In 2012, Japanese government adopted a scheme to purchase three of the five Diaoyu islands, trying to nationalize them. China reacted strongly and numerous large anti-Japanese protests erupted in China as well as elsewhere including California and New York. The dispute had tanked the Sino-Japanese relation to a valley that Japan business people were deeply concerned. Recently, a delegation of 3000 Japanese business leaders went to China to make amends. However, the Abe right-wing administration seems to be destined to occupy the Diaoyu Islands by inducing the U.S. to include the islands into the protected region under the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. Naturally, China and Taiwan would not accept such maneuver; hence the Diaoyu Islands remain as a trouble spot in the East China Sea but it will not be inflamed as long as Japan refrains from provoking China on the issue. Now the world attention has shifted to the South China Sea.
Public waters were defined as 3 sea miles away from governed land but fishing rights, ocean resources and pollution control issues often extended beyond the 3 mile zone. In 1945, U.S. President Truman first announced that the U.S. ocean sovereignty extended to continental shelf. Subsequently, many nations declared sea sovereignty to 12 to 200 sea miles. In 1947 post WW II, the Republic of China had declared a eleven dotted line to define China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea based on historical Chinese Sovereignty and later in 1949, the People’s Republic China took over the Chinese mainland adopted the eleven-dotted-line and redrawn into a nine-dotted line to define her South China Sea sovereignty. Even though international maps made by McNally had exhibited China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea, this nine-dotted line (included therein the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands) seemed to be the starting point of the disputes. First, in 1970s, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries began referring to the Spratly Islands as included in their own territory. The Philippines began exploring the areas west of PalawanPalawanPalawan for oil in 1970. Exploration in the area began in Reed Bank/Tablemount. In 1976, gas was discovered following the drilling of a well. However, China's objection halted the exploration. Then on June 11, 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the Spratly Islands as Philippine territory. Energy resources, fishing opportunities and maritime routes (several hundred ships passing per day, though bulk of them going to Chinese ports) are the main motives creating these island disputes. [updatThe United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect on 16 November 1994, did not help solving these intensifying island disputes. As of 1996, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries asserted claims within the Chinese nine-dotted line.
One positive agreement was reached on 20 July 2011 by the PRC, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which defined a set of preliminary guidelines helpful in resolving the disputes. This agreement was an important milestone document for cooperation among China and ASEAN countries regarding marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and combating transnational crime, except the issue of oil and natural gas drilling. Apparently energy resource is the ‘interest’ that the smaller nations are disputing with China on those almost totally un-inhabited islands. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People's Republic of China estimate that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). Other sources claim less, only 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons (6% of the Chinese claim, US EIA Geological Survey gave a slightly higher estimate). Perhaps it is a mistake for China to disclose her studies, in the years following the announcement by the ministry, the claims regarding the South China Sea islands intensified. (Some net-citizens had remarked: it was stupid to tell the world that you had gold nuggets buried in your backyard) A wide variety of natural gas resource estimations, ranging from 900 trillion cubic feet (25.5 trillion cubic meters) to 2 quadrillion cubic feet (56.6 trillion cubic meters) was also declared in the EIA report.
In an earlier column, we have discussed the history of the dispute between Vietnam and China over their border and the Paracel Islands. Vietnam had been aggressive regarding sovereignty dispute with China even resulted in war. Through treaties and war settlements, as of 2012, all of Paracel Islands are under Chinese control as rightly so by Chinese history and post WW II settlement. The situation regarding the Spratly Islands is more complicated; currently eight are under Chinese control, twenty nine under Vietnamese control, eight under the control of Philippines, five by Malaysia, two by Brunei and one by Taiwan. Indeed, it is a complex situation. The recent U.S. Pivot to Asia policy, whether intentionally or not, encouraged Asian nations to challenge China’s rise and added fuel to these hot spots in the South China Sea. The righteous position the U.S. is taking is: “to ensure Maritime freedom through the South China Sea”. The U.S. is denouncing the land reclamation effort done by China on some of the South China Sea Islands as threatening to the maritime freedom. In reality, Vietnam and Philippines started land reclamation long before China did, except China’s effort is backed by more technology and engineering rendering their infrastructure projects more effective. The deeper ports, airfields even horticultural and recreational facilities are thus capable of fulfilling the multilateral agreement reached in 2011 for providing navigation communication, scientific research, search and rescue, combating transnational crime and perhaps even tourism. After all, Maritime freedom is China’s utmost concern, since 40-50% of her world trade pass through South China Sea. Prior to the new round of agitation in claims, there was never any issue with Maritime freedom in South China Sea. As one of the U.S. political analyst stated, these islands had no human population to speak of; the maritime conduct could be easily managed by agreement among nations under the guidelines of UNCLOS. Even the attractive energy resources under the South China Sea could be explored with collaborative effort since China had repeatedly invited partners to do joint exploration and development.
Island dispute is not limited to the East China Sea and the South China Sea. The tension over the Kurile Islands in the Northern Pacific (with Russia), Dokdo Island (with Korea) and the Diaoyu Islands (with China) illustrate Japan’s ‘historical’ territorial ambition. Russia has controlled the northern Kuril Islands since the 19th century, but she seized the southern islands at the end of World War II acting on the basis of the Yalta agreement. This has been a sore point between the two countries ever since — to the point that they’ve never actually signed a peace treaty ending the war. Japan supposedly renounced all rights to their occupation to territories they seized or occupied prior to WW II (including Korea, Formosa, Pescadores, Kurile, the Pacific Islands, the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, etc.) in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty signed with the Allied powers formally ending the war. The imprecise (unfavorable to China) language and unilateral execution of the U.S. trusteeship in the San Francisco Treaty gained no consent from the People’s Republic of China (and the Republic of China) and Russia, thus causing Japan’s revived territorial ambition and disputes on the Diaoyu, Paracel and Spratly islands in the East and South China Sea.