Historical Support for China’s South China Sea Territorial Stance


Historical Support for China’s South China Sea Territorial Stance

South China Sea map marked with China’s claim

By Mark Hoskin 2019-08-10

There have been recent claims in the media that Great Britain and other nations who operate Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea have taken no stance concerning the sovereignty of the three island groups that are the subject of dispute among China, the Philippines and Vietnam. However, there is overwhelming evidence that this is not the case. Instead, that evidence points to prior recognition of the islands as historic Chinese territory.

To examine this question, public statements by government officials regarding the Spratley, Paracel and Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands) were examined, a common legal practice used by the International Court of Justice to show official intent.

British Government efforts at understanding China’s history in the region were made in 1944 when preparations were underway for post war administration of occupied territories. The British Military Administration, Malaya, was making observations concerning Chinese maritime history in the South China Sea region:

“It must not be forgotten that while Europe was still relying on the galley in the Mediterranean and was only feeling towards the fore- and aft- rig in the North Seas and sailing in ships whose capacities measured in tens of tons, the Chinese were already ocean sailors with junks to be found from their own coasts to the mouth of the Indus whilst the Arabs in dhows of over 1,000 tons capacity were bringing the spices of the East Indies to Egypt and the European markets.”

Chinese ability to sail across the South China Sea region and into the Indian Ocean can be seen as recognized by the U.K. Government in this statement.

Economic exploitation of the resources in the South China Sea region was recognized earlier in Europe; among the first records in the post Roman Empire period were made in 1154. Roger of Sicily’s Court Geographer, the Arab al-Idrisi, provided early recorded details of Chinese junks sailing towards the West:

“All the Chinese ships, great or small, that navigate in the China Sea are solidly constructed of wood. The pieces of timber are disposed geometrically one over the other, protected by palm fibres and caulked with flour and fish oil. In the China Sea and the Indian Ocean there are large animals 100 yards [this is probably feet] long and 25 wide, on the backs of which grow bumps of rocks and shellfish like vegetation, by which the ships are sometimes damaged. Mariners recount how they attack these animals with arrows and thus force them to move out of their way. They add that they pierce the smallest of these animals and boil them in cauldrons, that their flesh dissolves and turns into liquid fat. This oily substance is renowned in the Yemen, in Aden, on the coasts of Fars and Oman, and in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. The people of these regions make use of this substance for filling the hulls of the ships.”

That al-Idrisi was able to record the hunting of whales in the South China Sea region in 1154 exhibits the longevity of the practice in Chinese maritime history and the long-term presence of the history itself, rendering it unsurprising that President Xi of China would invoke an observation of Chinese maritime use since “ancient times” in claiming the islands as Chinese territory.

The history of Chinese maritime trade in the region is also based on the foundation of Spratly Islands’ exploitation and occupation. The Spratly Islands have been historically known to Chinese mariners, who were observed to sail through the South China Sea to Jakarta (then Batavia) by John Crawfurd, a mariner and trader in the 1830s. It was subsequently reported in the Japan Times in 1933 that Chinese fishing parties were leaving members who then lived on the islands.

These records of historical use have been disputed, as the BBC reporter Bill Hayton noted in 2014: “On 13 April 1930, the French Warship Malicieuse dropped anchor off Spratly Island, hundreds of kilometers to the south of Pratas and the Paracels, and fired a 21-gun salute. The only witnesses to this display of imperial pomp were four marooned and starving fishermen unaware that they were witnessing the opening salvo in a still-unfinished battle for their fishing grounds.”

However, reports of rice supplies and other necessities arriving from China contradict Hayton’s suggestion that there were four marooned and starving fishermen. Junks were commandeered for military operations on the Southern Chinese coastline, making them unavailable for the 800-mile voyage from Hainan that year, adding to the maritime issues related to the ongoing conflict with Japan (1930-1945).

After World War II, the Spratly Islands were noted by the British High Commission of Singapore as territory that was returned to China. In 1971, the following statement was made: “Spratly Island was a Chinese dependency, part of Kwangtung Province…and was returned to China after the war. We cannot find any indication of its having been acquired by any other country and so can only conclude it is still held by communist China. (Far Eastern Economic Review, December 31, 1974).”

It should be noted that this was outside of any major conflict in the modern period in the South China Sea (1930–1945, 1945–1956, 1974), and made after an exhaustive study was concluded by the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It can therefore can be considered a reasoned statement of recognition made by a knowing and authoritative governmental source who was based in the Southeast Asian before and during World War II.

The consistent nature of other statements made by Britain France and Japan suggest that these nations have historically taken the same position as China, and made public statements to that effect.

For example, France occupied the Paracel Islands in the 1930s during the war between China and Japan. The occupation took place over a year after France had refused to abolish its extraterritorial rights in China, which had been held since 1844. The first official announcement concerning the seizure of the Paracel Islands was made by M. Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister at the Quay d’Orsay, stating that the islands were now occupied by two detachments of Annamite gendarmes from Vietnam in 1938. Amid the Sino-Japanese conflict, the Quai d’Orsay took the opportunity to note that “the islands have been visited by Chinese fishermen for generations” (North China Herald, July 4, 1938, June 6, 1934).

Meanwhile, the Chinese Ambassador Wellington Koo informed M. Bonnet that China continued to claim sovereignty over the islands, and Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr Horinouchi also made official representations “regarding the French occupation of the Paracel Islands’ (Japan Times & Mail, July 6, 1938; Portsmouth Evening News, July 7, 1938; emphasis added).

It is clear that the occupation by France of islands used for internationally-recognized Chinese historical economic life was protested by China as an invasion of sovereign territory, and was publicly repeated by Japanese officials, who wished to possess the islands for belligerent purposes that were directed towards China during their war of the 1930s and 40s. The impact today can be derived from a legal interpretation, as UNESCO and UNCLOS provide protections and rights for historic grave sites. 

The United States entered the fray quietly, through information published in early US Navy Sailing Directions that Japanese newspapers then published: “West York Island ….The island is of coral formation, about 1 mile in length by half a mile in breadth, and 15 feet in height. On it are a few coconut trees and some other vegetation, and it is frequented by turtles and sea birds. Chinese fishermen from Hainan appear to frequent it during the latter part of the north-east monsoon to gather trepan as a joss-house and three graves were found on the islands, as well as an old iron cannon. Some remains of wrecks were also seen. The island seems to offer no facilities whatever for a naval station, which fact may not have been without influence on it’s being neglected by the French.”

The question now arises: what can the aforementioned countries do to resolve this issue? 

First, the existence of this awareness and historic knowledge can be given recognition. As publicly available material overwhelmingly supports the Chinese perception, acknowledgment would provide a united understanding of historic use and provide a foundation for resolution. 

Secondly, the historic ability of the islands to support human life and provide economic benefits of their own should be exhaustively examined, putting to rest the dispute created by the UNCLOS tribunal in Philippines v China. 

Finally, the stipulation in the Treaty of San Francisco which requires any dispute over the meaning of the treaty be taken to the International Court of Justice for a resolution should be followed, leaving the Court to resolve the question over sovereignty of the islands, and therefore the ownership of the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding them. 

However, many countries would probably not support such a path, or uphold the results.

Mark Hoskin is a Researcher at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London, London, U.K.

This article includes a summary of a paper published in a Special Issue of Australian Journal of Maritime and Ocean Affairs DOI: 10.1080/18366503.2019.1611173

Leave a Reply

SSCP   CAS-002   9L0-066   350-050   642-999   220-801   74-678   642-732   400-051   ICGB   c2010-652   70-413   101-400   220-902   350-080   210-260   70-246   1Z0-144   3002   AWS-SYSOPS   70-347   PEGACPBA71V1   220-901   70-534   LX0-104   070-461   HP0-S42   1Z0-061   000-105   70-486   70-177   N10-006   500-260   640-692   70-980   CISM   VCP550   70-532   200-101   000-080   PR000041   2V0-621   70-411   352-001   70-480   70-461   ICBB   000-089   70-410   350-029   1Z0-060   2V0-620   210-065   70-463   70-483   CRISC   MB6-703   1z0-808   220-802   ITILFND   1Z0-804   LX0-103   MB2-704   210-060   101   200-310   640-911   200-120   EX300   300-209   1Z0-803   350-001   400-201   9L0-012   70-488   JN0-102   640-916   70-270   100-101   MB5-705   JK0-022   350-060   300-320   1z0-434   350-018   400-101   350-030   000-106   ADM-201   300-135   300-208   EX200   PMP   NSE4   1Z0-051   c2010-657   C_TFIN52_66   300-115   70-417   9A0-385   70-243   300-075   70-487   NS0-157   MB2-707   70-533   CAP   OG0-093   M70-101   300-070   102-400   JN0-360   SY0-401   000-017   300-206   CCA-500   70-412   2V0-621D   70-178   810-403   70-462   OG0-091   1V0-601   200-355   000-104   700-501   70-346   CISSP   300-101   1Y0-201   200-125  , 200-125  , 100-105  , 100-105  , CISM   NS0-157   350-018  , NS0-157   ICBB  , N10-006 test  , 350-050   70-534   70-178   220-802   102-400   000-106   70-411  , 400-101   100-101  , NS0-157   1Z0-803   200-125  , 210-060   400-201   350-050   C_TFIN52_66  , JN0-102  , 200-355   JN0-360   70-411   350-018  , 70-412   350-030   640-916   000-105   100-105  , 70-270  , 70-462   300-070  , 300-070   642-999   101-400   PR000041   200-101  , 350-030   300-070  , 70-270  , 400-051   200-120   70-178   9L0-012   70-487   LX0-103   100-105  ,