5. South China Sea
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, and since 1947-1948 it has drawn a dotted line, now known as the “nine-dashed line,” on maps of the region to mark out its territorial claim. Its purpose was to clarify China’s claims and remove inconsistencies in older maps.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There is little doubt that Chinese fishermen and navigators have been familiar with the South China Sea’s geographical features for centuries: references to Scarborough Shoal, over which China is involved in a dispute with the Philippines, started appearing in official documents 2,000 years ago, and it appears on 13th century Chinese maps. However, China’s claim to such territories on the basis that they are “traditional fishing grounds” is problematic, since these waters have also been fished for centuries by people from the other littoral states.
The nine-dashed line is also a shaky concept: China suddenly began using it in 1948 without explaining its origin or even defining its position, and there have been quiet admissions that it has no historical basis. The other South China Sea claimants reject its legitimacy, although their failure to complain about the line until relatively recently arguably undermines their staunch opposition to it today.
Some South China Sea features were formally recognized as belonging to the Republic of China government on Taiwan in 1952, when Japan ceded the Paracel and Spratly Islands to Taiwan via the Treaty of Taipei (this was a bilateral agreement to which other claimants, like the Philippines and Vietnam, were never party). The claims of China and Taiwan effectively overlap. However, Beijing bases its claim to these features on the nine-dashed line, not the Treaty of Taipei.
In any case, the Philippines does not recognize Scarborough Shoal as part of the Spratly Islands, although it does claim some of the Spratlys as the Kalayaan Group. The Philippine claim is arguably weakened by the fact that Manila only began to actively press its claim to the Shoal in 1997 – at which point it took ownership of the Shoal as terra nullius – and it does not feature on Philippine maps until then. However, Manila says it actually first claimed the Shoal in 1937-1938, but that it was unable to publicize this fact because of Japan’s incursions and subsequent invasion. China also made its first formal claim to Scarborough Shoal at around the same time, in 1935. Like the Philippines, it was under pressure from expansionist Japan, and Beijing and Manila were unaware that they were both preparing claims to the same geographical feature.
As for Vietnam, it claims both the Paracel (Hoang Sa) and Spratly (Truong Sa) island groups. The Vietnamese say that they have controlled the islands since “time immemorial,” but clear documentary evidence pointing to Vietnamese interest only begins in the 17th century. The European powers appeared to recognize that the islands were linked to Vietnam, and France, as the colonial power, launched a military expedition in 1933 to take control of the Spratly Islands after China had claimed them under the terms of the 1887 Sino-French Convention, which marked the boundary between China and Vietnam (though the location of the boundary was open to interpretation).
Vietnam’s claim to the islands was then complicated by the conflicting actions of the two rival governments which ran a divided country during the Vietnam War: while Communist North Vietnam recognized China’s claim to the islands, the South did not. However, soon after winning the war, the Communist government reversed its position and reasserted its territorial claim – a decision which culminated in the 1988 naval battle over the Spratly Islands between Chinese and Vietnamese forces.
Tentative conclusions: All historical claims appear shaky in a large area of sea that has served as a common fishing ground over the centuries. China’s nine-dashed line is historically very flimsy, but then Vietnam’s U-turn on ownership weakens its case, while the Philippines’ belated assertion of its claim to Scarborough Shoal undermines its position.