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Chinese South China Sea - Background

Anthropological studies (Bill Solheim’s, for instance) define the semi-nomadic communities who really traveled and traded across the South China Sea from time immemorial as the Nusantao – an Austronesian compound word for “south island” and “people”. The Nusantao were not a defined ethnic group; rather a maritime undertaking. Over the centuries, they had many hubs, from the coastline between central Vietnam and Hong Kong to the Mekong Delta. They were not attached to any “state”, and the notion of “borders” didn’t exist. Only by the late 19th century the Westphalian system began to freeze the South China Sea.

China [and Taiwan] claim about 80 percent of the entire South China Sea, bounded by a U-shaped line that China proclaimed in 1947 and that appears on Chinese official maps. The "cow’s tongue line” appeared at China on a map sketched by an individual, comprising 11 sections, being used by China Republic (under Chang Kai Chek) in certain documents.

Bill Hayton notes that "In March 1909 Chinese fishermen discovered a Japanese entrepreneur, Nishizawa Yoshiji, and around hundred workers on Pratas Island, a coral reef 400 kilometres southwest of (Japanese-occupied) Taiwan and about 260 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. They were digging up guano to sell as fertiliser. Nishizawa declared that he had discovered the island and it now belonged to him. When news reached Canton (Guangzhou), one group of nationalist agitators, the Self-Government Society, launched a boycott of Japanese goods and demanded the Qing authorities do something. The authorities in Tokyo offered to recognise Chinese sovereignty if its claim could be proved. On 12 October 1909 the Viceroy of Canton and the Japanese consul in the city agreed that Japan would recognise Chinese sovereignty and Mr Nishizawa would vacate the island in exchange for 130,000 silver dollars in compensation. [ed: The reason they had to borrow German captains is because there were no Chinese pilots capable of taking them to the Paracels] ".... in December 1914, a private cartographer Hu Jinjie, published the New Geographical Atlas of the Republic of China containing the first Chinese map to include a line drawn across the South China Sea. Hu entitled the map the ‘Chinese territorial map before the Qianglong-Jiaqing period’. In other words the line purported to represent the extent of Chinese state ‘control’ before 1736. Significantly, the only islands within the line were Pratas and the Paracels. It went no further south than 15°N. "In 1936 one of China’s most eminent geographers, Bai Meichu, "created his most enduring legacy: a map in his New China Construction Atlas including a U-shaped line snaking around the South China Sea as far south as James Shoal. This was then copied by others. Between 1936 and 1945 versions of the line were published on 26 other maps. Some stretched down to the James Shoal, though most only included the Spratlys." According to two Chinese scholars Li Jinming and Li Dexia, in an attempt to define and declare “the extent of Chinese sovereignty around the Paracel and the Spratly Islands”, in February 1948, the Geography Department in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of China published for the first time “the Location Map of the South China Sea Islands”, in which an eleven-dotted line was drawn around the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Spratly Islands in the East Sea. The southernmost line was about 4º northern latitude.

In 1949, the China People’s Republic came into being, had also brought the then “cow’s tongue line” into some official documents; at that time, the cow’s tongue line comprised only 9 sections.

In 1953 the U-shaped line appeared in a map of the government of the People's Republic of China, which reviewed and approved the U-shaped line, reducing it from 11 dots to nine dots. But the boundary of the nine-dotted line was greedier and it is closer to Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. According to China's argument, with the new nine-dotted line, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia "occupied" more China’s waters. Like the Republic of China, the People's Republic of China announced the nine-dotted line map without explaining the legal, the geographical basis or making it public in the international arena. They only referred it as "historic waters", "historical territory".

Commenting on the origin of the U-shaped line, American Professor Mark J. Valencia said: "China's claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea (East Sea) is vague and absurd. The most absurd is the U-shaped line. When they were asked to explain the meaning of this line, as the boundary line or something else, they always had a vague answer that it may be or may not be a boundary line. The world does not have any dotted lines like that."

However frivolous Beijing's claim may appear to others, China believes the Spratlys have been part of Chinese territory since at least the Qing or Han period. Even more than most states, territory is an important issue for China, one for which it is prepared to go to considerable lengths to defend and to prevent from falling into "alien" hands. As nationalist fervor replaces ideological appeal, it is possible China will become even more intransigent on sovereignty issues, with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) particularly hawkish on this issue.

Documents from the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) wrote about sailing and fishing activities of its people in the region. In the "Book of the Han," Han Dynasty historian Ban Gu (AD 32-92) wrote that Emperor Wu sent envoys to Southeast Asian countries, who traveled to their destinations via sea and their routes of course involved the South China Sea.

Ancient Chinese fishermen and seafarers gave names to various islands in the South China Sea based on their prominent landscape features. Such names include Shanhuzhou (coral reef) and Ruluozhou (conch-shaped reef). With navigation activities becoming more frequent in the South China Sea, Chinese people of later dynasties had better knowledge of the region and during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) they referred to islands in the South China Sea generally as qianli changsha, wanli shitang, wanli changsha, meaning sandbanks and reefs that stretches thousands of miles. And these general names were also adopted by people from today's Thailand and Vietnam in their travels to China, according to history records.

In 1909, a naval commander of the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644-1911) named Li Zhun led a 170-strong contingent to the Xisha Islands to map the region. They surveyed and named 15 islands there, and announced those names publicly. Between 1934 and 1948, the Chinese government for three times published island names and issued updated maps of the South China Sea.

Since 1956, China has sent occupation forces to many islands in the Paracel Islands and in 1974, China used overwhelming armed forces to conquer the entire Paracel Islands of Vietnam under the governance of the Republic of Vietnam according to the Geneva Agreements, 1954. By 1988, China used military forces to conquer a number of islands and reefs in the Spratly Islands under management of Vietnam, killing 64 Vietnamese military personnel.

On 03 September 1992, at the 10th non-aligned nations’ summit held in Jakarta, the then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen said at a press conference: “I do not think the South China Sea will become a hot spot and seed of clashes. There exist certain differences between related countries which, when the condition is ripe, can be ironed out through peaceful negotiations between those nations. If the condition is not ripe, the nations should be able to put aside the disputes and concentrate on development together. There should not be any danger of military conflicts.”

In July 1995, China issued a policy statement indicating that it is "ready to work together with the countries concerned to resolve appropriately the relevant disputes according to recognized international law, (and) the contemporary law of the sea, including basic principles and the legal regime defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea." What this position exactly implies in relation to the previous claim is not clear.

In 1995 China also occupied Vanh Khan Island governed by the Philippines, and by 1999 built the military posts on the island. In recent years, along with the rapid economic and military growth impetus, China has been also accelarating its actions despite the international law in order to monopolize the Sea, turning this place into its "pond" with the ambition of becoming an emerging power.

By the mid-1990s, China introduced a new security concept to the surrounding nations centering on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination. At the 8th Session of ASEAN “10 + 3 Summit” held on November 4th 2002 in Phnom Penh China and ASEAN nations signed the “ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which stipulates that all nations claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands shall commit to the status quo and shall not erect any new structure in the disputed regions of Spratly, Paracel (Xisha) and Huangyan Islands.

The “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” is seen as a further endorsement of this new security concept, which stressed a spirit of cooperation and understanding in seeking ways to establish mutual trust, strengthen maritime environmental protection, search and rescue efforts and crack down on transnational crimes.

In May 2009, at the request of the PRC, two PRC Notes Verbale were communicated to all Members of the United Nations that, among other things, declared that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof (see attached map).” The attached map has been commonly referred to as the “9-dash line map”.

These Notes Verbale represent the first time this apparent claim was presented by the Chinese Government to the international community. The description of China’s apparent claim and the attached map was not presented to the United Nations as a maritime claim in the same manner as other maritime claims, such as the PRC’s declarations of territorial sea baselines in 1996 and 2012. The PRC has not clarified the nature or legal basis of this claim. The United States has not recognized any maritime claim of China related to these Notes Verbale.

On 07 May 2012 He Jia, anchor for China Central Television’s (CCTV) nationally televised news broadcast, declared the Philippines a part of China. “We all know that the Philippines is China’s inherent territory and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty, this is an indisputable fact,” she said in the broadcast. The presenter apparently meant to say that Huangyan Island — known in the Philippines as the Scarborough Shoal, and claimed by Taiwan — is part of Chinese territory.

In November 2012, a regulation was approved by the Hainan People's Congress authorizing Chinese maritime police to "board, search" and even "take over" ships determined to be "illegally entering" South China Sea waters unilaterally claimed by Beijing.

In June 2014 China unveiled a new official map of the country calling attention to its claims on the South China Sea, making the disputed waters and its numerous islets and reefs more clearly seem like national territory. Earlier maps published by the government included China's claims to most of the South China Sea, but in a small box normally in a bottom corner, to enable the rest of the country to fit on the map. The new, vertical map dispenses with the box, and shows continental China along with its self-declared sea boundary in the South China Sea - stretching right down to the coasts of Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines - on one complete map.

"The islands of the South China Sea on the traditional map of China are shown in a cut-away box, and readers cannot fully, directly know the full map of China," the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily said. Older maps made the South China Sea's islands appear more like an appendage rather than an integral part of the country, which the new map makes "obvious with a single glance", the report added. "This vertical map of China has important meaning for promoting citizens' better understanding of ... maintaining (our) maritime rights and territorial integrity," an unnamed official with the map's publishers told the newspaper.

China cautioned in November 2014 that US warnings to halt construction of a massive artificial island and airfield will not deter it from completing the project in disputed waters of the South China Sea. This was the fourth such undertaking in the last 12-18 months. China’s top general defended the construction of the 3,000-meter island as “justifiable” in a scornful response to swift American criticism that followed evidence of large-scale military construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands area. Construction activity in the Fiery Cross Reef dated back to May 2014, with observers spotting dredging ships, which are instrumental to digging out channels and making harbors.

The United States has issued statements advocating freedom of navigation, peaceful measures to resolve differences, and the use of international law, especially the 1992 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, with the exception of Taiwan, the six claimants have signed. The United States has taken no position on the legal merits of competing sovereignty claims and supports peaceful resolution of claims and peaceful development of resources. In addition to dependence on freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, US interests include an open economic region that adheres to principles of international law.

In congressional testimony 05 February 2014, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel said "Any Chinese claim to maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. China could highlight its respect for international law by clarifying or adjusting its claim to bring it into accordance with international law of the sea". Russel also said that there were "growing concerns" that China is trying to gradually assert control over the area, despite objections by its neighbors.

He cited several Chinese actions that recently had raised tensions. "This includes continued restrictions on access to the Scarborough reef, pressure on the longstanding Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal and the recent updating of fishing regulations covering disputed areas in the South China Sea. Our view is that these actions have raised tensions in the region and have exacerbated concerns about China's long term strategic objectives".

Sam Bateman, a maritime security analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore says Russel's statements were provocative. “The only way you can read them is that the U.S. is taking a position on the claims. China's claims are not very good ipso facto the claims by other countries are better,” he said. Bateman said Russel's remark show a lack of understanding of what the "nine dash line" is. “It's loose geographical shorthand to say we claim islands and features, it is not actually questioning other countries who have establish exclusive economic zones inside the nine dash line, or indeed have maritime boundaries with their neighbor.”

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Page last modified: 17-08-2016 17:27:02 ZULU