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The conflicting claims of the South China Sea

A few years ago I had two friends over for dinner. Both were final-year university students; one from mainland China and one from Hong Kong. I raised the question of the Spratly islands. The student from mainland China said something like ‘I don’t know much about it, but I know China has always owned them.’ No surprise there- the Chinese media of course back the claims. The student from HK smiled and politely said ‘I believe differently.’ He didn’t want to say much else while the mainland student was present, but once she left the room he laughingly told me ‘Everything she believes is communist. She doesn’t know any better.’ I tend to think the problem is that none of us know any better.

Establishing sovereignty of the contested regions of the South China Sea is a very tangled web. China’s claim to pretty much the whole sea is based on ‘undisputable historic evidence.’ As China is the main player in the dispute, let’s look at their evidence.

Claims of ancient maps showing ownership of all the islands of the South China sea have been touted in the media. The maps haven’t emerged, and on investigation seems they didn’t exist. There was a fake map- identical to a later British map, complete with all the same errors and badly translated from English to Chinese. What we do have though, is a map drawn up in 1947 by the Republic of China (now Taiwan) where the U-shaped line was first used. It’s called the ‘nine dotted line’ now, but while the amount of ‘dots’ has changed over time it is still roughly U-shaped. This line was drawn up to claim the enclosed islands (not the sea) and at the time wasn’t contested by any other nation. So, perhaps through the claim not being contested perhaps China could legitimately claim them as theirs. Most of those so-called islands were just shoals or otherwise completely insignificant. They’ve only become significant now as islands because they are being fortified to reinforce territorial claims- and not just by China.

The Spratly islands were named after Captain Richard Spratly, a whaling ship captain. He supposedly ‘found’ the islands and in 1881 the British Royal Navy marked the name ‘Spratly islands’ on their maps. He surely wasn’t the first to see them, but the name stuck. The British claimed the Spratly’s, then the French. Vietnam claimed the islands after winning independence from France. If China’s claim is based on historic maps and texts then the ownership of those islands could be said to be with the Republic of China, but Beijing doesn’t recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty, and rightly or wrongly claims everything which the republic of China once claimed.

As I write this, an international tribunal is set to decide on Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. China has long declared that it doesn’t recognise the tribunal and won’t accept its ruling. This may seem outrageous, but a lot of countries do this. The USA for example rejects a great deal of international laws which they don’t feel are in their interest. The US pivot to Asia also seems to have done little to help its allies and everything to aggravate China.

It might be considered ideal if only the 12-mile nautical territorial claim would stand in regard to any of the claimants, which would establish virtually the whole of the South China sea as international waters and would make most of the disputed islands independent. Perhaps then if there are any resources ASEAN could work together to extract them. However, this naively idealistic approach would surely be unacceptable to any of the claimants. So the dispute will no doubt go on and on.

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