China and the South China Sea
From the point of view of power relations, China and the West are clearly in an asymmetric position, and China can indeed with some justification portray herself as the wronged side, as the victim. However, the fact that China is not the benign and rightful state it simplistically claims to be, is demonstrated by her territorial disputes in the South China Sea. If you look at the map below, you will see the extent of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The maritime territory that the PRC regards as its own is so close to other nations’ borders as to endanger their maritime security as well as the livelihood of the people who live by their coasts.
In particular, the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands are at the centre of a territorial dispute among several parties in the region. The Paracel Islands (called Xīshā Islands, 西沙群岛, in Chinese) are claimed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), and Vietnam. The Spratly Islands are claimed by the PRC, the ROC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei (Emmers 2010, p. 65).
The South China Sea and its islands are important for their fisheries, potential oil and gas reserves, as well as for their strategic position. Around 50 percent of the world’s merchant vessels cross through the South China Sea annually (ibid.).
The Chinese claims on the South China sea date back to the 1940s. The Guomindang government under Chiang Kai-shek formalised China’s claims in 1947, defining “an area limited by nine interrupted marks (a U-shaped line) that cover most of the South China Sea” as Chinese territory (ibid., p. 67).
After the Guomindang forces were defeated by the Communists, the Guomindang retreated to Taiwan and moved there the government of the Republic of China. In mainland China, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. However, the Communists’ claim over the South China Sea remained unchanged. In 1951, Zhou Enlai reiterated China’s territorial demands on the basis of the U-shaped line (ibid.). Both the PRC and the ROC haven’t changed the content of their claim ever since.
China has repeatedly asserted her stance militarily, by occupying some of the islets and engaging in naval skirmishes. For instance, in 1988 the PRC for the first time occupied one of the islets, Fiery Cross. A month later a clash between PRC and Vietnamese naval forces near Fiery Cross Reef led to the death of seventy Vietnamese soldiers and the loss of three Vietnamese vessels. Afterwards the PRC extended its control by occupying other islands (ibid., p. 70).
The Case of the Philippines
Before 1975, the Philippines did not seek diplomatic, political and economic engagement with China because of the perceived Communist threat coming from the PRC. More specifically, the Philippine government had to deal with Maoist movements and a sensitive ethnic Chinese minority at home, and it wanted to minimise the risks of internal turmoil (see Tang / Li / Acharya 2009 2009, p. 174). But in 1975 the two countries normalised relations, which for the next two decades remained overall positive. Nevertheless, territorial disputes remained a major source of frictions and tensions.
One factor that has indeed weighed heavily upon relations is the escalating competition and conflict over maritime resources. China claims a maritime territory of 3 million km2 in addition to its land territory of 9.6 million km2. The Philippines on the other hand is an archipelagic country, whose 7100 islands and 36,000 km stretch of coastline are connected by waters that are not only important transportation and communication links but also vital sources of food, livelihood, and potentially energy (ibid., p. 175).
The situation started to worsen at the beginning of the 1990s. In 1992 China passed a Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, reiterating claims over 80 percent of the South China Sea. The law proclaimed the PRC’s right to evict foreign vessels from its waters and required foreign warships to notify the PRC before passage (Emmers 2010, p. 71).
The turning point in Philippines-China relations came two years later, in 1994. In May of that year the Philippine government allowed the American company Alcorn to explore potential oil and gas reserves in the Reed Bank off the Philippine province of Palawan. Later that year, the PRC occupied Mischief Reef, known as Pagnaniban Reef in the Philippines and Meijijiao (traditional Chinese: 美濟礁; simplified Chinese: 美济礁; pinyin: Měi jì jiāo) in China. Mischief Reef is around 100 miles off Palawan, but it is around 200 hundred miles off the Chinese island of Hainan, in Southern China (see map below; point A is the location of Mischief Reef).
This alarmed Manila, which sent patrol troops to the disputed area. Tensions between the Philippines and the PRC escalated (see ibid., pp. 177-178).
Prior to 1994, the Philippines did not perceive the PRC as an immediate security threat. But after the Mischief Reef clash, Manila sought tighter military relations to the US. This marked a change in Manila’s foreign policy. After the end of the Cold War, the Philippines had closed the major American naval and air bases on their territory as an attempt to downscale their cooperation with the US. In fact, the Philippines had believed that the end of the Soviet had brought security and stability to Southeast Asia and American military co-operation was no longer vital. But following the 1994 incident, the Philippine Senate approved a new Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US that allowed the return of American troops. In the words of then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Blas Ople, “the one factor that restraints China’s military hawks is the realization that the Philippines is bound to the United States by a Mutual Defense Treaty” (see ibid., pp. 178-185).
It seems obvious that China’s assertiveness is not just a Western invention, just like Western hegemonic hubris is not a Chinese invention. The fact that China’s foreign policy is driven by nationalism can be clearly seen in regards to the Taiwan issue and Senkaku/ Diaoyu dispute. One can be sure that the PRC will pursue its national agenda to the full. The PRC government tries to legitimise its claims by playing the role of the victim. It seeks to create domestic consensus in order to strengthen a one-sided view that accepts no discussion. How should the world react to China’s quest for global and regional power?