China’s military activities on its
ocean frontier have given rise to a fear that it’s seeking to expand its power
at the expense of others now that it has a more powerful navy. The essence of
this idea is that China’s activities are expansionist and more aggressive
compared with twenty or thirty years ago because it has a new urge for more
territory or because it wants to throw its new-found weight around in maritime
areas to rewrite regional order.
interpretation is possible, more in conformity with the facts, and less
South China Sea Conflict Area
China’s ocean frontier has, for the most part, never been settled in the five
centuries since the idea of maritime borders under international law was first
articulated in 1609.
China’s primary motivation in recent South
China Sea military activities, then, is to defend what it sees as its island
territories which neighboring countries have attempted to usurp.
Regional order (the balance of economic
and military power between Japan and China and between the mainland and Taiwan)
has already been rewritten by China’s peaceful rise and any additional gains
accruing from the control of its claimed small island territories in the South
China Sea would be marginal. For China, the main game on its maritime frontier
is successful unification with Taiwan, which sits at the northern end of the
South China Sea. Though China has come to describe the dispute in the Spratly
Islands as a “core interest” because it involves sovereign territory, that is
hardly new and is only a statement of the obvious. The more important
characterization driving Chinese policy for decades has remained, as one
Chinese government adviser observed in 1996, that the Spratly dispute is “small
in scale and local in nature.”
Beginning in the mid-1800s, colonial
powers such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, Italy, France,
Germany, Portugal, Russia and Japan successively became involved in carving out
spheres of influence or de facto sovereignty (“concessions” of some kind) over
enclaves of Chinese land territory in such a way that the country, weak in
naval power, didn’t place any priority on asserting or protecting a maritime
It wasn’t until an 1887 treaty with France
delimiting a sea border with the French protectorate of Tonkin that China began
to take any action to demarcate and defend an ocean frontier. That came just
two years after China had been forced by Japan to cede the island of Taiwan and
associated small islands to Japanese sovereignty. And it was only with the
defeat of Japan in 1945 that China again was in a position to demarcate and
defend its maritime frontier, including around Taiwan, free from foreign
military threat, invasion or occupation.
The opportunity was short-lived because
the country again fell into civil war, which resulted in an enduring stalemate
about the country’s ocean frontier. In 1949, the Communist victory was
incomplete. The rival government, the Republic of China (ROC) was able to
establish itself on Taiwan and the mainland government was forced into a protracted and still unfinished series of island wars
and political contests to mark out a maritime frontier.
Beginning with Canada in 1970, major
Western powers still recognizing the ROC began to shift their diplomatic
recognition from it to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This has the
inevitable effect under international law of preserving to a unitary China (led
by the only recognized government) all territorial rights of the ROC prior to
1949. Of special significance, these include the ROC claim to the Spratly
Islands, manifested in 1946 through physical occupation of the island of
Taiping (Itu Aba). The ROC and the PRC maintain nearly identical territorial
claims in the South China Sea.
China’s current claims on its ocean
frontier comprise three main elements: claim to territorial sovereignty over
Taiwan and other ROC-controlled islands, claim to territorial sovereignty over
a large number of other small islands in the South China Sea (Paracel and
Spratly islands) or East China Sea (Senkaku Islands), and claims to maritime
resource jurisdictions (not sovereignty) that might flow to China if its claims
to the land territories were recognized by adjacent states.
With the exception of the claim to the
Senkaku Islands, the territorial claims of China haven’t changed since before
1949. It was the ROC that in 1970 first claimed the Senkaku Islands and the PRC
was forced to follow suit since both governments were at that time competing to
be seen as defending the sovereignty of “one China."
The extent and character of China’s
sovereignty claims aren’t unusual and in broad terms conform to the practice of
other states with only one clear set of exceptions: China appears to claim
sovereignty over submerged reefs that wouldn’t normally qualify as land
It’s regularly asserted by some scholars,
media commentators and other analysts that China claims sovereignty over almost
the entire South China Sea. But that is based on a misunderstanding of the so-called
nine-dashed line that China has repeatedly included in maps of the South China
since 1947. In December 2014, in a study of China’s potential ocean frontier in the
South China Sea, the U.S. Department of State observed correctly
that China has never clarified the jurisdictional intent of the U-shaped line.
Thus, the current
maritime territorial disputes predate the rise of China’s power and increase in
its naval capability. Any assumption that China has somehow expanded its
maritime claims because it now feels more powerful is not borne out by the
facts. One of many things that have changed about the disputes is China’s
willingness to act robustly, as most states would, to defend pre-existing
sovereignty claims that have been in place for at least 66 years.
Greg Austin is a Professorial Fellow with
the EastWest Institute in New York and a Visiting Professor at the University
of New South Wales Canberra. This article first appeared in the Strategist.