At a meeting of the Fullbright Taiwan Foundation for Scholarly Exchange Ma Ying-jeou, the incumbent president of the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), was asked by a scholar whether the ROC will renounce its claims to the South China Sea. Earlier in March the former vice-secretary of the National Security Council of the ROC, Zhang Xucheng (張旭成), and the former deputy minister of National Defence, Ke Chengheng (柯承亨), had said in an interview that the ROC might renounce its claims to the South China Sea. They stated that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the current main opposition party, is “considering a proposal to give up Taiwan’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea as defined by the U-shaped line”.
Ma Ying-jeou seemed surprised by the scholar’s question and replied: “Are you crazy? Of course we won’t!” As leader of the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party), Ma Ying-jeou officially maintains that the Republic of China is the legitimate government of the whole of China, including mainland China and about 90% of the South China Sea. In 2013, the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had clarified that the territory of the Republic of China includes the area of People’s Republic of China (PRC), the South China Sea and the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台, called ‘Senkaku’ in Japan and ‘Diaoyu’ in the PRC).
Giving up the sovereignty over the South China Sea is an “unconstitutional act” (違憲的行為), Ma was quoted as saying. He added that he will protest against sovereignty claims over the South China Sea or its islands on the part of the Philippines, and that he will continue to emphasise the ROC’s territorial integrity.
Ma Ying-jeou stressed the fact that agreements with other countries can be achieved despite territorial disputes, citing as an example the fisheries agreement which Taipei and Tokyo signed on April 2013. The agreement eased tensions over fishing rights around the Diaoyutai Islands. “You don’t need to worry,” said Ma Ying-jeou to the scholar. “There will be no war.”
Due to its strategic position and natural resources, the South China Sea is craved by the countries that geographically share its waters, such as the ROC, the PRC, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan. To complicate matters, the ROC and the PRC claim to be the sole government of China and both of them control various islands and islets of the sea.
The geopolitical importance of the South China Sea was already well-known in the 19th and 20th century. In the 1940s Sven Hedin, a Swedish explorer and travel writer, described how the little islands of the sea could be used as military bases:
||Stele erected on Pratas Island by the ROC Ministry of the Interior(source: Wikipedia)
In this Godforsaken part of the sea, between Saigon on the coast of Cochin China and the northernmost point of Borneo, lies the small group of coral islands and atolls called the Spratly Islands, which name has but seldom been heard until recent times. When the typhoons do not tear like furies across these waters, heaving the breakers over the scraggy coral reefs and atoll rings, silence and solitude reign over the Spratly Islands, which since 1917 have been inhabited by but a few Japanese. Insignificant though they may be, they are large enough for wireless stations, fortifications, stores, and repair shops, and their lagoons afford landing places for hydroplanes and harbors for submarines. Any great power utilizing these islands for purposes of war will control the South China Sea, for that power will control all the main routes between Singapore and Hong Kong and the Singapore-Manila-Formosa sound. Fortified according to all the rules of modern technique, this group of islands might become of very much the same importance as Malta in the Mediterranean (Sven Hedin: Chiang Kai-Shek: Marshal Of China, 1940, pp. 258-259).
In the 19th century Western imperialism turned the South China Sea into a hotbed of territorial disputes. The West imposed a concept of state sovereignty that had been unknown to the sinocentric East Asian world. As soon as colonial powers began their scramble for the Orient, China, Japan and other East Asian countries were compelled to defend themselves from aggression and exploitation by adopting the language and principles of Western international law and imperialist narrative. While Japan was the first Asian power to excel in imitating Western methods, China developed a concept of sovereignty which was deeply anti-foreign. This narrative is still at the core of the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist project.
The claims to the South China Sea of both the PRC and the ROC date back to the disputes between the Chinese Empire and colonial powers. In the 1840s Japan and European countries began surveying the Paracels and Spratlys and claimed sovereignty over them. But in 1887 China signed a boundary agreement with France that showed the islands were part of China’s territory. By 1907 Beijing had placed territorial markers on the Paracels.
Yet in 1933 France formally annexed the Paracels and the Spratlys as part of its colony of Vietnam. In the late 1930s, however, Japan seized several of the islands, including Itu Aba (known as Taiping in Chinese). The island served as a submarine and naval base and played an important role in Tokyo’s invasion of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries during World War II (see Ralf Emmers: Geopolitics and Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia, 2012, p. 67).
When Japan surrendered in 1945, the islands were left unoccupied. In 1947 Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Guomindang and of the ROC, officially announced China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The Guomindang government issued the notorious U-shaped line, an area limited by nine interrupted marks which comprises 90% of the entire South China Sea (ibid., p. 68).
On December 12, 1947, Chiang Kai-shek’s forces occupied Taiping Island and Woody Island, but were forced to abandon them as the Civil War drained all of the ROC’s military resources. In 1949, Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek, who retreated to Taiwan, the last stronghold of the ROC against the Communists. Taiping Island was briefly occupied by the PRC but was again abandoned in 1950. It was later retaken by the ROC military (ibid., pp. 67-68).
Despite Chiang’s defeat in the Civil War and the retreat of the ROC government and the Guomindang party apparatus to Taiwan, the ROC still claims the South China Sea as part of its own national territory. Nowadays, Taipei exercises control over Dongsha Island (Pratas Island) and Taiping Island (Jing Huang / Andrew Billo: Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea, p. 129).
Robert D. Kaplan visited Dongsha Island and describes it as follows:
I arrived in the Pratas on one of the periodic Taiwanese military flights … The local coast guard gave me a tour. I saw the radar and weather stations, the two piers with their twenty-ton coast guard patrol boats, the four desalination units, and the four rumbling generators equipped with diesel fuel that arrives every twenty-five days by naval supply ship from Taiwan. A statue of Chiang Kai-shek with a walking stick and broad-brimmed hat stands sentinel over the flora. The Taiwanese built the Da Wang temple here in 1948, with all of the gaudy deep red colors for which Chinese temples are famous. It was dedicated to a general from the Han dynasty of middle antiquity known for his determination and fighting skills. Finally, I was taken to a large pillar with Chinese characters, meaning “Defense of the South China Sea.” I had seen everything on the island in under an hour. The Taiwanese occupation was concentrated on the runway, around which everything else on the island was jammed. This runway gave Taiwan some strategic depth against the mainland (Robert D. Kaplan: Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific).
The media of the PRC reported the news of Ma Ying-jeou reasserting ‘China’s sovereignty claims‘ over the South China Sea. However, they avoided mentioning the fisheries agreement between Japan and Taiwan.