China’s Maritime Power, Territorial Claims, and the Neoliberal Trap (Part II) – Philippines-China Relations

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?

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4 replies »

  1. This is a bias article. China's claim of South China sea is based on historical evidences, which show China's sailors discovered Huangyan Island 2,000 years ago and there are extensive records of visits, mapping expeditions and habitation of the shoal from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) right through to the modern period. That's why both PRC on mainland China and ROC on Taiwan claims sovereignty over the islands in some parts of the South China Sea. This geographic proximity argument doesnt work over sovereignty claim. Under the provisions of UNCLOS, a nation with sovereignty over an island can claim a surrounding 12-nautical mile territorial sea. In my opinion, they need to sit down, talk, and find a solution.


  2. @anynymous

    Thanks for your comment.

    May I ask you why my article is biased? In your opinion, an article must reflect the official opinion of the PRC in order not to be biased? I'm sorry, but I'm not writing propaganda for the PRC. Maybe for you it's inconceivable that China might not be 100% right, but you can't expect me or anybody else to agree with the view of the Chinese government on all issues.

    The facts that you mention are correct. However, they are not 'evidence' that 80% of the South China Sea belongs to China. I know that the position of Chinese nationalism is to claim as much territory as possible. Sun Yat-sen believed that the borders of China were the borders of the Qing Empire. The evidence you are referring to dates back to a time when China was much smaller than Qing Dynasty China in 1911. According to this logic, Greece could claim Turkey and Southern Italy because 2000 years ago Greeks actually inhabited those regions.

    Borders have been in continuous flux, and so has sovereignty. The map of the world has changed many times, and also the map of the Chinese Empire has changed many times. Chinese nationalist ideology claims territories that have actually never been controlled by the Chinese government, only because some Chinese travelled to those places a few thousand or hundred years ago that doesn't mean they belong to China. This seems to me a very weak position, and the PRC government should not hope that it can grab so much land. I am not anti-Chinese, but Chinese nationalism sometimes goes too far.

    As you say, it would be good if all the countries in the South China Sea could sit at a table and find a solution. But this cannot happen if all sides stick to their position and make no concessions. And I believe China should make some concessions, because countries like the Philippines or Brunei can simply not allow China to possess the entire sea, most especially when the border is so close to their own territory.


  3. Thanks for your reply, Aris.

    I called this article biased, because I think different positions on both sides should be mentioned without a prejudgement, at least. That will be more helpful for readers to grasp the complexity of this issue. Just because the historical claims were put forward by the Chinese government, that doesnt mean that's government's propaganda. Most people on both sides of Taiwan strait hold that position. The government just respond inactively. You dont have to subscribe to that position. But that's a very important aspect of this issue that worth mentioning.

    BTW, I dont think it's appropriate to compare those not-often-inhabited island to Turkey and Southern Italy, when it comes to sovereignty issue. Chinese not only discovered those island, traveled to those places, mapped and even inhabited there before any other country. Also, Chinese are not trying to grab land/water from other country, what they are doing is to secure what they inherited from their ancestors, or what they believe to be the inheritance from their ancestors. Although the idea of nation-state is a pretty recent one in the world.

    That's why I said, they should sit down, talk, find a solution. Thank you!


  4. @anonymous

    You raise a legitimate point. It is true that all sides have their own view and their own arguments, and it is fair to mention all of them without prejudice. However, in this blog post I did not discuss those countries' alleged proofs.and evidences for claiming parts of the South China Sea. I am just writing a short blog post, and discussing in detail the content of those claims would have required at least a separate post. If I had explained in detail why China claims the South China Sea, then I would have had to mention the grounds of the other parties involved, i.e the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei etc. That was not the actual purpose of my post. But I have mentioned two books on my post. I think both of them analyse the issue in a quite objective way and extensively, with a lot of facts and historical information that I cannot provide in this short article.

    The point of my post was in fact not to explain why the PRC and other countries claim parts of the South China Sea, but to show that the PRC is also willing to use force when necessary. This contradicts the PRC government's claim that China is per definition a peaceful nation. As you have noted, my own opinion about the South China Sea dispute is that the PRC's and the ROC's territorial claims are not realistic, because their neighbouring countries will not easily accept to cede maritime territory that is so close to their borders and also vital for trade and people's livelihood. Whether the readers think that the Chinese claims are justified or not, it's up to them to decide.

    Anyway, different opinions and points of view are always welcome: ) Have a nice day.


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