For anyone who finds themselves a bit adrift (pun intended) when it comes to the history of the various claims to the South China Sea, Chas Freeman has you covered. A former U.S. Ambassador and long-time China expert, Freeman outlined the various claims in a recent speech at Brown University. “Listen closely,” Freeman warns at the outset. “The facts belie the prevailing narratives.” I won’t attempt to summarize the tangled historical narratives here, but one quote is particularly relevant for the situation today:
But Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and now China have correctly understood that the key to sovereignty is not legal arguments but physical possession and control – a continuous human presence. Whether an island generates an EEZ or simply a twelve-mile territorial sea is determined by whether or not it is able naturally to support human life. Hence the rush to seize and settle any and all land features in the South China Sea and to demonstrate that people can live on them.
China, Freeman notes, was late to this game, which may explain why Beijing is now being particularly assertive at building up the few islands and reefs it does hold.