China

[OPINION] China resurrects its false claims on the South China Sea islands

Antonio T. Carpio

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[OPINION] China resurrects its false claims on the South China Sea islands

Raffy de Guzman

China cannot exact justice and compensation from the Western colonial powers and Japan by seizing the island territories and maritime zones of ASEAN coastal states and bullying them

China’s most mind-boggling claim to the South China Sea is the nine-dash line, which encloses about 85.7% of the waters of the South China Sea. China’s narrative is that it owned all the islands, oil, gas, fish and other resources within the nine-dash line 2,000 years ago. Never mind that it was only in the mid-20th century that people learned oil and gas could also be found, and exploited, in the seabed of the seas.

It took the July 12, 2016 arbitral award to definitively debunk as totally baseless China’s nine-dash-line narrative. Before that scholars in the West thought that since China had a very old civilization, China might actually have owned the South China Sea since thousands of years ago. 

Today, China’s nine-dash line narrative is laughed at as fake history. China therefore has pivoted to a new narrative – the Four Sha or the four island archipelagos of the South China Sea. Scholars laugh even harder at this new narrative since none of the cluster of islands in the South China Sea qualifies as an archipelago under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. 

For example, China’s Zhongsha Qundao on the northeastern part of the South China Sea is largely Macclesfield Bank, which is not even an island since it is fully submerged, its highest area being 15 meters below sea level. 

The only above-water geologic feature in China’s Zhongsha Qundao is Scarborough Shoal, composed of a few tiny uninhabitable barren rocks above water at high tide that cannot qualify as an archipelago under UNCLOS.  China claims Scarborough Shoal is entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, an entitlement accorded only to habitable islands under UNCLOS.

Still, China has not given up.

Last August 15, 2023, the Chinese Deputy Chief of Mission in Manila, Mr. Zhou Zhiyong, claimed that the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations stated that “all territories Japan has seized from the Chinese, including those of Nansha Islands and Xisha Islands, shall be restored to China.”

This claim is obviously false. 

What the 1943 Cairo Declaration stated is that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, including Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores shall be restored to the Republic of China,” and that “Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.” 

The Cairo declaration never mentioned the “Nansha Islands” (Spratlys) or the “Xisha Islands” (Paracels). The Spratlys and the Paracels fell under the phrase “Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed,” which phrase never identified to what country these other territories would be restored.

The 1945 Potsdam Declaration stated that the “terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” The Potsdam Declaration merely reiterated the Cairo Declaration and never mentioned the Nansha Islands or the Xisha Islands.

What is definitive is what transpired in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference that formally ended the Pacific War. The motion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to award the Spratlys and the Paracels to China was defeated by a vote of 46 to 3, with one abstention. 

Thus, the San Francisco Peace Treaty merely states: “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands.” There is no mention to what country the Spratlys or the Paracels would be awarded.

The 1952 Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China merely recognized the San Francisco Peace Treaty. Thus, the Treaty of Taipei states: “It is recognized that under Article 2 of the Treaty of Peace with Japan signed at the city of San Francisco in the United States of America on September 8, 1951 (hereinafter referred to as the San Francisco Treaty), Japan has renounced all right, title and claim to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) as well as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.”  

There is no award of the Spratlys or the Paracels to China because one year before the Treaty of Taipei, Japan had already renounced in the San Francisco Peace Treaty any right, title and claim to the Spratlys and Paracels. Thus, in the Treaty of Taipei Japan had nothing to award to the Republic of China anymore.

Finally, China justifies its expansionist claim to almost the entire South China Sea as recompense for what it calls the “Century of Humiliation” it suffered at the hands of Western colonial powers and Japan. At the time of China’s Century of Humiliation, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei were also under colonial rule by the Western powers. 

The ASEAN coastal states had nothing to do with the acts of the Western colonial powers and Japan against China. China cannot exact justice and compensation from the Western colonial powers and Japan by seizing the island territories and maritime zones of ASEAN coastal states and bullying them.

That would not only be irrational, but would also make China an imperialist hegemon even worse than the Western colonial powers. – Rappler.com

*The author is a retired justice of the Supreme Court.

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