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Foreign Policy

China's Claims in the South China Sea

Jun 29, 2018
  • Tung Chee Hwa

    Chairman Emeritus, China-United States Exchange Foundation

The Chinese discovered the Spratlys (known as Nansha Island in China) with the earliest archaeological evidence of their use dating back hundreds of years. Navigation guides for fishery activity, compiled by fishermen from China’s Hainan Island as early as the 18th Century, not only designated specific names to most features in the Spratlys, but also provided detailed narratives on the direction and distances (expressed in the length of travel time) of the navigational routes. Chinese fishermen would live on these islands during the more favorable fishing seasons.

In addition, China exercised sovereignty over the Spratlys going back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD) starting with an official survey of Chinese territories covering the Spratlys followed later by the formal incorporation of the Spratlys as well as Hainan Island into the administration of Guangdong Province during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD).

In more recent history, towards the end of the Second World War, there is ample, clear, and convincing evidence that China has sovereignty over the Spratlys. This was recognized by the international community including the US. Evidence of this can be found in some very important international treaties and declarations.

First, is the Cairo Declaration of 27 November 1943. Second, is the Potsdam Declaration, of 26 July 1945. Third, is the Treaty of Peace, also known as the Treaty of San Francisco, signed on 8 September 1951, between 48 nations and Japan. (Because of the onset of the Cold War, neither the PRC nor the ROC were invited to San Francisco). Fourth, is the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty, signed on 28 April 1952, between Japan and the Republic of China(ROC). Fifth, is the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, passed in 1971, recognizing that the  People's Republic of China was the only lawful representative of China to the United Nations, in place of the Republic of China. And lastly, the Joint Communiqué of the Government of Japan and the Government of the People’s Republic of China, signed 29 September 1972, which acknowledged that all territories stolen from the Chinese shall be restored.  In each one of these treaties or declarations, reading them separately, or reading the six together, you will find definitive evidence supporting the legal position that the Spratly Islands actually belong to China. 

Now, I would also like to briefly describe what has been happening in the Spratlys since the 1950s.  Since that time, the Vietnamese have been actively and aggressively taking over many of these features in the Spratlys. The Philippines has also done the same, starting in the 1970s.  So today, of all the features in the Spratlys, Vietnam has 29, the Philippines has 8, and China has 9.

By the 1970s, there was a discovery that the South China Sea possessed a wealth of oil and gas reserves. This resulted in a dramatic escalation of interest in the region, particularly by Vietnam and the Philippines. As a result, tensions increased.

The situation was further exacerbated in 1982, when the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was promulgated, giving states territorial rights over waters 12 miles from the shore, and recognized an economic zone 200 miles from the shore. This has further complicated the claims and counter claims, and enticed even more ASEAN countries to make claims in the South China Sea.

Since the 1970s, China urged restraint. And while insisting on her sovereign rights, China suggested that peace can be maintained if the countries agreed to explore the resources jointly, sharing them together, and leaving the sovereignty dispute for future generations to resolve.  China began bilateral negotiations with the other claimants.

Unfortunately, there has been no progress in those negotiations, but since that time, more than a thousand oil wells have been drilled, mostly by the Vietnamese and the Filipinos. But till now, China has not drilled a single well in the area.

Over this period, Vietnam built an airstrip on one of its features.  Last year, China decided to proceed with the construction of an airport on one of its features. China has also built four lighthouses in the Spratlys to support international navigation.

By 2002, because of the intensive efforts of ASEAN countries and China, a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was reached, promoting bilateral negotiation among the disputing nations on sovereignty issues, and calling for the unfettered freedom of navigation in the South China Sea for all nations of the world. A Code of Conduct between the ASEAN countries and China to reflect the above is now being actively pursued. China believes that this process, although at times fraught with difficulty, continues to be the best way to resolve the dispute.

I hope, from the above, you can appreciate that China’s activities in the South China Sea have not been aggressive, nor assertive, but rather has been restrained, and aimed at promoting peace and common prosperity.

I would now like to address the allegations that China does not follow legal norms on the settlement of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. It is not commonly known that the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) successfully produced a convention, only after nine years of marathon discussions and negotiations. The stalemate was broken because the convention provided the parties with an option to make an exception in cases concerning national sovereignty and making boundary delimitation.

China ratified the Convention on 7 June 1996. She made a declaration upon ratification reaffirming its sovereignty over all its archipelagos and islands, including those of the Spratlys. On 25 August 2006, China made a declaration under Article 298 of the Convention that any sovereignty and maritime boundary delimitation issues are excluded from the jurisdiction of any dispute resolution mechanism under the Convention. A similar position is taken by over 30 other countries.

This is the legal ground under which China has declined to participate in the Permanent Court of Arbitration proceedings at the Hague, called for by the Philippines. Legal experts consider China’s position in this regard proper and legal.

The South China Sea issue is now on the front pages, almost daily.  While the Americans feel that the Chinese are being assertive, aggressive, unreasonable and fail to adhere to international legal norms; the Chinese people feel strongly that history, logic, and the law is on their side, and despite this, China is still patiently and constructively seeking peaceful solutions. China cannot understand why America takes a different view and is oblivious to the historical facts, and even goes so far as to frequently carry out military exercises in the South China Sea to make her point.

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