Background of the South China Sea dispute

Taiping Island/Itu Aba

Historically, the origins of the dispute are relatively recent. Most of the claimants raised their claims after the World War II (WWII), and their efforts intensified after an adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) which established legal base for claims on 200 naval miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and delimitation of continental shelf, since then the nature of the claims have become ultimately more complex, involving mixture of historical and legal claims and different interpretations of the UNCLOS’ stipulations.

Yet, origins of the dispute predate WWII, and goes back to Sino-French dispute over the control of Paracel and Spratly Islands that started in early 1930s. For the current debate on the SCS dispute, it is important to note Chinese efforts to map its claim. Land and Water Maps Inspection Committee formed by the ROC government in 1933 produced two maps (in 1935 and 1936) that included Paracel, Pratas and Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank as part of the Chinese territory. The efforts to define claim continued after WWII and in 1947 and 1948 so called 11-dotted/U-shaped line maps were produced (see Map of South China Sea claims), the publication of the map in 1948 by the ROC Ministry of Interior was the first time that dotted map was issued by the Kuomintang (KMT) government.

After the defeat of KMT in Chinese Civil War, the newly established People’s Republic of China took over the ROC claim, basically using the very same map produced by KMT. The 11-dotted line turned to 9-dotted in 1953 after 2 dotted lines were removed from the area of gulf of Tonkin. Map with this change was attached to Chinese claim on continental shelf in May 2009 to United Nations (see Map of South China Sea claims).

First major military incident in the area occurred in January 1974 when PRC took control over Paracel Islands after an armed clash with forces of then South Vietnamese government. Previously, government of North Vietnam acknowledged in 1958 Chinese claim on Paracels and Spratlys, yet, Vietnamese claims on both groups of islands have re-emerged after the unification in 1975. In 1970s Vietnam and Philippines occupied several features in Spratlys, while China kept rather low profile and did not move towards occupation of any islands or some other minor features in Spratlys. From this perspective, Taiwan’s occupation of Itu Aba (or Taiping Island, 太平島) – the largest island in Spratlys – in 1956, when ROC government stationed garrison of around 600 men on the island, is the earliest permanent occupation in the area. In late 1970s, Philippines and Malaysia raised their claims and subsequently moved towards an physical occupation of some of the features in Spratlys. UNCLOS, adopted in 1982 and effective since 1994, further fueled attempts to establish physical presence in Spratlys. Brunei completes the group of claimants although it does not occupy any territory. Indonesia is not traditionally understood as claimant since it does not claim any part of SCS island groups, yet, 9-dotted line presented by China overlaps with Indonesian EEZ claim around Natuna Island.

Some other notable incidents in South China Sea includes 2001 Hainan incident during which US signal intelligence (SIGINT) plane collided with Chinese interceptor resulting in emergency landing of the US plane on Hainan and death of the Chinese pilot after his J-8 crashed into the sea. The other incident involving US and China occurred in 2009 in the Chinese EEZ adjacent to Hainan islands. US Navy ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable was harassed by Chinese vessels. Most recently, Sino-Filipino standoff around Scarborough Shoal drew international attention.

However, conflict (latent or open) has not always been prevailing mode among the claimants. Most notable example is the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) agreed between ASEAN countries and China. Yet, hopes that DoC would lead to a more comprehensive Code of Conduct (CoC) have not been fulfilled so far. Moreover, this July annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting failed to issue joint statement for the first time in organization’s history over Cambodia’s objections to include reference to South China Sea dispute.

International significance of the conflict is given by the strategic importance of SCS as one of the most important sea lines of communication (SLOC). However, SCS is not only crucial for sea-borne trade; it is believed to contain unknown volumes of hydrocarbons. Moreover, SCS is also crucial marine life source for all parties and as such is very important for regional food security. Thus, claimants have broad area of motives for rising stakes, ranging from nationalism that sees territorial concessions as unacceptable, geopolitical ambitions, to perceived competition for vital resources.

Taiwan’s position in the dispute is to a considerable extent peculiar. Its claim overlaps with that of China and Taiwan rhetorically confirms that claim when the need arises. United States, Taiwan’s strongest ally, is opposing Chinese claim (and thus by definition also claim held by ROC) which puts Taiwan between its biggest trade partner and its most important security ally. Similarly to China, Taiwan has been rather vague about the nature of its claim and more specifically about the nature of U-shaped line. Its four policy principles also resembles Chinese position: (1) Sovereignty belong to us; (2) putting aside the disputes; (3) peace and reciprocity; and (4) joint development [of resources]. Unlike China, Taiwan appears to favour multilateral solutions and for quite understandable reasons does not make recognizing its sovereignty as a preconditions for negotiations on joint development.

Recently, government has decided to reinforce defense of Taiping Island and live-fire Coast Guard exercise is due to begin on 1 September. Moreover, Legislative Yuan delegation is expected to visit Taiping in few weeks time.

Note: Text is abridged version of the opening chapter of my MA thesis

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