The US Navy patrols the South China Sea with its many reefs and tiny islands. Each year dozens of naval exercises are held there. China objects. Why?
The islands form roughly a lozenge pattern in the sea south of China. The points of the lozenge are called in Chinese East, Middle, West and South Sands. East Sand (Pratas) is the top of the lozenge, about 200 miles from Hong Kong. West Sand is the Paracels, Middle Sand is a coral reef consisting of many parts, it is also called MacClesfield Bank (after a British ship that stranded there in 1804) a bit to the southeast of West Sand, and South Sand is the Spratlys. There are about 200 islands, with a total land area of only 5 square miles. The total sea area is about a million square miles.
Many of these islands belong to China, but have been invaded and occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Taiping (one of the Spratlys) and Pratas are actually controlled by Taiwan. The Paracels have been controlled by the Mainland China since the 1950s. The Chinese consider the town of Sansha on Yongxing in the Paracels, as the administrative center of all these islands except the Pratas group. Since the 1960s the defense there has been strengthened considerably.
However, from 1975 on Vietnam has occupied 29 islands in the Spratly group. They have pumped up about 100 million tons of oil there. The Philippines claim 33 islands, actually occupy 8 and try to obtain more. For example, a Filipino vessel ran aground on the Renai Reef in 1999. Ever since then the Philippines have kept a few people aboard the wreck obstructing its removal by the Chinese. The Philippines built an airport on Zhongyeh in the Spratlys and created many more incidents, without the US ever complaining about threatening the status quo.
In 1956 the Republic of North Vietnam publicly declared that all these islands had been part of China in the last thousand years, and they acknowledged the Chinese claims on these islands again in 1958 and 1965. North Vietnamese textbooks showed the same.
Not so in South Vietnam. In 1950 the government of the Republic of China (ROC) had a hard time, having just moved to Taiwan. They withdrew their military from some of these islands, whereupon the French colonial regime of Vietnam took some of them. The French colonialists had occupied some others already in the 19th century. When South Vietnam gained independence, they kept the French inheritance. And when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War in 1975, they kept them too. What about their earlier solemn statements? They were invalid, they said in 1988, they were just made to keep China’s support in the war with the USA.
The Philippines claims
Before 1946 the Philippines were not independent, and no maps of its rulers (Spain and the USA) showed any part of MacClesfield Bank and the Spratlys as territories of the Philippines. Now the Philippines claim that some islands and reefs are in their economic zone and hence belong to them. But economic zones cannot include land or islands of other countries.
Ancient Chinese Claims
According to China these islands were in the territory of China since ancient times. One finds Chinese temples, stone tablets, pieces of old Chinese porcelain or earthenware and old coins in these islands. Many historical records have also recorded these islands or reefs. The oldest record mentioning them was written when Julius Caesar was a boy. In the time of the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1796) there was an atlas called ‘Imperial Qing Provinces Map’, showing the Paracels and the Spratlys as Qing territory. In any country that has a decent institute of Chinese studies all these old records can be found and studied.
The 20th century
After 1911 the ROC rather than the emperors governed China. The ROC researched these islands and in the middle of the 1930s it listed 132 reefs and islands in official publications. It determined that the southernmost tip of this part of the territory is Zengmu Ansha (James Shoal). When the ROC recovered all these islands from the Japanese after World War II, they sent four ships, Zhongjian, Zhongye, Yongxing and Taiping. Four islands were named after these ships. The ROC then used a U-shaped ‘eleven-dash line’ to indicate which part of the sea contained the Chinese islands.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mainland in 1949 the eleven dashes were changed to nine. In effect, Beijing generously gave the Gulf of Tonkin to North Vietnam. In 1956, the ROC in Taiwan was alert about the Philippine ambitions and sent troops to patrol the South China Sea and declared its sovereignty over these islands, especially the islands Taiping, Zhongye and Nanwei. Taiwan even had a garrison on Taiping thereafter. Unfortunately Zhongye has been illegally occupied by the Philippines and Nanwei is illegally occupied by Vietnam.
The 21st century
In 2002 China and ASEAN reached a ‘Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’. Article 5 of this declaration urges every party to show self-restraint and refrain from changing the status of islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Although this Declaration has no legal effect, China has never done anything to change the status of any island or reef, but Vietnam and the Philippines continued their occupation activities. China has repeatedly said that it likes to have bilateral consultations with any disputing country and also that they can set the disputes aside so to employ and develop these places together. However, the Philippines rejected all these proposals and asked the United States to intervene in the disputes. Moreover, they have one-sidedly brought their case before the International Court of Justice. China doesn’t want to submit to this court. All this gives the United States a good excuse to use military means to balance China’s influence in Asia. The U.S. aims to send 60% of their military forces to East Asia. China knows that it acts rather late, but hopes not too late. It is now doing much on the islands or reefs that are already in Chinese control, for example building light towers, extending the area of the islands and intensifying the military defense. The Philippines protest now that China does not comply with the ‘Declaration on Conduct.’
Present military activity
The Philippines and Vietnam protest that China has recently put some advanced missiles in Yongxing and the United States criticized China again that it raised the tensions in this region. The Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou inspected the Taiping Island in early 2016, but he was also blamed by the US for doing something ‘unfavorable for peace’.
China responded to all the critics of the U.S. with the following words: ‘The United States continue to strengthen military deployment in the South China Sea, frequently dispatched military vessels and planes to enter the South China Sea, spy on the Chinese military locations with high frequency and repeatedly sent missile destroyers and strategic bombers to approach China’s Nansha Islands and reefs. With clear target in mind, the U.S. decoy or set their allies under pressure to do frequently ‘joint military exercise’ or to patrol on the South China sea in the name of ‘freedom of navigation.’’ In fact, the United States is responsible for the military tensions in this area.
It seems that the US denies China the right to increase their self-defense capacity. Maybe the US idea is that China should immediately surrender when its neighbors indulge in colonialist style land grabbing.