An old map of the South China Sea. Photo: iStock

There are two or more sides to every story, and the territorial disputes between China and Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei in the South China Seas and Japan in the East China Sea are no exception. Which side is “aggressive” depends on one’s perspective.

The South China Sea

China has long claimed that it has owned the territory within the “Nine Dash Line” since ancient times. Chinese fishermen and mariners are said to have sailed to the regions within the two seas to fish and in search of trade opportunities for centuries, long before Europeans colonized southeastern China. Historical relics found on the islands in the South China Sea confirm the story.

At the end of World War II, the pro-US Nationalist government of China publicly claimed the territories within the “11 Dash Line,” drawn in 1947 based on a “Map of Islands in the South China Sea” published in 1935. The 1935 map was said to have been based on historical records produced in earlier Chinese dynasties.

The Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Once they were in power, premier Zhou Enlai deleted two of the 11 dashes within the Gulf of Tonkin, creating the “Nine Dash Line,” but did not give any reasons for the deletion.

The governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have never waived these territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Republic of China retreated to Taiwan (after the Nationalists’ defeat in 1949), but established a small military garrison on one of the islands to show its claim. It also sent warships to patrol the territories.

Between the 16th and 20th centuries, European imperialists colonized much of Southeast Asia. After winning independence, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam inherited the boundaries drawn by their former colonial masters. Some of the waters and islets with the Nine Dash Line are within these nations’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones.

However, with the exception of the Philippines, which made a claim on some waters and islets in the 1950s, the South China Sea remained relatively calm, apart from some minor conflicts, such as over fishing in overlapping waters.

The situation changed when Washington decided that the South China Sea was a US national-security interest, proclaiming the ‘pivot to Asia’ policy that would be enforced by 60% of its military forces. That decision alarmed Beijing

A shooting war between Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces did occur on one of the islands, but that was not over a territorial dispute – it was part of a wider row between Hanoi and Beijing over Vietnam’s 1975 invasion of Cambodia, a Chinese ally. The Chinese forces captured a number of Vietnamese provinces but withdrew quickly to avoid a fight with the Soviet Union in March 1979. Vietnamese troops were not evicted. Both sides claimed victory. From then on, until 2012, the South China Sea was relatively stable.

The situation changed when Washington decided that the South China Sea was a US national-security interest, proclaiming the “pivot to Asia” policy that would be enforced by 60% of its military forces. That decision alarmed Beijing, prompting it to become more assertive, building islands and installing military assets within the Nine Dash Line.

In response, the US and its allies mounted “freedom of navigation and overflight operations” (FNOP), even though the issue had never existed before then. Ships of all sizes and designations (commercial and military) sailed freely in the waters. It could even be argued that Beijing prizes FNOP more than any country on Earth because most of the trade that transits through the South China Sea is China’s.

In 2013, the Philippines filed a complaint against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. China refused to participate in the case and rejected the ruling.

Current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte set aside the PCA ruling and reached out to China by forming cooperative stances such as investment ventures and trade. Vietnam, the other staunch claimant to disputed territory in the South China Sea, seems to have softened its position on the issue and followed in Duterte’s footsteps.

This year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and all claimant nations within the organization agreed to negotiate a code of conduct to address the issue and form joint development platforms.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

With regard to the Diaoyu Islands (or Senkaku Islands as Japan calls them) in the East China Sea, China first laid claim to them in the 14th century if not earlier. They are 120 nautical miles from the main island of Taiwan. Japan annexed Taiwan and the surrounding islands in 1895 but they were returned to China in 1945 under the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration.

The major powers – the US, Britain, China and Russia – and perhaps other Allied Powers drafted and signed the two declarations and restricted Japanese sovereignty to the main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. The two instruments also stipulated that the Allied Powers might grant Japan some minor islands, but did not specify which ones.

The Communists’ victory over the Nationalists changed the geopolitical calculus. The US reneged on its obligation and decided to maintain control over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands from 1952 under the Treaty of San Francisco. In 1972, the US included the islands in the Okinawa Reversion Treaty. Yet neither mainland China nor Taiwan participated in drafting or agreeing to these acts.

What’s more, while China recognizes that the islands are in dispute, Japan denies this, perhaps emboldened by the guarantee of US protection. To make its stance more credible, the Japanese government paid the Japanese “owners” of the Senkakus, the Kurihara family, more than 2 million yen a year in rent and finally bought the islands for more than 2 billion yen ($17.6 million) in 2012. However, how the Kurihara family got to own the islands was never made explicit.

Is China the ‘aggressor’?

China insists it is only reclaiming its “inheritance” handed down from earlier governments. And given the fact that Taipei’s claims in both seas mirror those of Beijing, it seems clear that no future Chinese governments will act any different.

The US and its allies label China as “aggressive” for “militarizing” the South China Sea. In 2007, Japan proposed the formation of a quadrilateral security agreement (“Quad”) comprising the US, Australia, India and itself, promoted as the “diamond of democracies,” to counter China’s “aggression.” It was nixed, but rumors of a Quad re-emerged this year when the US referred to the Asia-Pacific region as the “Indo-Pacific.”

The ASEAN claimants are caught in the middle. They may want to side with the US, but geopolitical, economic and military realities dictate otherwise. Duterte doubts that the US would help his country in a fight against China. Last but not least, China is ASEAN’s biggest trade partner, valued at nearly $500 billion in 2016.

Will there be a war between the US and its allies, including ASEAN, and China? Probably not. The public in Australia and the US are not as anti-China as their governments are. In the meantime, China is content with leaving the disputes for wiser future leaders to address.

Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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