Tag Archives: UNCLOS

Maritime Order and America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

America as a Seapower

The United States is a “seapower” in all senses of the word. Its history, prosperity, and security are inseparable from the oceans. Even U.S. states without coastlines depend on global supply chains and markets that move primarily through the oceans.

The United States neglects its Navy at its peril. But military power must be accompanied by other types of power, both hard and soft. In his analysis of five maritime great powers, Professor Andrew Lambert explains how might and identity derive not exclusively from naval power, but also from the aptitude for using the seas cooperatively.1 The crucial distinction between seapowers and more insular continental powers is the art of perpetuating profitable economic and political ties with others. “A seapower, the ancient Greek thalassokratia,” writes Lambert, “was a state that consciously chose to create and sustain a fundamental engagement between nation and ocean, from political inclusion to the rule of law, across the entire spectrum of national life, in order to achieve great power status.”2

The oceans are not just the cradle of life, but vital arteries to tomorrow’s world centers of power. The continuous body of water that facilitates 90 percent of global trade and comprises about 72 percent of the Earth’s surface joins the United States with two major oceans and connects it to the dynamic Indo-Pacific region where the majority of twenty-first century wealth, trade, and population are concentrated.3

Because America’s peace and well-being depend on unhampered access and use of the oceans, order at sea is indispensable for U.S. global strategy and its vision of preserving and adapting a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Trump administration’s vision for an expanded regional policy announced during the president’s first trip to Asia.4

The post-World War II international system enshrined the idea of “freedom of the high seas” in the 1945 United Nations Charter.5 Postwar challenges to commercial and military freedom of navigation, however, demanded further protection.6

In the midst of the Cold War, both Western and Eastern blocs along with nonaligned nations came together to support the multilateral negotiations that resulted in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea does not conform with the revisionist notion that the United States imposed its rules on others.7 Instead, as Singapore Ambassador Tommy Koh, who later served as president of the conference, put it, “You will find countries allied here that you will not find working together in any other international forum, such as Mongolia and Swaziland, or Jamaica and Iraq.”8 As U.S. Ambassador John Norton Moore said, freedom of navigation is the original “common heritage” of all humankind.9 

From the signing of UNCLOS, the United States accepted all of its provisions as customary international law. The sole exception was Part XI regarding seabed exploration and mining in international waters, outside countries’ territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).10 In short, the United States helped to establish international law of the sea, and despite not ratifying UNCLOS, seeks to ensure its relevance, survival, and enforcement.

So, freedom of seas has been and remains essential for all Americans. However, maritime order is increasingly at risk and from both traditional and nontraditional threats. A critical question is whether we can sustain freedom of the seas into the future.

Rising Challenges for Maritime Order

Maritime order is a larger concept than maritime security. The maritime domain is defined as “all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.”11 Although security is the sine qua non for order, there is a symbiotic relationship between freedom of navigation on the oceans, for instance, and sustainable coastal communities where almost two-thirds of the world’s mega-cities are situated.12

There are at least four significant challenges to maritime order broadly conceived: over the international rules governing maritime behavior; from pirates, terrorists, traffickers, and other non-state actors and transnational criminal organizations; from mounting human exploitation of ocean resources; and from natural disasters and climate change. This essay focuses on the first but touches on all four risks, as a comprehensive policy for maritime order requires addressing the full panoply of challenges.

First, the seas are at risk from a growing competition over international rules and rule-making.

Revisionist major powers like Russia and China, but also regional states such as Iran and North Korea, increasingly pose challenges to traditional maritime security. Iran’s shootdown of a U.S. surveillance drone in international airspace constitutes a direct threat to freedom of navigation and overflight around the globe and could lead other aggressors to miscalculate by challenging the U.S. interpretation of international law.13 

In the Indo-Pacific, the most pressing challenge to existing maritime rules and norms is being posed by China.14 For example, China’s willful disregard of the 2016 international arbitral tribunal judgment regarding the South China Sea is a direct assault on the postwar system and UNCLOS, the so-called constitution of the oceans.15

But brushing aside awards handed down from The Hague is not the only challenge to postwar maritime order. Revisionist powers are challenging accepted rules and norms in various ways. Reckless behavior at sea that endangers other ships is a direct violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs).16 Yet in early June 2019, a Russian destroyer deliberately endangered a U.S. guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville, an incident that occurred on the heels of an unsafe air maneuver by a Russian fighter jet against a U.S. patrol aircraft.17 Chinese ships and aircraft have periodically conducted similar dangerous maneuvers to prevent lawful U.S. freedom of navigation and overflight in maritime Asia.18

As with North Korea prior to the signing of UNCLOS, China wants to ignore the right of military freedom of navigation and overflight, as suggested by Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior toward U.S. and other naval vessels operating peacefully within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The EEZ was designed by UNCLOS negotiators to grant coastal states control over resources adjacent to their coasts; it was not designed to grant sovereignty, which extends only in the 12-nautical mile territorial sea.19 Yet China has repeatedly violated this broadly accepted interpretation of UNCLOS.

From the 2001 incident in which a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 aircraft 80 miles south of Hainan Island to the more recent unlawful seizure of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) 50 miles from Subic Bay in the South China Sea, to repeated harassment of Navy Military Sealift Command oceanographic and hydrographic survey vessels, China seeks to alter the rules through provocative actions.20 Admittedly, the issues involving certain types of Marine Scientific Research activities are more complicated (and UNCLOS interpretations have generally become more restrictive of some activities within a coastal nation’s EEZ). China wants it both ways: to preclude any military activities by claiming more limited rights of “peaceful navigation” not derived from UNCLOS within its EEZ, while conducting its own military maneuvers in the EEZs of other countries.21 In addition, while Beijing condemns every U.S. transit with warships, it lavishes praise on its proprietary and state-run mapping and measuring of the South China Sea and world oceans.22 

While states seeking to revise international rules at sea constitute a severe and growing threat to maritime order, there are other acute and chronic challenges.

A second source concerns non-traditional security threats from piracy, terrorism, and illegal trafficking by non-state actors, including transnational criminal syndicates.23  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing alone “results in global losses in the tens of billions of dollars each year.”24 The cost and irreparable human and environmental damage of illicit trafficking in people, drugs, wildlife, and other commodities is enormous.

But there is an area where traditional and non-traditional threats such as transnational crime converge: lethal technology. Non-state actors are gaining access to more disruptive and deadly technologies. Acting either alone or as proxies of states, they are likely to pose increased risks to maritime shipping, navigation and overflight. The Houthi rebels who allegedly shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over Yemen and the plausible deniability about attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in June 2019 suggest how non-state actors could significantly disrupt maritime order in years to come.25   

Thirdly, maritime order in the oceans is at severe risk from a growing global population’s use of the oceans, as we face problems such as massive overfishing. The oceans face multiple stressors, including increased human use of maritime resources as global population approaches an anticipated 9.8 billion people by 2050. As Greg Poling observes, in the South China Sea alone there is “a series of catastrophes piling on top of one another.”26 China’s island-building reclamation was enormously destructive to coral reefs, and a resurgence in giant clam digging is causing additional damage.27 This environmental damage comes on top of overfishing.

Finally, humanity is at greater risk from the seas themselves, including the impact of natural disasters on built-up coastal areas and the effects of climate change.

Littoral regions, where roughly 40 percent of the world’s population lives, are especially vulnerable to tsunamis and rising sea levels. But the entire world is dependent on the oceans in many ways: for instance, 25 percent of all species on the planet are thought to live in the biodiverse tropical coral reefs, even though these reefs comprise less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface. Sadly, warming oceans resulting from periodic El Niño heat waves are leading to large-scale bleaching and destruction of many coral reefs. Climate change projections suggest most coral reefs may cease to exist by the middle of the century, although some will be able to adapt because of local conditions such as internal waves.28

Faced with all of these risks, we must do more to find ways of cooperating on our maritime commons, while not flinching from protecting both freedom of the seas and the survival of our shared marine environment.

Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific

Maritime order is indispensable for preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The United States is approaching these issues within the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, as most recently described in the June Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.29 Although released by the Department of Defense, the report adopts a comprehensive approach.

The report’s introduction underscores the Indo-Pacific region’s economic centrality for the world and the United States: “The Indo-Pacific contributes two-thirds of global growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 60% of global GDP.”30  Moreover, “nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports are in the region, and 60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Asia, with roughly one-third of global shipping passing through the South China Sea alone.”31 Moreover, with five Pacific states and Pacific territories on both sides of the International Date Line, “America’s annual two-way trade with the region is $2.3 trillion, with U.S. foreign direct investment of $1.3 trillion in the region—more than China’s, Japan’s, and South Korea’s combined.”32 

Despite its significant economic holdings, the United States is worried by powers seeking to unilaterally revise agreed-upon rules and norms, especially in the maritime domain. The U.S. strategic vision sets forth principles congruent with ASEAN centrality and norms, including seeking the peaceful resolution of disputes, supporting a rules-based approach, and expanding cooperation. The goal of the United States is to help independent actors protect their interests while not allowing any one nation to dominate the Indo-Pacific.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, concern over the consequential U.S.-China relationship took center stage. Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the United States cannot stand aside when smaller actors face pressure and coercion (and that includes the Cross-Strait issue, too), nor can the U.S. fail to respond when revisionist powers seek to unilaterally change a rules-based system. The Law of the Sea and marine policy are caught up in the larger global resurgence of major power rivalry in which the basic contest centers on rules and rule-making.

However, big powers can pursue what Joseph Nye has called “cooperative rivalry” at sea—a reason why Acting Secretary Shanahan used his one-on-one discussion with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, to advance ideas for cracking down on North Korea’s illicit trading and strengthening mechanisms for avoiding unintended catalytic war.33   

The United States can also benefit from fashioning a larger bipartisan majority around halting IUU fishing—something the Obama administration elevated and which the Trump administration has recently shown stronger support for in the Pacific Islands and in its work with ASEAN. The same goes for the global challenge of slowing climate change and building resilient coastlines and islands.

In thinking about a more integrated approach, the United States should take note of what Taiwan has created. In 2018, Taiwan established a single cabinet-level agency, the Ocean Affairs Council, headquartered in the southern city of Kaohsiung, to help coordinate all policies affecting the oceans, sea-based resources, and the maritime environment.34 To mark this concerted effort to step up its oceans policy, Taiwan hosted a small, international group of scholars to visit Dongsha Island, the northernmost part of the South China Sea which is only an 80-minute plane ride from Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung. The inaugural Dongsha International Conference followed, and this author was one of two American participants. In his opening remarks, Ocean Affairs Council Minister Chung-Wei Lee noted that the United Nations has proclaimed the decade beginning in 2021 a “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.”35 By hosting the 2019 Dongsha International Conference, Taiwan demonstrated that it, too, is a seapower in its own right, and it should be fully permitted to join in efforts to protect our global maritime commons.36

The United States should also prepare to harness and enhance existing contributions for maritime order—an appropriate priority for a major seapower state like the United States. As the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report makes clear, the United States is in the fourth year of an Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) designed to bolster the security of littoral states in Southeast and South Asia, especially near the South China Sea.37 The MSI represents only a portion of the activities the United States is undertaking to ensure that the oceans continue to support prosperity and peace. Existing investments in building a common operating picture, as well as plans to create interoperability and strengthen maritime capacity of regional partners, might be augmented with new public-private partnerships designed to foster the marine science and culture of the oceans which will be required to withstand the myriad challenges to maritime order now and in the future. These extant and new investments in time and money can ensure that future generations enjoy freedom of the seas and a sustainable ocean environment.

The bottom line is that security and maritime order are intertwined, rather than in opposition to one another.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Fellow and Chair for Asia-Pacific Security at Hudson Institute and is available at pcronin@hudson.org.

References

[1] Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] Ibid., p. 323.

[3] “Factsheet: People and Oceans,” The United Nations Oceans Conference, June 5-9, 2017, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ocean-fact-sheet-package.pdf.

[4] “Remarks by President Trump on His Trip to Asia,” Whitehouse.gov, November 15, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-trip-asia/.

[5] James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, The Free Sea: The American Fight for Freedom of Navigation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Few revisionists surpass the successful polemics of Noam Chomsky, who sees the United States as the root of all the world’s ills. For instance, see Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016); and for an informed critique of this book, see Adam Lebor, “US vs Them: A One-Sided Attempt to Blame the United States for Everything,” Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2016, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/us-vs-them/.

[8] “’Common Heritage of Mankind’—Interview: Tommy Koh,” Newsweek, September 25, 1978, p. 64, quoted in Vivek Viswanathan, “Crafting the Law of the Sea: Elliot Richardson and the Search for Order on the Oceans (1977-1980),” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College 2009), p. 30, https://www.hks.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/centers/mrcbg/files/Viswanathan_2009.pdf.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 6.

[11] This definition is used in the U.S. National Security Presidential Directive-41 (NSPD-41)/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-13 (HSPD-13) (Maritime Security Policy, December 21, 2004), quoted in National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness for the National Security for Maritime Security (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, October 2005), p. i., https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/HSPD_MDAPlan_0.pdf.

[12] “Factsheet: Climate Change,” The United Nations Oceans Conference, June 5-9, 2017, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ocean-fact-sheet-package.pdf.

[13] Some saw the precedent as so dangerous that they advocated proportionate military strikes; see Michael G. Vickers, “To Avoid a Wider War, Iran Must be Deterred with Limited U.S, Military Strikes,” Washington Post, June 21, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/06/21/avoid-wider-war-iran-must-be-deterred-with-limited-us-military-strikes/?utm_term=.4ab54725dc3e.

[14] For instance, see James R. Holmes, “When China Rules the Sea,” Foreign Policy, September 23, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/23/when-china-rules-the-sea-navy-xi-jinping-visit/; more authoritatively and recently, see Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, May 2019), p. 7-8, passim.

[15] See “In the Matter of the South China Sea Arbitration before An Arbitral Tribunal Constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China,” July 12, 2016, https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-Award.pdf.

[16] “Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGS),” International Maritime Organization, October 20, 1972, http://www.imo.org/en/About/Conventions/ListOfConventions/Pages/COLREG.aspx.

[17] See Mark D. Faram, “Both Russia and the United States Point the Fingers After Warships Almost Collide,” Navy Times, June 7, 2019, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/06/07/both-russia-and-us-point-fingers-after-warships-almost-collide/.

[18] For instance, see Brad Lendon, “Photos Show How Close Chinese Warship Came to Colliding with US Destroyer,” CNN, October 4, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/10/02/politics/us-china-destroyers-confrontation-south-china-sea-intl/index.html.

[19] James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, The Free Sea: The American Fight for Freedom of Navigation, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 248-249.

[20] Ibid., p. 248-260.

[21] Ibid., p. 261.

[22] China’s propaganda is pervasive on this issue. For instance, see “Chinese Research Vessel Departs for Seamounts in Mariana Trench,” Global Times, May 15, 2019, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1150514.shtml; and more generally, “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xinhua, June 20, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-06/20/c_136380414.htm. Meanwhile, China’s surveys of the oceans have specific military implications; see Steven Stashwick, “New Chinese Ocean Network Collecting Data to Target Submarines, The Diplomat, January 2, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/new-chinese-ocean-network-collecting-data-to-target-submarines/; and Andrew Greene, “China Increases Surveillance Near PNG Expanding as Australia and US Begin Manus Island Naval Upgrades,” ABC, April 20, 2019,  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-21/china-increases-surveillance-near-png/11028192.

[23] For instance, see Joshua Tallis, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers and Maritime Insecurity (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019).

[24] “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,” U.S. Department of State, Office of Marine Conservation, https://www.state.gov/key-topics-office-of-marine-conservation/illegal-unreported-and-unregulated-fishing/.

[25] David S. Cloud and Laura King, “Pentagon Accuses Iran of Shooting Missiles at U.S. Drones,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-iran-drone-attack-20190616-story.html.

[26]  “South China Sea Threatened by ‘a Series of Catastrophes’,”PBS Newshour, May 18, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/south-china-sea-threatened-by-a-series-of-catastrophes.

[27] See Viola Zhou, “China Puts a Stop to Commercial Land Reclamation After Damning Environment Reports: But Key Defence and Infrastructure Projects Likely to Get Green Light,” South China Morning Post, January 2, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2126567/china-puts-stop-commercial-land-reclamation-after; and John W. McManus, “Massively Destructive Coral Reef Damage from Giant Clam Shell Digging in the South China Sea: Birth, Death and Rebirth,” Webinar published on OpenChannels.org, June 13, 2019, https://www.openchannels.org/webinars/2019/massively-destructive-coral-reef-damage-giant-clam-shell-digging-south-china-sea-birth.

[28] Dr. Anne Cohen, Associate Scientist with Tenure, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has brought attention to “Super Reefs” that appear poised to be better able to withstand temperature changes than most coral reefs. For an overview of her recent research, see “Super Reefs” on the Woods Hole website: https://superreefs.whoi.edu/quest-for-super-reefs/.

[29] The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (Washington, D.C.: DoD, June 1, 2019), https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/31/2002139210/-1/-1/1/DOD_INDO_PACIFIC_STRATEGY_REPORT_JUNE_2019.PDF.

[30] Ibid., p. 2.

[31] Ibid., p. 1.

[32] Ibid., p. 2.

[33] Speaking to the press after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned of a possible “accidental conflict” breaking out from rising tensions, mutual suspicions, miscalculation, and the possible role of third parties, including non-state actors. See Amir Vahdat, Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell, “Japan Premier Warns US, Iran ‘Accidental Conflict’ Possible,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/iran-newspaper-to-japan-how-can-you-trust-a-war-criminal/2019/06/12/d538abc8-8cdd-11e9-b6f4-033356502dce_story.html?utm_term=.aa9d9e1e401d.

[34] See Duncan DeAeth, “Taiwan’s New ‘Ocean Affairs Council’ to be Headquartered in Kaohsiung,” Taiwan News, April 26, 2018, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3415182.

[35] “United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030),” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2018, https://en.unesco.org/ocean-decade.

[36] See Lin Chia-nan, “Dongsha Meeting Urges Conservation, Cooperation,” Taipei Times, June 15, 2019, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2019/06/15/2003716964.

[37] The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Security, p. 49.

Featured Image: SANTA RITA, Guam (May 24, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) departs Guam for exercise Pacific Vanguard (PACVAN). PACVAN is the first of its kind quadrilateral exercise between Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and U.S. naval forces. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Emily Bull)

False Assumptions May Lead to Counterproductive U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

By Mark J. Valencia

In his piece, Mr. Pham “lays out recommended ways and means that Washington can regain and maintain the strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific.” However many of his recommendations are based on false assumptions and if implemented are likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.

Mr. Pham fears that “years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have eroded the international rule of law and global norms; diminished the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence, presence, and constancy; weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships; undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership; and perhaps even emboldened Beijing to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.” But the rapid decline of U.S. soft power in the region is not due as much to “American acquiescence and accommodation” to China as it is to American political arrogance, cultural chauvinism, and a general lack of respect for its allies and ‘friends’ in the region  and their peoples. Its hypocrisy, interference in domestic politics, and support of brutal dictators did not help. It is now beginning to experience the inevitable blowback from this attitude and behavior and its reign as regional hegemon may be coming to an end. It may well eventually be replaced by China in the region, but for Mr. Pham to assert that China will attain “global preeminence” is premature at best. Indeed, if China does not learn from the American experience, it may well repeat its mistakes and suffer a similar fate.

Mr. Pham asserts that “Washington cannot back down now in the SCS. To do so would further embolden Beijing to expand and accelerate its desperate campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year…”  He assumes first that China can ‘control’ the South China Sea and two that such ‘control’ would threaten commercial freedom of navigation. But as Ralph Cossa, President of Pacific Forum CSIS, says, there is little to worry about, at least for the U.S. :“The South China Sea is not and will not be a Chinese lake and the Chinese, even with artificial islands, cannot dominate the sea or keep the U.S. Navy out of it.”  According to retired Admiral and former Director of U.S. National Intelligence Dennis Blair, “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us.” More to the point, retired Admiral Michael McDevitt of the center for Naval Analyses asks skeptically, “What vital U.S. interest has been compromised? Shipping continues uninterrupted, the U.S. continues to ignore… their requirement for prior approval, our MDT with Manila remains in force…”

Regarding freedom of navigation, Mr. Pham and I have debated this before. I will only reiterate here that the two countries – one a ratifier of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – which elaborates the concept – and one not – differ on what activities are and are not encompassed by the term. China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation nor is it likely to do so in peacetime. But the U.S. and Mr. Pham cleverly conflate the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to conduct provocative intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes and then argues that when China challenges these probes it is violating “freedom of navigation.” Mr. Pham ignores the problem that because the Convention was a “package deal,” non-ratifiers like the U.S. cannot credibly or legitimately  pick and choose which provisions they wish to abide by, deem them customary law, and unilaterally interpret and enforce them to their benefit. This is especially so regarding the EEZ regime which UNCLOS introduces as sui generis, and which –contrary to U.S. military advice given to its naval officers – does have some restrictions on “freedom of navigation.” They include the duty to pay “due regard” to the rights of the coastal state including its marine scientific research consent and environmental protection regimes protecting as well as its national security. Moreover, China and the U.S. disagree on the meaning of key terms in UNCLOS relevant to the freedom of navigation and which are not defined in the Convention. Besides “due regard” these terms include  “other internationally lawful uses of the sea”, “abuse of rights”, “peaceful use/purpose”, and “marine scientific research.” The point is that the UNCLOS “rules” regarding freedom of navigation are not “agreed.” 

Another of Mr. Pham’s major assumptions is that “Washington has a moral and global obligation of leadership to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder…” The U.S. is no longer the world’s moral leader – if it ever was – certainly not from the perspective of China and much of Asia – if not the world. Moreover Mr. Pham’s statement reflects the cultural arrogance that has drawn the U.S. into endless wars—and should be disregarded on that basis alone.

These false assumptions are accompanied by several misleading statements. For example Mr. Pham alleges that China broke  “a 2002 agreement with the ASEAN not to change any geographic features in the SCS”,  and “…the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied features.”

First, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) does not contain such language and Mr. Pham is apparently interpreting its language for his own purposes. His interpretation is not shared by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. All have altered the features they occupy to some degree since the agreement on the DOC. Second, according to China, President Xi Jinping agreed to no such thing. This statement repeats a biased interpretation of China’s President Xi Jinping statement regarding the “militarization” of the features. The original quote in Chinese was translated into English as “Relevant construction activities that China are (sic) undertaking in the island of South (sic)–Nansha (Spratly) Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend [emphasis added] to pursue militarization.” That is considerably more ambiguous than Mr. Pham’s interpretation. Chinese spokespersons have since implied that if the U.S. continues its ISR probes, exercises, and Freedom of Navigation Operations challenging China’s claims there, China will prepare to defend itself. Given that the U.S. has continued these missions, it should come as no surprise that China has responded as it said it would.

Based on false assumptions, Mr. Pham essentially recommends U.S. military confrontation of China in the South China Sea. Such confrontation could lead to war—on behalf of others’ disputed claims to ownership of tiny features and resources there. That would not be in the core national security interest of the U.S.

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Featured Image: Vietnam’s flag flies over the fortified Da Tay Islands in the Spratlys Archipelago. (Reuters)

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Pt. 3

By Tuan N. Pham

Last March, CIMSEC published an article titled “A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Part 1” highlighting three troubling developments that oblige the United States to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. The article noted Beijing is trying to convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term of “near-arctic state”; to fulfill its nationalistic promise to the Chinese people and reclaim the disputed and contested South China Sea (SCS) from ancient times; and to expand its “sharp power” activities across the globe.

A month later, CIMSEC published a follow-on article underscoring that these undertakings continue to mature and advance apace. The article featured China possibly considering legislation to seemingly protect the fragile environment in Antarctica, but really to safeguard its growing interests in the southernmost continent; taking more active measures to reassert and preserve respectively its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity in the SCS; and restructuring its public diplomacy (and influence operations) apparatuses to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad. At the end of the article, the author commented that although the United States made progress last year calling out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior by pushing back on Chinese unilateralism and assertiveness, strengthening regional alliances and partnerships, increasing regional presence, reasserting regional influence, and most importantly, incrementally reversing years of ill-advised accommodation; there is still more America can do.

The following article lays out previously recommended ways and means that Washington can impose strategic costs to Beijing and regain and maintain the strategic initiative. Providentially, the Trump Administration has implemented many of them, but the real challenge remains in sustaining the efforts and making the costs enduring. Otherwise, Beijing will just wait out the current administration in the hopes that the next one will advance more favorable foreign policies. Alternatively, they could also step up their “sharp power” activities to influence extant U.S. foreign policies and/or undermine the current U.S. administration’s political agenda and diminish its re-election prospect in 2020.         

What America Can Do in the Indo-Pacific

 The new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy call for embracing strategic great powers competition with rising China. They both make the case that when two powers, one dominant (United States) and one rising (China), with competing regional and global strategies extend into one’s another security and economic spheres, the geopolitical landscape is ripe for friction. However, this competition is not to be feared but to be expected and embraced. America must challenge China’s rise if it continues to not be peaceful and undermines the global rules that provide global peace and prosperity for all.  

China will likely remain the economic partner of choice for the Indo-Pacific, while the United States will likely remain the security partner of choice. As this China-U.S. competition grows and intensifies, balancing these complex and dynamic relationships will become increasingly challenging as regional countries feel greater pressures to choose sides. The U.S. should continue to pursue stronger regional security ties and strive to be a more dependable and enduring partner in terms of policy constancy, resolve, and commitment. Strengthening old alliances and partnerships, and forging new ones with Hanoi, New Delhi, and others will be beneficial.  

The “most effective counterbalance” to China’s campaign of tailored coercion against its weaker neighbors will still be U.S. persistent presence and attention (and focus) in the form of integrated and calibrated soft and hard deterrent powers – multilateral diplomacy, information dominance, military presence, and economic integration. 

The “most promising and enduring check” to China’s expansive regional and global ambitions will still be economic integration. The U.S. should move forward on more bilateral trade agreements; support the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership-11 (TPP-11) initiative; and/or reconsider bringing back the TPP itself to bind the United States to the other regional economies, guarantee an international trading system with higher standards, and complement the other instruments of national power. Otherwise, Washington may inadvertently drive the Indo-Pacific nations toward other economic alternatives like the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Belt and Road Initiative

China is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but often violates its provisions, whereas the United States has not ratified UNCLOS but has been its foremost champion on behalf of freedom of navigation, global commerce, and international rule of law. The U.S. should consider ratifying UNCLOS if challenges are going to have more gravitas and be taken more seriously by the international community, otherwise, the status quo simply strengthens Beijing’s ability to call into question Washington’s sincerity to international norms.

The U.S. must keep reframing and countering when appropriate the narratives that China pushes with accusations of American containment and hypocrisy while promoting a perception of  China’s global benevolence and benign rise. Washington’s message is more often than not reactive and defensive, not synchronized, or sometimes nothing at all. The U.S. can seize the messaging initiative like during the 2017 Shangri La Dialogue with the keynote speech by Australian Prime Minister Turnbullremarks by American Secretary of Defense Mattis during the first plenary session (United States and Asia-Pacific Security), and comments by former Japanese Minister of Defense Inada during the second plenary session (Upholding the Rules-based Regional Order). The U.S. can continue to acknowledge that both countries have competing visions, highlight the flawed thinking of Beijing’s approach, champion its own approach as the better choice, and call out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior when warranted. This can include China’s expansive polar ambitions, intrusive sharp power activities, and destabilizing SCS militarization, but the U.S. should also give credit or commend when appropriate, such as China’s economic sanctions against North Korea. The U.S. cannot euphemize in its messaging, and whenever possible, should synchronize communication throughout the whole-of-government and international partners while reiterating at every opportunity. There can be no U.S. policy seams or diplomatic space for China to exploit.

The U.S. must take each opportunity to counter China’s public diplomacy point-for-point, and keep repeating stated U.S. diplomatic positions to unambiguously convey U.S. national interests and values such as:

  • The United States supports the principle that disputes between countries, including disputes in the ECS and SCS, should be resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.
  • The United States supports the principle of freedom of navigation, meaning the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations in international law. United States opposes claims that impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that belong to all nations. United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS.
  • Claims of territorial waters and economic exclusive zones (EEZ) should be consistent with customary international law of the sea and must therefore, among other things, derive from land features. Claims that are not derived from land features are fundamentally flawed.
  • Parties should avoid taking provocative or unilateral actions that disrupt the status quo or jeopardize peace and security. United States does not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability.
  • United States, like most other countries, believes that coastal states under UNCLOS have the right to regulate economic activities in their EEZ, but do not have the right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZ.
  • Military surveillance flights in international airspace above another country’s EEZ are lawful under international law, and the United States plans to continue conducting these flights as it has in the past. Other countries are free to do the same.

What America Can Do in the SCS

Since the start of 2018, China appears embarked on a calculated campaign to determinedly reassert and preserve its perceived sovereignty and territorial integrity in the SCS through words and deeds. Beijing believes that sharp and emphatic “grey zone” operations and activities will once again compel Washington to back down in the SCS. Washington did little when Beijing illegally seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012; brazenly reclaimed over 3200 acres of land over the next five years despite a 2002 agreement with the ASEAN not to change any geographic features in the SCS; barefacedly broke the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied geographic features; and blatantly disregarded the landmark 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.          

The U.S. can continue to reframe the SCS as a strategic problem (and not a regional issue) that directly involves the United States and obliges China to act accordingly. Explicitly conveying to Beijing that the SCS is a U.S. national interest and making the SCS a “bilateral” U.S.-China issue may induce Beijing to rethink and recalibrate its revisionist strategy. The U.S. can turn the tables and make Beijing decides which is more important to its national interests – the SCS or its strategic relationship with Washington (trade, military-military, etc.). Stay firm and consistent to stated SCS positions :

  • No additional island-building and no further militarization
  • No use of force or coercion by any of the claimants to resolve sovereignty disputes or change the status-quo of disputed SCS features
  • Substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct that would promote a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the behavior of relevant countries in the SCS and permissibility of military activities in the EEZ in accordance with UNCLOS.

Otherwise, deferring to Beijing on aforesaid issues will only reinforce the perception in Beijing that Washington can be influenced and maneuvered with little effort.

Beijing undermined the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea by drawing red lines around the reclaimed and disputed geographic features. Washington and the international community must therefore buttress the Tribunal’s authority and legitimacy through words and deeds. There is value in continuing to challenge Beijing’s excessive and contested maritime claims in the SCS through a deliberate, calibrated, and enhanced campaign of presence operations – transits, exercises, and freedom of navigation operations (FONOP). Otherwise, failing to conduct these routine operations in the aftermath of the landmark 2016 ruling, particularly FONOPs, sends the wrong strategic signal and further emboldens Beijing to continue its brazen and destabilizing militarization of the SCS. Combined, multi-national exercises can underscore the universal maritime right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law permits.

China pursues a very broad, long-term maritime strategy and will view any perceived U.S. force posture reduction as a reward (tacit acknowledgement and consent) for its unilateral rejection of the Tribunal ruling, a win for its strategy and preferred security framework, and another opportunity to reset the regional norms in its favor. Reduction may also increase Beijing’s confidence in its ability to shape and influence Washington’s decisions and encourage China to press the United States for additional concessions, in return for vague and passing promises of “restraint.”

Although Manila and Washington did not capitalize on the hard-fought legal victory over China’s excessive and contested maritime claims in the SCS, it is still not too late to do so. The U.S. can encourage and support Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to put additional pressures such as legal challenges, public diplomacy, and collective maritime activities on Beijing to curb its assertiveness and unilateralism, stop its land reclamation and militarization activities, and come in good faith to the multilateral (not bilateral) negotiating table for a peaceful and enduring resolution of the competing and contested maritime claims.

Now is Not the Time to Back Down in the SCS

All told, years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have “unintentionally and transitorily” eroded international rule of law and global norms while diminishing the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence. Furthermore, this accommodation may have weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships, undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security. These accommodations have accelerated the pace of China’s deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.

So, as to not further give ground to Beijing in the strategic waterway, Washington cannot back down now in the SCS. To do so would further embolden Beijing to expand and accelerate its deliberate campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year and reinforce Beijing’s growing belief in itself as an unstoppable rising power and Washington as an inevitable declining power that can be intimidated out of the SCS and perhaps eventually the greater Indo-Pacific in accordance with its grand strategic design for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). For Beijing, controlling the SCS is a step toward regional preeminence and eventually global preeminence.      

Conclusion

Beijing’s strategic actions and activities are unwisely and dangerously undermining the current global order that it itself has benefited from. Hence, Washington has a moral and global  obligation of leadership to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, Beijing will continue to view U.S. acquiescence and accommodation as tacit acknowledgement and consent to execute its strategic ambitions and strategies unhindered and unchallenged. The U.S. window of opportunity to regain and maintain the strategic high ground and initiative will not remain open forever.

Tuan Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese dragon statute (Wikimedia Commons)

China’s Claim to the Spratly Islands is Just a Mistake

This article is an adaptation of an academic publication by Bill Hayton published in ‘Modern China’ as ‘The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claims: Maps, Misunderstandings, and the Maritime Geobody.’ A version of this article was published in Vietnamese by BBC and may be read here.

By Bill Hayton

The South China Sea is a dangerous place because of the layering of several different struggles on top of one another. There are struggles over the future of the world order, struggles between regional powers, and struggles over maritime resources. But underlying them all is a knot of territorial disputes over a few hundred tiny rocks and reefs. Given how much attention the disputes currently attract, it is surprising how little attention has been paid to their origins. A few flawed accounts were written several decades ago but more evidence has come to light since then and it is time to revise the conventional wisdom. Governments like to pretend that their claims to the hundreds of rocks and reefs in the sea are historical and logical. However, after several years of studying them, it is clear that this is far from true.

The focus of most of the current trouble in the South China Sea is the Spratly Islands and a few underwater features that are closer to the coasts of Vietnam and Borneo. These are a very long way from the Chinese mainland and China has never made clear the precise origins of its claim to them. My own research – just published in the academic journal ‘Modern China’ – leads me to conclude that the Chinese claim only emerged because of some poor translation and bad map-making during the 1930s. My conclusion is that China’s claim to the Spratly Islands is actually a mistake.

The First Claim

The story of China’s claims in the South China Sea began in 1907 with the discovery of a Japanese merchant digging up petrified bird droppings on the island of Pratas (between Hong Kong and Taiwan). Nishizawa Yoshiji was one of many Japanese entrepreneurs mining guano for fertilizer all over the Pacific. However, there were rumors that Japan was also planning to build a naval base on Pratas and that concerned the United States and its newly-acquired colony in the Philippines. The American government informed officials in Beijing in late 1907 but it took well over a year before a Chinese ship was sent to investigate. In March 1909, Chinese officials confirmed Nishizawa’s presence. That triggered large protests in southern China and a boycott of Japanese products. The Japanese government agreed to negotiations, which eventually led to Japan recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Pratas.

However, at the same time, the southern Chinese authorities learned about the existence of the Paracel Islands, apparently for the first time, and became concerned that Japan might try to annex them. This led to an expedition in May and June 1909 during which China formally claimed sovereignty over the Paracels for the first time. The Chinese ships spent three days among the islands firing cannon and planting flags before returning home. However, it was immediately clear to the expedition leaders that the Paracels were not going to deliver any riches. Newspaper accounts mention a plan to turn them into a penal colony but within weeks the authorities had completely lost interest in the islands. They did not return until the 1920s.

The next major incident in the South China Sea created complete confusion – a muddle that infected the earlier academic accounts of the Chinese claim and still affects historical discussions to this day. In December 1931 France – the colonial power in Indochina – claimed sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and, nine months later, China protested. In July 1933, while the two governments were still arguing over the Paracels, France also announced the annexation of six of the Spratly Islands. This led to great confusion in China. It is clear from official documents and newspapers of the time that the Chinese authorities did not know the difference between the Spratlys and the Paracels. They thought that the islands that France had just annexed were the same that China had claimed in 1909. It took several weeks for the confusion to be cleared up. During the discussions the Chinese Navy even sent a telegram to the Chinese Foreign Ministry asserting that the Spratly Islands did not exist! The situation was only cleared up with the help of maps provided by American officials in Manila. In the end, the Chinese government decided that it could not prove a claim to the Spratlys and so did not protest against France’s actions.

However, this confusion led the Chinese government to instruct its ‘Land and Water Maps Review Committee’ to investigate the situation. Among the committee’s other tasks, it inspected and translated maps to show which islands were the Paracels and which were the Spratlys. It also gave Chinese names to them – but these were simply translations or transliterations. North Danger Reef became Beixian 北險礁 (a translation from English). Spratly Island became Si-ba-la-tuo 斯巴拉脫島 (a transliteration of the name of the English sea captain, Richard Spratly), and Luconia Shoals was transliterated as Lu-kang-ni-a 盧康尼亞滩. My own research suggests that the list of names the committee translated was probably taken from the China Sea Directory, published in 1906 by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office.

However, in the process, the committee made some mistakes. It seems to have been particularly confused by the English nautical terms “bank” and “shoal.” Both mean an area of shallow sea—the former describes a raised area of seabed, the latter is a nautical expression derived from Old English meaning “shallow.” However, the committee chose to translate both as tan 灘, which has the ambiguous translation of “sandbank,” a feature that might be above or below water.

The committee gave one particular underwater feature, James Shoal, the Chinese name Zengmu tan 曾姆滩, and another, Vanguard Bank, the name Qianwei tan 前衛滩. Zengmu is the transliteration of “James,” Qianwei is a translation of “vanguard,” and tan is the translation of “bank” and “shoal.” This translation choice has had major consequences, as we shall see. Why it decided to make a particular point of selecting these two underwater features for its list is also something of a mystery.

My hypothesis is that, since they did not undertake any of their own hydrographic surveys, committee members were completely guided by the maps that they were copying. One map that would have been part of any standard collection at the time was one produced by Edward Stanford Ltd. of London. The company’s 1918 map entitled Asiatic Archipelago gives particular prominence to both James Shoal and Vanguard Bank and to most of the other features listed by the committee (see Figure 1). I suspect that this map also guided the committee’s choices about which features to give Chinese names to.

Figure 1. Asiatic Archipelago, showing James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as underwater features (circles added by author). Map published by Edward Stanford Ltd., London, 1918 (British Library shelfmark Maps 88715.

In 1936, Bai Meichu 白眉初, a founder of the China Geography Society, used the committee’s information to publish his New Atlas of China’s Construction 中華建設新圖. Taking his cue from the committee’s mistranslation, he made a massive mistake. He drew the underwater James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as islands. He then added a U-shaped line around the South China Sea as far south as James Shoal and as far southwest as Vanguard Bank (see Figure 2). Bai’s meaning was clear—the line marked his “scientific” understanding of China’s rightful territory. Because of his mistakes the James Shoal and Vanguard Bank would later became the limits of China’s claim in the South China Sea. This was the very first time that such a line had been drawn on a Chinese map. It was not a state document though; it was the work of a private individual.

Figure 2. Map from New Atlas of China’s Construction (1936) published by Bai Meichu. James Shoal is labeled as Zengmu tan 曾姆滩, and Vanguard Bank as Qianwei tan 前衛滩. Both are drawn as islands with solid outlines and colored infill and are encompassed by the Bai’s boundary line. (Highlighting circles added by author) Source: Beijing Normal University Newspaper no. 295 (May 10, 2012), http://bnu.cuepa.cn/show_more.php?doc_id=613549.

Bai added some other innovations, too. He also drew the underwater features of the Macclesfield Bank (in the center of the South China Sea) as islands. This may be the reason why, to this day, the Chinese state talks about four “archipelagos” in the sea, even though one of them demonstrably does not exist!

The Republic of China still did not claim the Spratlys, however. As late as 1943, the ROC Ministry of Information published its China Handbook 1937–43, a comprehensive guide to the country’s geography, history, politics, and economics. On its opening page it stated that “the territory of the Republic of China extends from [the Sajan Mountains in the north] . . . to Triton Island of the Paracel Group.”

This view of China’s maritime territory would change dramatically over the following three years. It seems likely that this change was facilitated, perhaps even orchestrated, by two of Bai Meichu’s students. In 1927, while he was chair of the Department of History and Geography at Beijing Normal University, Bai taught Fu Jiaojin 傅角今 and Zheng Ziyue 鄭資約. After the Second World War, they were hired by the Chinese Ministry of Interior to advise the government on its territorial boundaries. They drew the government maps in 1946 and 1947 that led to the official Chinese claim in the South China Sea. Fu and Zhang used Bai’s map and his ‘U-shaped line’ to guide them. Thus China would claim the underwater features of the James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as its territory. This makes no sense at all – except if you understand this strange piece of history. The Chinese claim is the result of a series of mistakes.

In October 1947 the ROC Ministry of the Interior renamed the islands within its new claim. Most of the 1935 translations and transliterations were replaced by new, grand-sounding and more “Chinese” titles. For example, the Chinese name for Spratly Island was changed from Si-ba-la-tuo to Nanwei 南威島 (Noble South) and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ka-ba-luo 斯卡巴洛礁 (the transliteration) to Minzhu jiao 民主礁 (Democracy Reef). Vanguard Bank’s Chinese name was changed from Qianwei tan to Wan’an tan 萬安灘 (Ten Thousand Peace Bank). This process was repeated across the archipelagos. The ministry seems to have recognized its earlier problem with translating “shoal” at this time because it coined the word ansha 暗沙, literally “hidden sand,” as a neologism to use instead of tan 灘 in the names of several features, including James Shoal, which was renamed Zengmu ansha.

It was not until 1948, therefore, that the Chinese state formally extended its territorial claim in the South China Sea to the Spratly Islands, as far south as James Shoal. Clearly something had changed in the years between July 1933, when the Republic of China government was unaware that the Spratly Islands existed, and April 1947, when it could “reaffirm” that the southernmost point of its territory was James Shoal.

Conclusion

Although the Chinese government likes to say that it has an ancient and historical claim to the reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, a detailed examination of evidence shows that it actually emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. It also changed during a 40-year period 1907-1947. The whole process was filled with confusion and misunderstanding. A few mistakes by a small number of poorly-informed Chinese officials and academics back in the 1930s have created lingering confusion that still poisons the politics of Southeast Asia to this day.

Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. He is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia and Vietnam:Rising Dragon.

Featured Image: Satellite image taken in June 2015 of China’s land reclamation efforts on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. (AMTI/CSIS)