Tag Archive | "south china sea"

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Dangerous waters: Behind the islands dispute – by Kevin Voigt | CNN

24 September 2012

by Kevin Voigt | CNN - Hong Kong – When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping called Tokyo’s territorial claims on a group of East China Seas island “a farce,” he echoed national sentiment of protesters who took to the streets in anti-Japan protests in recent weeks.


Islands’ former owner comments on furor par CNN_International

“Japan should rein in its behavior, not utter any words and prevent any acts that undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Xi — who is expected to become China’s new president next month — at a Wednesday meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, state media reported.

As Beijing’s presumptive new leader wades into the Japan-China dispute, analysts say the stakes are being raised in a dispute that is largely being led by nationalist fervor rather than government policy or underlining economic interests. And the détente that usually follows these territorial disputes is muddied by the leadership change in Beijing expected next month.

“This is where it’s becoming dangerous,” said Alan DuPont, defense expert at the University of New South Wales. “No incoming Chinese leader can be perceived to be weak on territorial claims.”

On Monday, the Japan Coast Guard said two Chinese surveillance ships entered its territorial waters, while 10 other Chinese ships patrolled nearby. Meanwhile, China announced Sunday it was postponing planned celebrations later this month marking the 40th anniversary of normalization of relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

The bellicose rhetoric also charts the rise of an assertive China and a sea change in the forces shaping Pacific politics that are writ small in the battle over the uninhabited island chain, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

“China’s feeling more confident both in its position and in its right to the area both legally and politically,” Mark Valencia, a fellow at the National Asia Research Program and expert on the South China Sea dispute. “And nationalism in China has gained strength and influencing the government.”

Rising tensions in China waters

The East China Sea isn’t the only flashpoint for territorial tensions among China and its neighbors. The South China Sea is dotted with hundreds of largely uninhabited islands and coral atolls, many of which have competing claims from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Just like the friction with Japan, there have been increasing incidents of tension between China and its South China Sea neighbors over island claims.

In 2011, Vietnam claimed that Chinese patrol boats cut cables from PetroVietnam boats during oil and gas surveys in disputed waters. Beijing said that Vietnamese vessels have been illegally surveying in Chinese waters and harassing Chinese fishing boats. The same year Philippines also reported boats cutting cables of a survey ship and threatening to ram its boats.

“A lot of this wouldn’t be happening if China wasn’t becoming more assertive and being more confident, and that’s one important issue why all these issues are becoming more salient,” DuPont said.

The difference in the East China Sea is the collective might of China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world, respectively. “When you have two major nation states involved, it’s more dangerous than the (South China Sea),” DuPont said.

A nationalist wave

The often violent protests that broke out in dozens of Chinese cities — from Guangzhou in the south to Qingdao in the north — came to a head after the Japanese government bought the disputed islands from the Japanese family that have privately owned the islands on September 11 for 2.05 billion yen (US$26.2 million).

Dozens of Japanese factories and businesses temporarily shut their doors in the wake of the violence as angry crowds overturned Japanese brand cars and looted Japanese stores in some areas. The island dispute, which traces back centuries, have reached diplomatic boiling points in 1996, 2005 and most recently in 2010, when a Chinese boat allegedly rammed a Japanese patrol boat, resulting in the arrest of the Chinese sailors.

“I don’t think anyone thought the Chinese reaction would have been as strong as it was, and I don’t think anyone expected the level of violence that we saw, especially looking at past incidents,” said James Manicom, an expert on maritime disputes at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.

The “nationalization” of the islands infuriated Chinese, although analysts say Tokyo’s move was an effort to wrest the issue away from Japanese nationalists, led by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who launched an online appeal to buy the islands. Donations poured in, prompting a sharp rebuke from China and forcing the Japanese government to wade into the dispute with its own offer for the contested land.

“If you’re interested in stability, the Japanese government is better than owning the islands than a group of nationalists, because who knows how they might raise tensions,” Manicom said. “(Prime Minister) Noda’s calculation is, this is going to explode in the short-run, in the long run it’s better.”

Economic interests

Although nationalistic ardor on both sides of the dispute have brought the current situation to a boil, national interest in the territory can be traced to a 1969 United Nations geological survey that contains this tantalizing line: “A high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reserves in the world.”

Also under its South China Sea lie potentially huge reserves of natural gas and oil. A Chinese estimate suggests as much as 213 billion barrels of oil lie untapped in the South China Sea – which, if true, would make it the largest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At the heart of all these island disputes in China Seas is a term of international maritime law known as “;Exclusive Economic Zone,” where nations are allowed sole rights to fish and develop resources within 200 nautical miles of a country’s shores. That has created interest in nation’s grabbing uninhabited islands – often little more than rocky atolls – to thereby extend their zone.

“The area is starting to look a little bit like Alaska, at first looked worthless, now may not be worthless,” Valencia said. “The East China Sea is virtually all continental shelf, which means it’s all relatively easy digging except in typhoon season.”

But the likelihood the areas will be developed dwindles as the political storm brews between China and Japan. If this fracas follows past contretemps, the two sides will cool for a few months before rapprochement from high-level officials on both sides. But with the leadership change coming in China, and leadership elections imminent in Japan’s two major parties, the likelihood is tensions will remain high. “No one wants to be perceived as soft on China,” Manicom said.

Meanwhile, as historic enmities over Japan’s war past inflame tensions in China, public sentiment is changing in Japan toward China.

“The result is the average Japanese person views China with more suspicion than the past,” Manicom said. “You can now be anti-China in Japan and not be conservative, which is a development that I think took Beijing by surprise.”

(Orginal version is available at CNN)

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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.

Interpretations:

  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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Trouble in the South China Sea – by Bonnie Glaser | Foreign Policy

17 September 2012

by Bonnie Glaser | Foreign Policy With China and Japan at odds over disputed islands to the east, the potential for conflict in the south may seem muted for now. But not for long.

 

As Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Japan, China, and New Zealand shows, President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” continues apace. But if U.S. policy toward this strategically important region is to be successful, it must take into account a paradox: China’s neighbors seek greater U.S. economic, diplomatic and military involvement in the region as a counterbalance to China’s growing power — but at the same time, every country in the region also desires a close relationship with Beijing.

Activists holding Chinese and Taiwanese flags landed on the South China Sea. (C) foreignpolicy.com

The difficulty of navigating this paradox is clearly evident in the handling of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Southeast Asian nations periodically urge Washington to help them stand up to Chinese pressure to accept Beijing’s expansive claims there — but when Washington acts to prevent China from running roughshod over the region, its partners’ concerns about U.S.-China tensions spike and they implore the United States to step back. It is this paradox that makes maintaining a consistent and principled U.S. policy on the South China Sea both challenging and essential.

The United States has a great deal at stake in the South China Sea. It is one of the world’s primary trade arteries, with over half of the world’s merchant fleet by tonnage sailing through those sea-lanes each year. The region also contains an abundance of fish — an important source of revenue for the bordering countries’ economies  and potentially contains significant quantities of oil and gas resources strategically located near large energy-consuming countries.

Yet the South China Sea is a tangle of competing territorial demands. China, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all assert overlapping claims over land features and adjacent waters in the sea, heightening diplomatic tensions and potentially laying the foundation for a future military conflict. And while no country is blameless in this standoff, China is clearly the most egregious aggressor. It is currently following a deliberate policy of bullying and intimidating its smaller neighbors into recognizing its sovereignty over large swathes of the sea — and the United States must clearly communicate that such behavior is unacceptable.

The South China Sea has long been a military flashpoint. Skirmishes took place periodically on its waters from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. A decade of relative quiescence followed, but tensions have flared since 2007, with a marked increase in incidents and provocations. The main causes of growing tensions are rising interest in surveying and exploiting the South China Sea’s oil and gas deposits, intensified competition for fish as stocks in close proximity to coastlines are depleted, and growing nationalistic pressures on governments to defend their territorial and maritime claims.

The most serious confrontation in decades took place this past spring over a triangular-shaped chain of reefs and rocks called Scarborough Shoal, located approximately 124 nautical miles from Zambales, the Philippines. In early April, a Philippines frigate, which had been deployed to observe a pending North Korean missile launch, was redirected to Scarborough Shoal to investigate the presence of eight Chinese fishing boats in the lagoon. Infuriated by what it viewed as a provocative and escalatory action, China dispatched two large maritime surveillance ships  to the shoal, which positioned themselves between the Chinese fishing vessels and the Philippine warship.  Over the ensuing weeks, Manila withdrew the frigate and replaced it with a coast guard cutter, while the Chinese increased their presence, at one point deploying approximately eighty surveillance ships, fishing boats, and utility craft in the lagoon. Manila’s staunch refusal to withdraw was met with additional Chinese intimidation: Beijing began to quarantine tropical fruit imports from the Philippines and apply other forms of economic pressure. Quiet diplomacy produced a verbal agreement in early June that both sides would pull out their ships and end the standoff, but only Manila complied.  After the Philippines withdrew, China roped off the mouth of the lagoon to prevent Filipino and other fishermen from entering, and stepped up patrols around the shoal.

It’s clear that there is a cycle of escalation underway in the South China Sea that threatens to destabilize this critical region. However, it is important to note that China’s claims, policies, ambitions, behavior, and capabilities are significantly different from those of other actors. Beijing resists engaging in multilateral discussions on the territorial and maritime disputes in the region, preferring bilateral mechanisms where it can apply leverage over smaller, weaker parties. It rejects a role for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in resolving the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Although Beijing has agreed to eventually enter into negotiations to reach a code of conduct for the South China Sea, Chinese officials have recently stated that discussions can only take place “when conditions are ripe” — which, evidently, is not now. The United States views a code of conduct as a tool for conflict prevention and conflict resolution, and urges negotiations to begin immediately. Chinese officials, meanwhile, prefer the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has no dispute resolution mechanism and is not legally binding.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met last week in Beijing. The U.S. is trying to ease tensions in the South China Sea.

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Squabbles in the South China Sea – by Editorial | Chicago Tribune

11 September 2012

by the Editorial Board | Chicago Tribune - Commentory: Beijing is proving to be its own worst enemy.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met last week in Beijing. The U.S. is trying to ease tensions in the South China Sea.

The world has many trouble spots that have long posed a risk to peace and stability — the Persian Gulf, Israel and its neighbors, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, to name the most obvious. One looming danger is far from the usual arc of crisis. It’s the South China Sea, where territorial disputes and national ambitions are heightening tension and posing a small but not insignificant risk of escalation.

China has long been at odds with many of its neighbors over various islands in these waters. A few months ago, Chinese and Philippine naval vessels entered a tense standoff over the disputed Scarborough Shoal. In March, China detained Vietnamese it accused of fishing illegally near the Paracel Islands, which it occupies over the protests of other countries in the area.

This summer, Beijing announced it would install troops on one of the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. Oh, and China has been quarreling noisily with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

The general problem arises from Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the area, and its urge to restore what it sees as its historic sovereignty. Its neighbors, however, read history differently, and they regard China with a mix of age-old hostility and new concern about its rising power. The presence of oil and other valuable resources has raised the stakes.

But the disagreements have implications beyond the locals. As the dominant naval power in the Pacific and the world, the United States has an interest in preserving that position as well as maintaining unrestricted navigation in the region. It sees such freedom as crucial to worldwide trade, much of which is borne on merchant vessels. It also has ties with many of the countries currently at odds with Beijing, which see Washington as a vital counterweight to their giant neighbor.

These clashes are one reason the Obama administration announced a “pivot to Asia” earlier this year, which included the deployment of Marines to Australia. The goal is to provide support for friends as well as facilitate peaceful settlement of disagreements.

But the shift has evoked anger from the Chinese, who advise that the U.S. gracefully accept its inevitable decline. They insist the disputes should be resolved strictly by those countries that are “directly concerned,” which pointedly excludes America.

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing last week, the Chinese rebuffed her call for regional negotiations — and canceled a scheduled meeting between her and Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become China’s top leader later this year.

With its overbearing manner, though, China has done an excellent job of frustrating its own goals. The more it throws its weight around, the more its neighbors are motivated to coalesce in self-protection — and to seek shelter in the arms of the U.S., whose military capabilities dwarf those of China.

Over the years, the Americans have had their share of differences with Vietnam and the Philippines, among others. But these nations know Washington can be trusted more than Beijing because it has no territorial ambitions in the region. Its chief interests — free navigation and nonviolent settlement of disagreements — align well with theirs.

Maybe one of these days the Chinese government will come to see that these principles pose no threat to its position. As a huge country with growing wealth and military power, China has to tread gently to avoid provoking a backlash that will hinder its ambitions. It has much to gain from multilateral cooperation and much to lose from unilateral assertiveness.

Many people in the Chinese government and military think the U.S. is essentially hostile and determined to prevent China from gaining its rightful place in the Pacific and the world. But in many ways, China is proving to be its own worst enemy.

(Original version is avaible at Chicago Tribune)

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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.

 

ASEAN

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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South China Sea: Not Just About “Free Navigation” – by Denny Roy | Asia Pacific Bulletin

04 September 2012

by Denny Roy | Asia Pacific Bulletin - HONOLULU — The South China Sea territorial dispute increasingly looks like a point of strategic friction between the United States and China after a recent nasty exchange between the two governments. The U.S. Department of State criticized China for its plan to base a new military garrison in the Paracel Islands, saying this would increase international tensions. Beijing shot back that the United States should mind its own business.

Illustrated photo (C) ibtimes.com

Many observers wonder why Washington and Beijing are allowing a new irritant to emerge in the incalculably important U.S.-China relationship. Unfortunately, there is widespread misunderstanding about the U.S. rationale for America’s diplomatic intervention in a territorial dispute to which the United States is not a party.

Although U.S. officials have named several specific U.S. concerns about China’s policies and activities in the South China Sea, the U.S. concern most widely understood and repeated is the potential threat to “freedom of navigation”: the PRC might be moving toward imposing restrictions on foreign ships sailing in the South China Sea. This, however, is not the real issue. It is really about bullying.

To be sure, the United States is a strong proponent of freedom of navigation in international waters. This stance reflects not only America’s commitment to the general principle of liberty but also the interests of a trading nation with the world’s most capable navy. There should be no doubt that if freedom of navigation was in jeopardy in the South China Sea, the United States would spring to its defense. At present, however, freedom of navigation is not at issue.

The Chinese say they do not interfere with international navigation in the South China Sea and do not intend to in the future. Their position has some merit.

China has a particular beef with surveillance by U.S. ships and aircraft near the Chinese coast. This has resulted in Chinese harassment, with several incidents reported in the press. The UN Law of the Sea Treaty allows for spying in the region between a country’s internal waters limit—12 nautical miles—and its exclusive economic zone limit which is usually 200 nm.

The Chinese argue that spying is not “innocent passage” and should not be allowed within the EEZ. It is not an unreasonable argument. So this situation has resulted in some interference with the “free navigation” of the U.S. Navy, but this is a very limited and special case.

The other circumstance in which Chinese vessels have interfered with non-Chinese ships is when the latter are engaged in activities that involve taking resources—fishing or preparing to drill for hydrocarbons—or when foreigners are attempting to arrest Chinese fishermen. These, as well, are special cases. Otherwise, the Chinese have not interfered with the passage of cargo ships of any flag or of U.S. Navy vessels passing through the waterway.

Consequently, the Chinese assert that the freedom of navigation argument is bogus, and the assertion is persuasive to many neutral onlookers. From here the Chinese charge that the Americans are using freedom of the seas as a pretext to extend the alleged “containment” strategy to Southeast Asia, limiting Chinese influence and recruiting new allies to join in the military encirclement of China.

Instead of providing fodder for Chinese rhetoric, the freedom of navigation argument should remain in the background. Rather, what the U.S. government should be talking about is making the world safe from unlawful international coercion. Ironically, the Chinese have begun practicing what Beijing’s diplomats have for decades condemned as “hegemonism” or “power politics”—strong countries forcing their self-interested preferences onto smaller countries.

Six governments claim ownership of parts of the South China Sea. None has a slam-dunk case. China is not the only claimant that has moved unilaterally to strengthen its control over South China Sea territory and resources in recent years. China, however, has distinguished itself in two important and negative ways.

First, China’s claims are both unusually expansive and intentionally vague. Beijing has stubbornly refused to clarify its claims based on the guidelines in the international Law of the Sea treaty, to which the PRC is a signatory. This is part of a strategy of ambiguity by which the PRC tries to minimize global concern and to avoid being constrained by the Law of the Sea guidelines while taking actions aimed at intimidating individual rival claimants.

Second, the actions China has taken to assert ownership over the South China Sea and its tiny “islands” are stronger than those taken by the other claimants. These acts include threatening and damaging foreign ships, declaring a fishing ban for part of the year in half of the South China Sea and arresting foreign fisherman who do not comply. There is also the recent announcement of increased Chinese militarization of the region—not only the new garrison, but the statement by military spokesman Geng Yansheng in June that China has begun “regular, combat-ready patrols” in the South China Sea.

China’s actions are threatening because China is big. No other state in Southeast Asia can match the military power China is able to project into the South China Sea. China’s massive economic weight, rapid growth rate, and commitment to strengthening its military forces ensure that the gap will only grow larger in the future. To make the contest even more lopsided, the Chinese government recently announced plans to greatly increase the number of quasi-military patrol ships—operated by the PRC Coast Guard and other agencies—it will deploy in the South China Sea.

In effect, this is a struggle between two visions of international order for Asia. The U.S. vision includes a system of norms and international laws that ensure, among other things, that small states are protected from predation by larger states and that dispute resolution procedures should be fair. China, on the other hand, appears to favor restoring a Chinese sphere of influence in East and Southeast Asia such as the Middle Kingdom enjoyed anciently.

Under this arrangement, the rules of international interaction would reflect basic Chinese interests. Beijing would expect regional governments not to take major decisions that run contrary to Chinese preferences. Beijing’s current unwillingness to base Chinese claims in the Law of the Sea treaty may reflect the sentiment that this mostly Western-written body of law will not be needed when China resumes its historical position of regional dominance.

Some observers see the China-U.S. contention over the South China Sea as simply a squabble between two great powers that are both seeking regional domination, with each acting in its respective hegemonic self-interest rather than in defense of some higher principle. In this case, however, U.S. intervention is clearly aligned with the interests of the Southeast Asian countries, which seek to avoid domination by China or any other great power. China is trying to implement a might-makes-right order, while the United States is trying to ensure that smaller countries do not get steamrolled. This is the real issue, and U.S. officials should make it clear.

Denny Roy is a Senior Research Fellow at the East-West Center. He can be contacted via email at royd@eastwestcenter.org.

(Original version is available at Asia Pacific Bulletin)

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South China Sea conflict generates uncertainty and insecurity – by Tuong Nguyen | Global Post

24 August 2012

by Tuong Nguyen | Global PostPARIS, France — A recent article, ;China’s South China Sea jurisdictional claims: when politics and law collide,” published in the East Asia Forum, remarked that the uncertainty and insecurity generated by China’s claims in the South China Sea are reflected in headlines throughout Southeast Asia, even though the claims have no solid legal basis in international law.

China’s Blue Water Navy in the South China Sea. (C) dinmerican.wordpress.com

The insecurity is a consequence of tension in the region and in international relations rising from China’s newly aggressive posture in the South China Sea. The claims are based on a so-called “9-dashed line” map, adapted by the Zhou Enlai government when it took control of China in 1949. It is taken from the original map, known as the “11-dashed line” that was drawn by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government in 1947, a time when the islands of the South China Sea, once said to be a Japanese lake, were being returned to the countries that had possessed them before World War II.

The fundamental difference in the maps is that the Nationalist China map includes the Gulf of Tonkin, the Communist China map does not. The dashes on the maps refer to the demarcation lines used by China for its claim of the South China Sea area that includes the Paracels Island and the Spratly Islands. China occupies the Paracels, which are closest to China and Vietnam, but Vietnam and Taiwan are claiming them. Claims on some or all of the Spratly Islands, which are nearest Indonesia and the Philippines, are being made by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratlys are believed to contain important mineral resources, including oil.

The confusion over the legality of claims to the territories begins with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in 1951, that officially ended World War II and Japan’s position as an imperial power. Neither China nor Taiwan were present because countries attending the peace conference could not agree which was the legitimate government of China. The treaty, as signed by the parties, did not specify which countries could legally possess the former Japanese territories in the South China Sea.

Taiwan and China each wanted Japan to return the islands of Paracels and Spratlys to them. This resulted in Taiwan’s version, the “11-dashed line” map, and Communist China’s adaptation that became the “9-dashed line.” The 1952 Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China, newly established on the island now known as Taiwan, did not assign possession of Paracels and Spratlys. Communist China unilaterally claimed the right to have the islands.

Thus, the current claims of both China and Taiwan have no basis in international accords and, in effect, are illegal. China is inconsistent in attempting to de-recognize Japan’s World War II territorial claims in the South China Sea while using those claims to assert its sovereignty on former Japanese territories.

Internationally, the political and legal status of Taiwan remains a contentious issue. Consequently, China’s claims to the territories, based on Taiwan’s sovereignty, are among many unresolved issues between the two countries.

Disputes on the sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys in the South China Sea existed before the World War II. All unilateral or bilateral agreements or claims on multilateral disputes are invalid.

The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention that concluded in 1982 defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans. Among its provisions are rules for establishing territorial limits and providing means for settling disputes over coastal claims. All of the countries boarding the South China Sea, except North Korea, are among the 162 nations to ratify the treaty. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the treaty.

Under international law, the current crisis should be presented to the Law of the Sea Convention to settle the Chinese challenge to Vietnam, the Philippines and others over claims to more than 40 islands in the South China Sea.

Among the territorial disputes the Law of the Sea Convention might address is to clarify which areas are disputed and which ones are not. In May 2009, for example, Malaysia and Vietnam submitted jointly to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which was established to implement the Law of the Sea Convention.

Also in May 2009, China submitted for the first time its “9-dashed line” map attached to a Note Verbale to Secretary-General of the United Nation seeking to refute the claims of Vietnam and Malaysia and to clarify its claims. Although the claim in China’s map was unclear, its submission was considered a major milestone in the South China Sea disputes.

Because that was the first time the international community knew officially of the Chinese claims designated on the map, Vietnam immediately sent a diplomatic note to the Secretary-General to refute China’s claims. These submissions did not identify clearly the disputed areas, but they are legal and valuable documents for the settlement procedure.

Philippines, a leading voice in the resolution of South China Sea issues, has recently proposed a solution based on a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation. It requires a clear delimitation of disputed and undisputed areas in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea before peacefully pursuing joint development as outlined in China’s proposal.

The Philippine proposal segregates the undisputed areas from disputed ones. Vietnam supports the Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation while China has rejected it and pressed others Association of South East Asian Nations not to participate in discussions about it.

Not surprisingly, since China has never made clear its claims by using the so-called “9-dashed line” covering virtually more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, this rule-based concept breaks through the imprecision of China’s approach. China’s assertive posture has raised concerns among the international community about the potential for conflict in the South China Sea area. Beijing’s steps in the South China Sea are more determined and aggressive than ever, creating the worrisome prospect of escalating tension in the area. The first step toward settling these disputes through peaceful negotiations based on international law would be for all to claimants to state their claims with clarity.

Tuong Nguyen is a computer science postdoctoral fellow in Paris, France and free commentator on maritime affairs. 

(Original version is available at Global Post

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The EU & The South China Sea: A Role to Play? – by Peter Solomon | The Risky Shift

07 August 2012

by Peter Solomon | The Risky Shift - The European Union has established a gateway into East Asia’s vast markets through the South China Sea and has developed a role as a player in security issues, albeit minimal. Despite the EU’s current internal focus, the European Union cannot forget about its strategic partnership with Japan and South Korea.

USS Abraham Lincoln South China Sea

he South China Sea contains the second busiest trading route in the world: the Straight of Malacca. Vital to meeting the energy demand of China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, the supply flow through this region is comprised mainly of crude oil, liquefied natural gas, coal, and iron ore. On account of the territorial claim disputes that afflict the South China Sea, several militaries have begun the process of military modernization, namely China, the Philippines and Malaysia. Overall, six nations claim partial or entire territorial rights over the region: China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. To put in perspective what is at stake for states in the region, a 2006 estimate by the United States Energy Information Administration revealed the South China Sea has proven reserves of 26.7 billion barrels of oil (about the same quantity as Oman, Qatar, Syria, and Yemen’s oil reserves combined) and proven reserves of natural gas amounting to 7.9 trillion cubic meters (about the same quantity as Saudi Arabia or the United States’ reserves). Due to the considerable value of the oil and natural gas, the potential for disagreement is exceptionally high and, therefore, the possibility of conflict over territory in the South China Sea cannot be understated.

Due to the magnitude of trade and investment between the European Union with Japan and South Korea and the great prospects for enhancing the economic relations the EU has a great stake in the security of East Asia. Currently, East Asia is a region home to instability for a host of reasons including a surge in states acquirement of military arms, the looming dissidence between China and Taiwan, and North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. To put the EU’s economic stake in this region into perspective, about 18.1% (251.5 bn. Euros) of the EU’s exports are destined for East Asia, compared to just 21.4% for Asia as a whole. Additionally, the EU imports about 30.1% (452 bn. Euros) of its goods from East Asia compared to just 34.3% for Asia. It is easy to see that the EU’s mutual reliance on trade with East Asia creates great opportunities, but this reliance also comes with great risk. Therefore, one of the EU’s foreign policy security goals is to promote peace and stability in East Asia.

Currently, China is in the process of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in order to exert Chinese influence in the region. It is no secret that China is building up its power projection capabilities to counter-balance the presence of the United States defense forces in the Western Pacific. Due to Japan and South Korea’s geographical location, any conflict or disruption to stability in East Asia would clearly cause grave concern. The EU’s concern, however, would be in regards to the Europe’s economic stake in the region and the EU’s identity as a normative power. Despite the EU’s promotion of peace and stability in East Asia, the EU’s ability to intervene in security issues in this region is questionable due to the institution’s lack of power projection capabilities in the region. In spite of this, any confrontation in East Asia would have calamitous effects for the EU because of the 27 member state’s economic stake in the region, which consists of about 18.1% (251.5 bn. Euros) of EU exports and 30.1% (452 bn. Euros) of EU imports.

Although a European Union led military exercise would be unlikely in the Western Pacific, the security of the region is critical to Europe’s economy and also the world. Therefore, if a conflict were to occur in the South China Sea it is possible European states would act independently to maintain law and order or to preserve maritime safety in order to safeguard their commercial interests in the region. At the same time it is entirely possible that the EU would engage the region through the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO). Nevertheless, Great Britain and France can still act on their own if it is in their best interests. The British and French both maintain competent navies with power projection capabilities, which includes the ability for Britain and France to deploy their own aircraft carriers.

In the case of a South China Sea conflict, Japan would be directly involved as its tankers transport 70% of Japan’s oil through this region. A confrontation would force Japan’s oil tankers to circumvent a conflict in the South China Sea by navigating around Indonesia into the Pacific Ocean. However, this option would be both expensive and laborious. Additionally, two-thirds of South Korean natural gas is shipped through the South China Sea on its way to the Korean peninsula. In regards to the European Union’s economic interests in East Asia, maritime security is crucial for Europe.

Currently, EU military capabilities consist of 13 Battlegroups, which are “rapid response units” that consist of 1,500 troops each. EU member states rotate the responsibility of provisioning these battalion groups, two of which have always been on stand by since 2007. However, this force has never been deployed and it is difficult to say how the debt crisis will affect the EU’s research and development into new military capabilities. Given the budget cuts and focus on internal issues, the EU will likely continue to place the burden on the United States to maintain the status quo in the Western Pacific region. Additionally, it is important to add that the EU, Japanese, and South Korean goal of promoting peace and maintaining stability in East Asia differs from China’s view of peace and stability. However, with the establishment of a status quo among the EU, Japan, and South Korea it is evidenced that the three countries have a similar foreign policy vision in regards to security.

Whether or not the EU will cooperate in joint military expeditions with Japan or South Korea in the future is unknown. With regard to economics, the EU-Japan and EU-South Korea economic ties are substantial, and significant cooperation in both relationships has led to the emergence of global economic partnerships via Free Trade Agreements with both nations. Through Japan and South Korea, the European Union has established a gateway into East Asia’s vast markets and developed a role as a player in security issues, albeit a minimal role for the time being. Despite the EU’s current internal focus, the European Union cannot forget about strategic partnership with Japan and South Korea.

 

 (Original version is available at The Risky Shift)

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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’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.

bowringfhk

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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