenient tool for governments wishing to pin domestic governance and economic challenges on the legacy of foreign oppression.

The South China Sea is an ideal distraction from the domestic challenges of Asian countries. The territory is believed to hold significant energy resources, but how much is unknown. At present, countries in the region are sufficiently resourced to maintain their (slowing as they may be) growth trajectories. If domestic energy sources dry up, the challenge of maintaining peace will be even greater.

But the international news media is prematurely hyping the disputes and highlighting the verbal barbs being traded between countries at all levels. It’s true, as The Economist pointed out this past week, that a clash over territory would “imperil the region’s peace and its momentous economic advances.” But this isn’t going to happen, at least not yet.

More from GPS: Why Asia is arguing over its islands

Risking a conflict over the South China Sea area – and the coinciding economic collapse – would pose a greater risk for domestic political leadership, and so naval vessels and troops remain largely stationed at home.

So while a statement released by the Philippines read, “One cannot put a price in the concerted effort of the Filipino people and government in defending our patrimony, territory, national interest and national honor,” the country would be misguided in pursuing anything more than legal action.

In the Philippines, and other countries in the region, the price for maintaining “national honor” with force is prohibitively expensive. Blustering, however, ultimately serves domestic political interests as creating a unified, national stance is quite valuable for political parties wishing to secure their futures in a tenuous political environment.

The South China Sea dispute has long evoked nationalist feelings. In 2007, protests over the South China Sea curiously materialized in Vietnam, and then quickly faded. One Sunday in front of the Chinese Embassy and Consulate in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, protestors took to the street, a strange sight in Communist controlled Vietnam, where public protest is typically curtailed.

Police stood by, watching the protestors picket, then, like they had been queued to take action from the top, the police quietly shooed the protestors away. It made for a couple of nice snapshots in local and international papers, but none of the protestors objected to putting their placards away.

A week later, the protests seemed to become more organic in nature, as comments labeling China as the oppressor were bandied about the blogosphere, as well as the streets. China objected, but Vietnam’s “crackdown” on the protests seemed almost to have been staged. The protests were a reminder to the Vietnamese people – most of whom have no direct stake with respect to the dispute – about China as the historic aggressor that the Vietnamese military successfully thwarted in 1979.

Fast-forward again to 2013. In 2007, U.S. interests were squarely in the Middle East and South Asia, centered on Iraq and Afghanistan. Interest in the Asia Pacific was being curtailed. Now, the U.S. government’s return to the region further complicates the South China Sea matter, and vexes regional governments unsure of what lengths the U.S. would take in order to stand up for its regional allies. Is America willing to step up and intervene on any of the bilateral disputes, and will U.S. ships in the region act as a stabilizing force?

But ultimately it is nationalist forces within the most vociferous claimant countries of the Philippines, Vietnam and China that can be blamed most for present tensions for three reasons.

First, by asserting sovereignty – even if illegitimately – over a disputed area, a government is able to project an image of power and influence that reinforces its authority. Second, the contradictory assertions of sovereignty by the various claimants help to create an “enemy” that governments can cast as a scapegoat for certain domestic issues and deflect hostility toward. This also engenders greater appreciation for those in office, as it creates a situation that encourages citizens to rely on their governments for protection. Third, the contentious claims regarding the South China Sea shift focus in the direction of international problems and away from domestic ones.

Despite nationalism’s propensity for polarizing states, entering into sustained military conflict would undermine these governments’ ability to fulfill societal demands for economic growth, institutions, and security as described above. Protracted military conflict is unlikely owing to the financial costs and risks to property and life. For this reason, greater conflict will not emerge in the near-term.

The parties will continue to agree to disagree, but the conflict is  unlikely to escalate much further in the next decade at least.  In the meantime, it is unfortunate that opportunities to cooperate on a range of regional issues will be hampered.

CNN Editor’s note: Andrew Billo is an assistant director with the Asia Society in New York. The views expressed are his own.

(Original version is available at CNN)

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China fears UNCLOS, think-tank says – by Jojo Malig | ABS-CBN News

05 December 2012

by Jojo Malig | ABS-CBN News – MANILA, Philippines China does not want to bring the dispute over the ownership of Scarborough Shoal to international bodies because it fears losing the case, a think-tank said.

Beijing is concerned that its claims on the Spratly Islands and Scarborough would be junked by dispute settlement mechanisms under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), even if China ratified the agreement in 1996, according the International Crisis Group.

The Philippines has been urging China to bring the 2 nations’ dispute to the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for arbitration, but China has been refusing the offer.

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in a press conference in Beijing that international arbitration is “weird.”

“Isn’t it a weird thing in international affairs to submit a sovereign country’s territory to international arbitration? What a chaos the world will be in if this happens?”  he said.

“Whatever the Philippines do (sic) or say (sic) regarding the sovereignty of the Island cannot alter the fact that the Island belongs to China,” Hong added.

The International Crisis Group, however, said in an April 2012 paper “Stirring up the South China Sea” that China’s leaders would have difficulty explaining to its citizens why it must accept a negative decision rendered under a perceived “Western-dominated” system.

UNCLOS requires countries to surrender the majority of their historical maritime claims in favor of the maritime zones awarded under the convention.

Claims to islands and other geographical features are not affected by the treaty, but any claim to sovereignty over maritime areas must fall within either the territorial waters or exclusive economic zones awarded to those features by UNCLOS, according to the think-tank.

China has been claiming ownership of all the Spratly Islands and Scarborough shoal in the West Philippine Sea, with its claim based on alleged historical records.

The International Crisis Group revealed that under UNCLOS, China is not likely to get all of the territory it is claiming.

“Beijing has insisted that its historic ‘nine-dashed line’ map is a valid territorial claim. But its contours are vague, and the chart, which encompasses almost all of the South China Sea, is not recognised under international law,” it said.

The Philippines is insisting that Scarborough Shoal is within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) based on UNCLOS.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said bringing the issue to ITLOS will “ascertain which of us has sovereign rights over the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal,” which is also known locally as Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc.

China’s internal power struggles

The International Crisis Group believes that power struggles within China may have caused Beijing’s recent aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea.

“China is one of its own worst enemies in the South China Sea, as its local governments and agencies struggle for power and money, inflaming tensions with its neighbours, illustrated by Beijing’s latest standoff with the Philippines,” it said.

Its report revealed the domestic political and economic contradictions undermining China’s efforts to restore relations with its neighboring countries.

It said that eleven ministerial-level agencies, and particularly law enforcement bodies, should have a single coherent maritime policy and must address  confusion over what constitutes Chinese territorial waters.

“Some agencies are acting assertively to compete for a slice of the budget pie, while others such as local governments are focused on economic growth, leading them to expand their activities into disputed waters,” says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project Director. “Their motivations are domestic in nature, but the impact of their actions is increasingly international.”

“The Chinese navy has steered clear of the disputes over the last several years, but is using the tensions to justify its modernisation, which is contributing to a regional military build-up,” it added.

Citing the Scarborough standoff, the International Crisis Group said Chinese foreign ministry should be the primary policy-coordinating body in the sea but its role has been usurped by law enforcement and paramilitary ships that are independently plying the disputed waters.

“The ministry lacks the power and authority to control the agencies, including five law enforcement bodies, local governments and private sector actors,” it revealed.

“Escalating tensions since 2009 have dealt a severe blow to China’s relations with its South East Asian neighbours and significantly tarnished its image,” sad Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program director.

“The [area] will remain volatile unless China’s internal coordination problems and the legal confusion surrounding its maritime territorial claims are addressed.”

Jojo Malig is Editor at

(Original version is available at ABS-CBN News)

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European experts suggest international arbitration for East Sea dispute – by Editorial Board | Thanh Nien News

24 October 2012

 by Editorial Board | Thanh Nien News – Panelists at a recent conference on the East Sea held in Paris said China has no legal claim to sovereignty over large parts of the sea, and Vietnam and other countries involved should take it to an international court.

European experts discuss the East Sea disputes in Paris October 16

Conflicts over the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea, should not be considered just a regional issue, Tuoi Tre quoted them as saying.

Christian Lechervy, special advisor to the French President on foreign affairs, said the issue is not only about Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands that Vietnam and China are fighting over, but also includes the disputed Pratas Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and other islands and straits.

The conference on October 16 was organized by the Institute for International and Strategic Relations and the Gabriel Péri Foundation.

Conflicts over the waters have become more intense since 2009 when reserves of oil and gas, rare earths and other minerals, and seafood were found even as resources in most countries were running out.

Cyrille P. Coutansais, a maritime law officer in the French Navy, said international laws and regulations should be enforced so that this area is not appropriated by force.

Only international rules such as the 1982 Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the latter giving each country a 200-sea-mile economic zone, can resolve the matter fairly, he said.

China has been acting like the waters are its own, but without basis in international law or treaties it has signed, the experts said.

Patrice Jorland, a French journalist, said the name South China Sea, given by marine traders and European cartographers centuries ago, is no longer suitable in the current political situation since it make its sound like the waters belong to China.

China has refused to accept this, and in 2009 presented to the UN a U-shaped line — including 80 percent of the waters and most islands — as demarcating Chinese territory.

The UN’s International Hydrographic Organization decided that the U-shaped line is vague and technically inaccurate and thus cannot be admitted as legal evidence.

But China showed little cooperation to clarify the matter, legal experts said at the conference.

David Scott of Britain said China has refused to clarify how the line was created technically.

Professor Monique Chemillier-Gendreau of France also recalled an experience in Beijing three years ago when high-ranking Chinese officials had said the waters were theirs and they had no responsibility to provide any evidence or go to any court, she said.

It has documents about the waters since 1930, while Vietnam has some papers dating back to the 17th century, she said.

The panelists said instead of going in for international arbitration, China is using bilateral dialogue as a secret weapon.

China’s strategy is to financially exhaust each country involved in the dispute by forcing them to militarize, until they no longer care and would sign agreements in favor of China, they said.

They encouraged Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries caught in the dispute to deal with China multilaterally, bringing it to the Hague, warning otherwise they would lose everything.

Coutansais said Vietnam and the Philippines do not have to get China’s agreement to find an international referee. If both of them take China to court, China would have to go, he said.


(Original version is available at Thanh Nien News)

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China’s “U-shaped Line” in the South China Sea – by Huy Duong | Asia Sentinel

19 September 2012

(C) Huy Duong | Asia Sentinel

China’s four possible positions

China’s claims to the disputed islands in the South China Sea and their inclusion on a map that depicts a U-shaped line that comes perilously close to the coastal waters of the countries that abut the sea, have given rise to concern and debate about the line’s meaning. At stake are billions of dollars in fishing and mineral rights that all of the parties to the debate each claim as their own.

Although the dispute over the Paracels started as long ago as 1909 between China and colonial Vietnam, then represented by France, and that over the Spratlys started in the 1930s between France and Japan, the arguments over the maritime space beyond 12 nautical miles from these islands are relatively recent.

In the 1960s Indonesia and Malaysia began to make claims to the continental shelf in the southern part of the South China Sea and in 1969 the two countries signed a demarcation agreement. In 1971 the then Republic of Vietnam, i.e., South Vietnam, declared a continental shelf claim that overlapped with those of Malaysia and Indonesia.

China — that is, the pre-1949 Kuomintang government — advanced a claim to the Spratlys from the end of the Second World War, and published a map in 1948 showing the now-well-known U-shaped line. Although the area inside that line overlaps the continental shelf claims of Indonesia, Malaysia and South Vietnam, neither the People’s Republic of China in Beijing nor the Nationalists now camped in Taipei objected to these claims, nor to the 1969 Indonesia-Malaysia agreement, nor did they advance any claims of their own.
In the 1990s, however, the government in Beijing started to protest against Vietnam’s oil and gas activities in the Nam Con Son and Vanguard Bank areas, and in 1992 it awarded an area of 25,000 sq km in the Vanguard Bank area to a US company. Since then, China’s words and actions in claiming maritime space far beyond 12 nautical miles from the disputed islands have been increasingly assertive.

In this context, China’s inclusion of a map that depicts the U-shaped line in unsigned diplomatic notes sent to the Commission on The Limit of the Continental Shelf in 2009, without explanation of the line’s meaning, has given rise to much discussion. Experts and diplomats ponder what China intends to claim inside that line and how China might use that line to support its claims.

Four potential meanings of the U-shaped line have been advanced and will be considered here.


  1. China’s Foreign Ministry has stated that China claims the islands inside the U-shaped line. By international law, this would include the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and any EXCLUSIVE ZONE and continental shelf that these islands generate. If this is all what China is claiming, with no implication that this line represents a claim to rights over maritime space right up to it, then this would be the most reasonable and legally valid interpretation of the U-shaped line. If the U-shaped line represents such claims, it is no more controversial than the claims to islands by other states. However, China has not stated that this is all what the U-shaped line represents.
  2. The government of the Republic of China (i.e., the Taiwan authorities), which is not recognized as a sovereign state, has described the area inside the U-shaped line as historical waters. This view is shared by some mainland scholars. However, international law has never recognized claims of historical waters that extend so far out to sea and cover such a vast area. In any case, there is no evidence that China has historically exercised sovereignty over the area enclosed by the U-shaped line. Therefore the interpretation of the area inside the U-shaped line as historical waters is overwhelmingly rejected by international law and evidence. Furthermore, given that historical waters are normally enclosed by baselines rather than lie outside them, such interpretation would be inconsistent with baseline declarations made by the PRC.
  3. China’s diplomatic note to the CLCS in 2009 in relation to Vietnam and Malaysia’s unilateral and joint CLCS submissions claim sovereignty over the “adjacent waters” of the islands in the South China Sea and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over “relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof”, referring to a map on which the U-shaped line is depicted, but without declaring that this line demarcates any of these areas. In 2011, China submitted a further asserting that “China’s Nansha Islands is fully entitled to Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelf”. These notes seem to support a third interpretation: that China intends to claim the area inside the U-shaped line as an exclusive zone and continental shelf generated by the disputed Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Reef. However, while this is a possible speculation, there has been no official statement from China to confirm it. Further, given that the U-shaped line for the most part lies closer to undisputed territories than to the disputed Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Reef, it would be impossible for China to justify it as a boundary for the exclusive zone and continental shelf generated by these features.
  4. Since China is not ready to settle for the first interpretation, and since the second and third are clearly indefensible under international law, in recent years Chinese scholars have advanced a fourth interpretation. According to this interpretation, China’s claims in the South China Sea are composed of three layers. In the first, China claims the disputed islands. In the second, it claims the exclusive zone and continental shelf generated by those islands, which might not extend as far as the U-shaped line. In the third layer, China claims “historic rights” over maritime space beyond 12 nautical miles from the islands, with the U-shaped line being either the limit or both the basis and the limit for this claim.

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The Neverending Story: Drama in the South China Sea – Trefor Moss | The Diplomat

07 September 2012

by Trefor Moss | The Diplomat – While many have put their faith in a Code of Conduct some wonder if China is stalling for time. A real solution may take years, if ever.



The South China Sea is often presented as one of the world’s thorniest territorial disputes. A group of objective, completely disinterested observers, however, would likely find this characterization peculiar. Indeed, to these hypothetical people, it would seem painfully obvious what needed to be done to at least significantly reduce the tensions in the South China Sea. Such a plan would likely start with four simple steps:

Step 1: Put sovereignty issues to one side. These are too complex and too emotive to be solved in the foreseeable future.

Step 2: Establish who claims what. China, for example, is extremely protective of its sovereignty, but it has never made a precise declaration about which areas of the South China Sea it actually owns (vaguely drawing dashes on a map doesn’t count). Claims should be filed with the UN’s International Court of Justice by a certain date – complete with latitude or longitude coordinates – or be considered frivolous by the rest of the world.

Step 3: Use UNCLOS wherever possible. Here’s a happy coincidence: all South China Sea claimants have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. That should make this situation so much easier to handle. For areas that are not contested, UNCLOS clearly lays out the rights of the claimant state and also of non-claimant states in territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Any problems and the Convention (Article 279 ff.) also has a detailed dispute-resolution mechanism.

Step 4: Neutralize the contested areas. If the disputants really want to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea – and they all say that they do – then they obviously need to draw up a set of rules governing what is and is not allowed in disputed zones. They could call it a Code of Conduct, or some something of the sort. Likely rules would include: the demilitarization of disputed areas; refraining from any provocative rhetoric or action, such as new construction projects on contested islands; no exploration for, or exploitation of, marine resources, unless the claimants agree to do it jointly; and the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism, probably under the auspices of the ICJ.

It all sounds so simple. But beyond the realms of this “Fantasy Dispute Resolution” and back in the messy world of international politics, this tidy plan is a complete non-starter. The underlying reason for this is that different countries diagnose the South China Sea problem differently. Some think the situation is dangerous and needs fixing. Others, notably China, are actually quite comfortable with the status-quo.

For many observers, the recent disputes over Scarborough Shoal and other island territories have become a matter of great concern. Beijing is less disturbed, however. In fact, China’s strategy is to maintain this sometimes messy status-quo, while making outward demonstrations of being cooperative about seeking a lasting solution so as to guard against accusations that it is the problem. It calculates that these tensions are unlikely to lead to conflict, and that they are an acceptable price to pay for its continued ability to act with relative impunity in disputed areas. At the same time, Beijing doesn’t want to overstep the mark, which would harm its standing in Southeast Asia (many parts of which are pro-China), and invite greater U.S. involvement in the region.

Beijing’s grandest cooperative gesture to date was its establishment of the 3 billion yuan ($473 billion USD) China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund in 2011. Discussions are now underway about how this money can be spent in order to help implement the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea. According to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, this is all building up to a tenth anniversary communiqué to mark the original signing of the DOC. But is this really anything to celebrate? The DOC is a failed protocol that was never properly implemented – which is why momentum has built up behind the formulation of a new Code of Conduct. “China’s view is that some ASEAN members have repeatedly violated the DOC; that’s also the view of some of the ASEAN countries about China,” Storey remarks.

“But is China serious about an effective Code of Conduct?” he asks. “I think the answer is no. A really effective code would constrain China’s freedom of manoeuver in the South China Sea, and big countries don’t like that.”

The Philippines, Vietnam, and other interested parties have doubtless reached the same conclusion about China’s commitment to crafting a meaningful COC. Filipino proposals backed by Hanoi for a robust COC have already been diluted by other ASEAN members, for fear of antagonizing China. More recently, the July ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Phnom Penh descended into a farce, with Cambodia, the current Chair, blocking constructive debate about the South China Sea dispute in defense of China’s interests. Cambodia has sold ASEAN out: in doing so, it has facilitated a Chinese policy of extraterritorial interference in Southeast Asia’s key institution. For China, it’s been a foreign-policy coup.

Indonesia – doing the job that Cambodia failed to do – subsequently showed ASEAN some leadership after the Phnom Penh fiasco, cobbling together a common position called the “Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea”. Though better than the Cambodian no-show, it’s a lax document that goes no further than calling for “an early conclusion” to the COC drafting process.

That won’t happen. China has already begun soft-pedaling on talks, which are now unlikely to happen until 2013 (the upcoming leadership handover in Beijing all but rules out near-term movement on what has become such a contentious issue). A new code is therefore unlikely to emerge before 2014 at the earliest.

It would be worth the wait, of course, if it was a business-like code that really sought to regulate the behavior of claimant states. But nobody expects it to be. “China will not accept anything that is mandatory,” concludes Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Strangely enough, China could gain a great deal from backing the formulation of an effective COC. Its image in the region would receive a considerable boost; calls for greater U.S. involvement in the regionwould diminish; and the chances of conflict over some tiny island would recede.

However, these attractive aspects of cooperative diplomacy are outweighed by Beijing’s instinct not to give any ground where sovereignty issues are concerned. “When it comes to high-stake, high-politics issues, such as territorial disputes and strategic rivalries, international agreements have limited impact,” suggests Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “Overall I think China is a status quo power on the South China Sea issues,” Zhang but observes that upholding the status quo cuts both ways: China won’t facilitate a lasting solution, but it won’t be the one to provoke a confrontation either. It will only react forcefully to perceived provocations on the part of others, as in its recent dispute with Manila. At the same time, it will not hold back from pushing the envelope of acceptable behavior, such as upgrading Sansha to city status, for example, or granting new drilling rights to Chinese oil companies.

But what is China’s ultimate objective in all of this? “They just want to play for time, and to drag it out as long as possible,” argues Storey. “What is China’s end game? I don’t think they know themselves.”

Sadly, there is no Plan B for the South China Sea. China and ASEAN appear locked into the futile process of formulating a Code of Conduct that won’t address the types of conduct that actually need addressing. Pity the poor diplomats who will be spending the next two years working on it. The COC is another fantasy – only one that won’t sound good either in theory or in practice.

Photo Credit: Wikicommons

 (Original version is available at The Diplomat)

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High-Stakes Drama: The South China Sea Disputes – by Mark J. Valencia | Global Asia

06 September 2012

by Mark J. Valencia | Global Asia – The latest act in the long-running saga of the South China Sea has seen China moving aggressively to enforce its claim to most of the features of the potentially oil-rich sea while the US ‘rebalanced’ its defense and foreign policy toward Asia. As a partial result of US-China rivalry, ASEAN’s unity and its centrality to security issues are facing a severe crisis. The drama is far from over, writes Mark J. Valencia, and the road to a satisfactory management of the South China Sea conflicts is fraught with peril. 

THERE HAVE BEEN numerous significant developments in the South China Sea disputes over the past year.1 At the end of 2011 there was in place a weak and leaking Declaration on Conduct (DoC) for activities in the sea as well as vague and general guidelines for its implementation. The bilateral/multilateral conundrum regarding the process of negotiations between China and ASEAN loomed large. The Philippines was mounting a campaign to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claim (see map on page 60) and pushing a proposal for a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Co-operation designed to separate “disputed” from “non-disputed” areas in the South China Sea. China had warned Vietnam, the Philippines and India (its national oil company ONGC was operating in the sea under license from Vietnam) against exploring for hydrocarbons within its claim line. Yet both ONGC and Forum Energy/Philex Petroleum had announced plans to drill in 2012 in areas claimed by China — the latter on Reed Bank. India had entered the mix not only via its national oil company but by insisting that it has a rightful naval interest in the South China Sea.
Most significant, the US-China rivalry in the region was intensifying, sucking ASEAN and its members into its turbulent political wake. Indeed the disputes had become a new cockpit of China-US competition, distorting and overshadowing the intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-China disputes. The US-China rivalry was driving the issues forward and creating pressure on ASEAN and China to make progress or at least put together a temporary arrangement regarding the disputes.

This paper covers developments from the November 2011 Bali summits through the July 2012 Phnom Penh ASEAN meetings and their immediate aftermath. It summarizes the current political and strategic context, significant developments and the current situation, and then sketches several alternative futures.

The Political And Strategic Context

The tectonic plates of the international political system are inexorably grinding against one another, and the US and China are on opposite sides of the divide — and perhaps history. The US is yesterday’s and today’s sole superpower, but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to enforce its will are fast eroding.2 China’s leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, China’s leaders believe it is China’s destiny to regain its prominence — if not pre-eminence — in the region and perhaps eventually the world.

In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve the status quo that assures their position at the top of the hierarchy and view emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers feel constrained by the status quo and naturally strive to stretch the sinews of the international system. They fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they become an existential threat. These are the primordial political dynamics of the US-China struggle.

Their rivalry is fast becoming a zero-sum game, and both are extremely suspicious of each other’s intentions. Indeed, both countries “see deep dangers and threatening motivations in the policies of the others.”3 It does not help that leadership transitions are under way in both countries, and no candidate for leadership in either country can afford to be seen as weak on such security issues. Some US analysts even see an incipient Chinese “Monroe Doctrine” that would attempt to push the US out of the region.4 Worse, the US and China are tacitly forcing Asian countries to choose between them.

It would appear that the region is now at several tipping points regarding regional security architecture. Key questions include:

• Can ASEAN maintain unity by resolving its internal differences on these issues or is ASEAN unity in security a myth and an impossible dream in an era of competing big power strategic concepts and capabilities?

• Will ASEAN maintain its centrality in its own creations like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum?5

• Will US-China rivalry dominate these and other ASEAN “Plus” forums?

• Will the US attempt to drive the agenda of these forums and to emphasize negotiations and deliverables as opposed to ASEAN’s more laissez- faire approach?

• Will robust US participation in Asian political and military affairs survive looming defense budget cuts and the coming change of administrations or key personnel?6

The strategic goal of the US in Asia — besides spreading its values and way of life, including to China — is to maintain stability and the status quo by deterring Chinese aggression or coercion against its Asian “allies.” The conceptual intent is to encourage China to buy into existing international law and the order built by the West after World War II. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the June 2012 Shangri-la Dialogue, “If both of us abide by international rules and international order, if both of us can work together to promote peace and prosperity and resolve disputes in this region, then both of us will benefit.”7

Panetta also has said that “the United States will renew its naval power across the Asia-Pacific region and stay ‘vigilant’ in the face of China’s growing military,”8 adding that “the key to that region is to develop a new era of defense co-operation between our countries, one in which our militaries share security burdens in order to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.”

However, US reassurance of its allies and friends may have emboldened some to confront China. Further, US attempts to control regional institutions are likely to be perceived by some Southeast Asian countries as upsetting an already delicate geopolitical balance. For them, how the US behaves regarding the South China Sea disputes will say quite a bit about the future geopolitical environment.

China basically believes that Southeast Asian claimants to various islands are nibbling away at its legacy and rightful ownership of islands and resources in the South China Sea and that they are colluding with the US against China.

Moreover, China is gaining confidence as its economic and military might grow. However, China is facing a strategic dilemma in that its efforts to defend its maritime claims and interests are conflicting with its policy to improve relations with Southeast Asian countries. Its goal is to restore its “tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active US role there.” It recognizes that Western “soft power”9 has an advantage in the region and that it needs to “fight back” in kind.10

But China also continues to hint at its hard power. Indeed, Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng has said that the armed forces have vowed to “fulfill their duty” to safeguard China’s territory, rights and interests in the South China Sea.11 China is rapidly developing the unmanned aerial vehicles and littoral combat ships that it would need to confront the US Navy. Meanwhile, Chinese policy-makers “talk openly about their intent to oppose American unipolarity, revise the global order and command a greater share of global prestige and influence.”12

The current US “rebalancing” in Asia has disturbed Beijing’s military strategic planning.13 One Chinese strategic analyst sees the US balancing as a cover for “forging its alliances into the first island chain … while retreating its own military to the second island chain.” China’s leaders increasingly view the US alliance system in Asia as a relic of the Cold War,14 and they argue that the trend in Asia is toward peace and co-operation, not military alliance-building and the continuation of Cold War thinking.15

Some US conservatives argue that China is seeking to take advantage of the US preoccupation with this November’s elections to push hard in the South China Sea.16 Others say that China seeks to advance its cause incrementally, its policy-makers “extending and strengthening their influence wherever possible, while working quietly to weaken Washington’s position.”17

China clearly realizes that the US is not going to go away on its own nor reduce the pressure of its presence in the region. Indeed, contrary to China’s characterization of it as an “outside power,” the US says it is part of the Pacific family of nations and that it has a valid interest in freedom of navigation and access to the international commons in the South China Sea. The eventual result may be the pitting of China’s “denial of access” against US “assurance of access.” However, some Chinese strategists have warned their government that the South China Sea could become a trap that will divert and waste China’s economic and political capital.

One possibility — though unlikely — is the US and China agreeing to “deal with one another as equals.”18 Some suggest a grand bargain “centered around a Sino-US condominium — with the (tacit) approval of other major powers such as India, Japan and Australia.”19 Such an order would “establish principles or ‘red lines’ that the US and China would agree not to cross — most notably a guarantee not to use force without the other’s permission, or [except] in clear self-defense.” The fundamental challenge for the US is to discourage China’s aggressiveness while convincing China that the US is not its enemy — a rather delicate task. One interesting twist has been to argue that the US presence provides reassurance to smaller nations so that China can continue its rise without appearing to threaten them. Others suggest that China’s increasing dependence on raw material imports will inevitably lead it to challenge the US role in Asia, resulting in security competition.

US-China military relations are already poor and deteriorating. “The PLA is quite transparent about intentions, but opaque about their capabilities. The United States is the reverse … transparent about capabilities but ambiguous about intentions,” as one analyst put it.20 The two have been unable to agree even on an agenda for military talks. China insists that the US stop arms sales to Taiwan, cease “close-in” maritime and aerial surveillance of China, and remove restrictions on exporting American military technology to China.21 Although their May Strategic and Security Dialogue was marred by the case of rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing and eventually was allowed to resettle in New York, the defense chiefs of the two countries subsequently met in Washington and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited China.22 It was hoped that these meetings would lead to a lowering of tension between the two powers. But this appears not to have followed.

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Disputed waters are rising in the South China Sea – by Huy Duong | RSIS

11 July 2012

by Huy Duong | RSIS – Disputes over maritime space in the South China Sea appear intractable.

Since 2011 claimants have been unable to agree even over what constitutes a ‘disputed area’ — and this bodes poorly for attempts to settle questions of sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

On 23 June 2012, China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation invited bids for nine blocks of oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. The blocks lie inside Vietnam’s declared Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which prompted Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs response of 26 June, that this area ‘is absolutely not a disputed area’. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that its jurisdiction applies to this region and referred to the ‘proper settlement of maritime disputes’, thereby asserting that the area is disputed.

This controversy echoes a May 2011 incident, when Chinese marine surveillance ships cut a seismic cable being towed by a Vietnamese geological survey vessel. At the time, Vietnam asserted that the incident took place in undisputed waters, but China disagreed.

similar controversy exists between China and the Philippines over the EEZ in the Reed Bank area, which the Philippines considers to be under its own jurisdiction, while China maintains otherwise.

So where exactly are the disputed areas in the South China Sea?

Nobody knows for sure. No claimant to the disputed islands and rocks in the South China Sea has so far declared the limits of their claims, so the boundaries of the disputed areas are unknown. This makes managing disagreements extremely difficult and increases the risk of mismatched expectations — and resulting conflict.

The 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China is a case in point, because it does not differentiate between disputed areas and undisputed ones. If the new Code of Conduct is to overcome the limitations of its predecessor, it needs to identify disputed and undisputed areas.

Another example is China’s proposal to sidestep the disputes and pursue joint development projects. While joint development is in principle a valid approach for managing the disputes, it cannot work in practice without the claimants agreeing on the boundaries of disputed areas.

One approach to determining disputed areas is to say simply that any area claimed by two or more countries is disputed. But this would set a very low bar because it would allow any country to make any area a disputed one by making a conflicting claim there. China could declare that its U-shaped line represents a boundary for maritime space, making the whole area inside it disputed. The Philippines could do the same with a C-shaped line and Vietnam could use a D-shaped one. This would make it impossible to contain or manage disputes between the claimants.

Instead, the definition of ‘disputed area’ should be based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which regulates specific maritime zones. This convention is based on the principle that economic zones must be drawn with reference to land and insular territories.

It is clear that the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea around the islands and rocks of the Scarborough Shoal and the Paracel and Spratly Islands are disputed. Beyond this, the picture becomes more complicated, though opinion seems to be arranged in a clear spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum is the view that none of the disputed rocks or islands deserves an EEZ or continental shelf. This would mean that the disputed areas are confined exclusively to the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea generated from valid baselines and base points around these features.

At the other end of the spectrum is the counterfactual hypothesis that every feature in the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal is an island entitled to an EEZ and deserves full effect in EEZ delimitation. Under this hypothesis the boundaries would be equidistant lines between uncontested territories and the closest features of these three groups.

In reality, not every one of these outermost features is entitled to an EEZ and even those that are so not deserve full effect in EEZ delimitation.  This is because in areas where overlaps occur the international law of maritime delineation gives priority to the EEZs of larger landmasses. Therefore, in areas of overlapping entitlements, the EEZs of outlying features of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal would fall short of the equidistance lines.

A criterion for drawing boundaries for disputed areas that is consistent with international law would be closer to the views near the first end of the spectrum. This solution may still give rise to disputes as to exactly where the boundaries lie, but adopting UNCLOS would allow the interested parties to negotiate to a specific standard, or submit the question to an international court.

Agreeing on boundaries for the disputed areas is the necessary basis for adopting effective dispute management measures. Boundaries that limit potential claims are consistent with international law and would also keep disputed areas small. Agreeing on how to define a disputed area would thus significantly improve the likelihood that claimants will agree on dispute resolution measures for the South China Sea.

Huy Duong is a UK-based IT consultant and commentator on maritime affairs.

(Original version is available at RSIS)

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China’s Invented History – by Philip Bowring | The Wall Street Journal

04 June 2012

by Philip Bowring | The Wall Street Journal – The conflict between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal may seem to be a minor dispute over an uninhabitable rock and the surrounding waters. But it is hugely important for future relations in the region because it showcases China’s stubborn view that the histories of the non-Han peoples whose lands border two-thirds of the South China Sea are irrelevant. The only history that matters is that written by the Chinese and interpreted by Beijing.

The Philippine case for Scarborough is mostly presented as one of geography. The feature, known in Filipino as the Panatag Shoal and in Chinese as Huangyan Island, is some 130 nautical miles off the coast of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippine archipelago. It’s well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which, as per the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, extends 200 nautical miles off the coast. On the other hand, the shoal is roughly 350 miles from the mainland of China and 300 miles from the tip of Taiwan.

China avoids these inconvenient geographical facts and relies on historical half-truths that it applies to every feature it claims in the South China Sea. That’s why it’s now feuding with not just the Philippines, but other nations too. Beijing’s famous U-shaped dotted line on its maps of the South China Sea defines territorial claims within the 200-mile limits of Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, and close to Indonesia’s gas-rich Natuna Islands.

In the case of the Scarborough Shoal, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives the historical justification that the feature is mentioned in a Chinese map from the 13th century—when China itself was under alien Mongol rule—resulting from the visit of a vessel from China. This “we were there first” argument is nonsense. Chinese sailors were latecomers to the South China Sea, to say nothing of onward trade to the Indian Ocean. The seafaring history of the region at least for the first millennium of the current era was dominated by the ancestors of today’s Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos and (less directly) Vietnamese.

As China’s own records reveal, when Chinese traveled from China to Sumatra and then on to Sri Lanka, they did so in Malay ships. This was not the least surprising given that during this era, Malay people from what is now Indonesia were the first colonizers of the world’s third largest island, Madagascar, some 4,000 miles away. (The Madagascan language and 50% of its human gene pool are of Malay origin). They were crossing the Indian Ocean 1,000 years before the much-vaunted voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He in the 15th century.


Malay seafaring prowess was later overtaken by south Indians and Arabs, but they remained the premier seafarers in Southeast Asia until the Europeans dominated the region. The Malay-speaking, Hindu-ized Cham seagoing empire of central Vietnam dominated South China Sea trade until it was conquered by the Vietnamese about the time the European traders began to arrive in Asia, while trade between Champa (present-day southern Vietnam) and Luzon was well established long before the Chinese drew their 13th century map.

The Scarborough Shoal, which lies not only close to the Luzon coast but on the direct route from Manila Bay to the ancient Cham ports of Hoi An and Qui Nhon, had to be known to Malay sailors. The Chinese claim to have “been there first” is then like arguing that Europeans got to Australia before its aboriginal inhabitants.

Another unsteady pillar in China’s claim to the Scarborough Shoal is its reliance on the Treaty of Paris of 1898. This yielded Spanish sovereignty over the Philippine archipelago to the U.S. and drew straight lines on the map which left the shoal a few miles outside the longitudinal line defined by the treaty. China now conveniently uses this accord, which these two foreign powers arrived at without any input from the Philippine people, to argue that Manila has no claim.

The irony is that the Communist Party otherwise rejects “unequal treaties” imposed by Western imperialists, such as the McMahon line dividing India and Tibet. Does this mean Vietnam can claim all the Spratly Islands, because the French claimed them all and Hanoi has arguably inherited this claim?

China also asserts that because its case for ownership dates back to 1932, subsequent Philippine claims are invalid. In other words, it uses the fact that the Philippines was under foreign rule as a basis for its own claims.

Manila wants to resolve the matter under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, but Beijing argues that its 1932 claim isn’t bound by the Convention, which came into effect in 1994 since it preceded it. That’s a handy evasion, most probably because China knows its case for ownership is weak by the Convention’s yardsticks.

China is making brazen assertions that rewrite history and take no account of geography. Today’s naval arguments won’t come to an end until the region’s largest disputant stops rewriting the past.

Mr. Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

(This article was originally published at The Wall Street Journal)

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