China: A Maritime expansionist?

The call is for Australia to cooperate with the US to counter Beijing’s allegedly expansionist activities in the South China Sea. But was it not the US itself, in its 1951 San Francisco peace treaty with Japan – signed and ratified by Canberra and 47 others – who in effect gifted most of the South China Sea islands – namely, the Spratly and the Paracel island groups – to China? The US then organized a separate document with the Republic of China in Taiwan – the  1952 Taipei peace treaty – making it even clearer that these islands should be taken from Japan and in effect given to China. 

Some say both documents are ambiguous since they do not say who was to receive those islands.  But the Republic of China government was in no doubt.  It quickly assumed control over the large island of Taiping in the Spratlys, close to the Philippines (which calls it Itu Abu) . In Taiwan it is claimed that maintaining this treaty approved claim to the Spratlys and Paracels is crucial to Taiwan’s sovereignty as a nation. 

The same wording used in the San Francisco treaty for the return of the Kurile islands to Moscow is accepted even by Tokyo. What is at dispute is the definition of the word Kurile Islands. 

True, Beijing also has its claims. And other South China sea nations have also, rightfully,  begun to make counter-claims. China would be wrong to ignore them. But again which China?

We hear much about Beijing using a nine-dash line as the basis for claiming much of the  South China Sea.  But that claim was not invented by Beijing.  It was developed 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 slightly reduced the U-shaped line to a less aggressive nine-dash line.

Our media make much of the fact that in July, 2016, a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled supporting Manila’s claims in the South China Sea island disputes. Fair enough, but Manila’s main claim had been against Taiwan’s occupation of the Taiping/Itu Abu island. 

True other Spratly islands and shoals were examined. In its efforts to deny Beijing’s claims to the UNCLOS (UN Convention for the Law of the Sea) approved 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone around the islands it had claimed or created the tribunal said these islands were mere rocks incapable of supporting economic activity and so were not entitled to an EEZ. But it is clear thee tribunal was either ignorant or biassed.  For they went on rather absurdly to rule that Taiping/Itu Abu also was a mere rock not entitled to a EEZ despite the 43 hectare island having 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.

When it comes to claiming rocks as islands, Japan is much more aggressive.  It has taken a piece of exposed coral rock called Okinotori (Offshore Bird),  the size of  bed,  in a submerged atoll far out in the Pacific to the east of Taiwan and 1740 kilometers from Tokyo, buried it in concrete, declared it is part of Tokyo city, and that it is not only entitled to claim 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 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. 

That name 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 islands; it simply maintains a defense against ships sent by Beijing into the area seeking to maintain Taiwan’s claim.  (After ugly tussles with Taiwan fishing boats 2008-12, Taipei has been given fishing rights to ease its unhappiness.) 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 the Chinese 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 amphitheatre 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 host of 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 aquisitive they would have a long way to go before they can 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 has 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 Moscow also. We should think first before accusing Beijing of dangerous aggressive expansionism.