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The call is for Australia, Japan and other willing partners to cooperate with the US to counter Beijing’s allegedly expansionist activities in the South China Sea. But wait a moment. Did not the US itself, in its 1951 San Francisco peace treaty with Japan, signed and ratified by Canberra and 47 others, in effect gift the largest and most numerous of the South China Sea islands to China?
Article 2 (f) of the treaty states: Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands.
The US then organized a separate treaty – the 1952 Taipei peace treaty – with the Republic of China government, which at the time it recognized as the government of all China. That treaty sought to make even clearer that these South China Sea islands should be taken from Japan.
Some say both documents are ambiguous since they do not state clearly who was to receive those islands; they state simply that Japan will relinquish ownership. But if the only other party to the 1952 Taipei treaty was the Republic of China then it is fairly obvious that the islands being taken from Japan should go to the Republic of China.
Certainly that is what Taipei thought. It quickly assumed the right to control islands in both the Spratlys and the Paracels – the large island of Taiping in the Spratlys, close to the Philippines (Filipino name is Itu Abu) in particular.
[Incidentally, the same wording is used in the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty when it calls for Japan to relinquish control of the Kuril islands. There, too, there is no mention of to whom the islands are to be given. But there, too, Tokyo accepted that its relinquishment of ownership meant ownership of the islands automatically passed to the claimant power, in this case the Soviet Union, and then on to Russia as successor power. The dispute between Tokyo and Moscow today is over the definition of the word Kuril Islands, with Tokyo insisting that the islands at the south-western end of the Kuril chain (and close to Japan) belong to an entity called the Northern Territories and not to the Kurils mentioned in the San Francisco treaty. It is an argument that normally would not cut much ice.]
True, Beijing cannot be expected to respect past treaties concluded by its Taiwan rival. However, it is careful not to claim the islands claimed and occupied by Taiwan. Taiwan is part of China, it says. Therefore islands claimed by Taiwan are part of China. Instead Beijing focuses its claims on other South China Sea shoals, rocks and islands not claimed by Taiwan, both within and outside the Spratlys and Paracels.
However, it is also a fact that since 1952 other South China Sea nations with legitimate rights ignored by the US in the early fifties have also rightfully begun to make their claims as they emerge from colonial domination. China would be wrong to ignore them. Vietnam’s claims to islands in the Paracels with oil exploration potential, or Philippines claims to offshore fishing base shoals – the Scarborough Shoal, especially – are examples. But again, which China are we talking about? Beijing or Taiwan?
We hear much about Beijing using a nine-dash line as the basis for claiming virtually all the South China Sea shoals, islands and rocks, including the Spratlys and Paracels. But that claim was not invented by Beijing. It was developed by the Republic of China government well before the Beijing regime even existed. In Taiwan they call it the “U-shaped line” and they still cling to it as proof of their theoretical right to claim virtually any South China Sea island of choice. Beijing has slightlyreduced the U-shaped line to a slightly less aggressive nine-dash line.
Much is made of the fact that in July 2016 a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled generally supporting Manila’s claims in the South China Sea island disputes. Fair enough, but Manila’s claims were as much against Taiwan as Beijing – Taiwan’s occupation of the Taiping/Itu Abu island in the Spratlys in particular.
The tribunal looked closely at whether the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea-approved 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone could be applied to the various islands claimed or created by Beijing or Taiwan. It concluded that all these islands were mere rocks or shoals incapable of supporting economic activity and so were not entitled to an EEZ.
But it is clear the tribunal members (all European) were either ignorant or biased. For they went on rather absurdly to rule that Taiping/Itu Abu, claimed and occupied by Taiwan, also was a mere rock not entitled to an EEZ. This despite the fact the 43-hectare island has an airport and a population of 200 engaged in a variety of economic activities.
Beijing’s “rocks” now also sustain airports and a range of activities that would also qualify for an EEZ. It seems fairly clear the tribunal had given itself the political task of supporting US and other Western claims that the entire South China Sea was open waters. As such, its declarations do not deserve great respect.
When it comes to claiming rocks as islands, Japan has much to teach us. It has taken a piece of exposed coral rock called Okinotori (Offshore Bird), the size of a bed, in a submerged atoll far out in the Pacific to the east of Taiwan and 1740 kilometers from Tokyo, buried it in concrete and declared it is part of Tokyo city.
As such, it is claimed, it is not only entitled to the standard EEZ (allowing it frequently to capture or expel any fishing boats, mainly Taiwanese, in the 200 nautical mile area); it has also decided that the bed-size rock is part of Japan’s continental shelf, allowing it to claim exclusive right to exploit the resources of an extra 177,000 square kilometers of ocean bed.
“This will help Japan to enhance its national interests through the development of resources,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declared in September 2014. It also brings Japan a lot closer to Australia.
The Senkaku islands dispute with Japan is also often listed as proof of Beijing’s maritime aggressiveness. But this, too, was originally a dispute with Taiwan rather than Beijing. The island group lies at the top end of a chain of volcanic islands running down to the northern tip of Taiwan, and separated from Japan’s Okinawa by a deep ocean trough.
Long before Japan began its expansionist moves in the 19th century, Chinese fishermen had been using the islands as a base. Hence its Chinese name – Diaoyutai, or fishing platform (which also happens to be the name of an emperor’s palace in Beijing).
Japan was only able to take it over and develop it during China’s late 19th century period of weakness. According to Wikipedia, ”China claims the discovery and ownership of the islands from the 14th century, while Japan maintained ownership of the islands from 1895.”
Tokyo at first did not even have a name for the islands. Only later did it begun to use the name Senkaku. Senkaku is a translation of the name Pinnacle Islands, given by an English explorer, James Colnett, during his 1789-1791 voyage into the area. Yet Tokyo, as with all its disputed territories, insists these have been and will continue to be the inherent territories of Japan.
Fortunately it has had the good sense not to try to occupy the Senkaku islands; it simply maintains a defense against ships sent by Beijing into the area seeking to maintain Taiwan’s claim. (After ugly tussles between Japanese coast-guard vessels and Taiwan fishing boats in 2008-12, Tokyo has agreed to allow Taiwan’s fishing rights into the area.)
And even the US, even if only for political reasons, has had the good sense only to admit Japan’s administrative, not sovereignty, rights to the islands.
Ultimately these island disputes represent a clash of cultures. For hundreds if not thousands of years China saw the oceans around it as natural and exclusive Chinese possessions to be used for fishing and navigation. The only intruders were Japanese pirate boats raiding eastern Chinese coastal towns. There was no need to go through any process of claiming legal possession.
Then along came the Europeans with their concepts of colonies, gunboats and flags to claim physical possession. The area ceased to a Chinese lake; it became an amphitheater in which first the Westerners and then the Japanese have felt free to take advantage of China’s weakness and grab territory as they liked. Now China is belatedly claiming the right of possession it always assumed it had, but had never claimed in the Western and then Japanese way.
Far from being aggressive, if anything the Chinese have long been too reactive and inward looking. For years they did little to protest properly the widespread US invasive ocean bottom chartings and message recording ELINT and SIGINT activities around their eastern coast.
And only now are they beginning to reach out and seek distant ocean-based footholds as Western powers have long done. But even at their most acquisitive they would have a long way to go before they could match the UK/US grab for Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean and the expulsions of the original inhabitants to create the bases for US military activities in the Middle East.
Meanwhile Japan continues to act as if it had an inherent right to territories lost, as a result of its Pacific War defeat, not just to Taiwan and mainland China but to South Korea and Russia, also. We should think first before accusing Beijing of dangerous aggressive expansionism.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat trained in Chinese who opposed the Vietnam War and in 1975 moved to an academic career in Japan (professor Sophia University, emeritus president Tama University, joint founder of the Akita International University). While based in Tokyo briefly as correspondent for The Australian he organized over Canberra’s opposition an Australian participation in China’s 1971 Ping Pong diplomacy that led to Canberra’s 1972 recognition of Beijing. In 1968 he published his book In Fear of China (Lansdowne and Cresset Press).