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Leave the South China Sea to Asians

Leave the South China Sea to Asians

Brian Cloughley

The gesture by China concerning non-violent resolution of regional difficulties is comforting, but we should not imagine for a moment that if military muscle is exerted by others, then Beijing will lie down like a purring pussy cat.

One thing Asia doesn’t need is Washington meddling in the Spratly Islands’ dispute, which has a long and sometimes violent history. I have a map of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), given me by a Chinese diplomat sixteen years ago, which depicts the South China Sea as lying within its territory, including the Spratlys to which Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim. (Brunei doesn’t actually claim anything out loud; it only states that one of the outcrops, Louisa Reef, is within its Exclusive “and highly lucrative” Economic Zone.) In the south-west, the Natuna islands are shown as Indonesian, which is proper, but the rest of the 100,000 square miles of sea, and everything in it, is delineated as Chinese.

Estimates of the number of islets in the Spratlys (called Nansha by the PRC) vary from 40 to 200, which seems a remarkable disparity but is understandable as most of the tiny cays, reefs and sandbanks are covered by water at various tidal periods. The largest outcrop, Itu Aba, is all of two metres above sea level (sometimes) and measures about 1.4 km by 400 metres on a good day.

In 1946 it was occupied by Chinese Nationalist (now Taiwanese) forces who took over from the Japanese, and is a notable complication in the PRC-Taiwan issue because it was Taiwan (then Formosa) that negotiated a separate peace with Japan in 1952. Neither Nationalist nor Communist China had been represented the previous year at the San Francisco peace conference which produced a treaty whereby Japan renounced extra-territorial claims, including to the Spratlys.

So there is substance to Taiwan’s claim to the islet of Itu Aba (which, delightfully, means ‘what’s that?’ in Malay), and the Taipei government has ‘ coastguard’ (read military) and radar installations on it; but the legality of ownership depends on the greater international question of the status of Taiwan. This is an example of the sort of puzzle — and it is far from an inconsequential one” that colours the entire Spratlys’ debate, and as the US is flexing its muscles and China has just ratified a protocol by which it agrees to deal peacefully with contentious matters in its region, it is timely to cast an eye on the problem, not least because the China Sea is one of the most sensitive shipping routes in the world, especially for Japan.

The dozen or so islets occupied by littoral nations are bristling with weapons (China has over 2000 troops squashed onto half a dozen atolls), and although the PRC will not ‘participate in any activity which shall constitute a threat to the political and economic stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity ‘ of the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), one wonders about its long-term plans.

In the Asia Times Alan Boyd recorded a western diplomat as saying “Well, it always helps to talk, and ASEAN has very few options open to it. [But] in practice Chinese strategic ambitions will be undiminished, so in effect ASEAN has given tacit acknowledgement that China holds the high ground over other claimants.” The high ground is pretty modest in the South China Sea, but one sees what the diplomat means. The hint that China will win in the end is hardly unexpected, and doubtless Beijing will continue to be the major player, while being pragmatic enough to permit others to have decent slices of the maritime cake.

None of the islets was taken over by imperialists in the heyday of colonial expansion, and I have long held a theory about this: the French realised grapevines wouldn’t grow on coral, and it dawned on the British that they couldn’t build a decent-sized Government House. Kaiser Wilhelm wasn’t interested as there was no room for a cavalry charge, and when America colonised the Philippines in 1898 it left the Spratlys alone because the floating baseball had not yet been invented.

Attraction was there none, but there is now considerable interest in the region, although estimates of the amounts of oil, gas and rare minerals under the sea vary greatly. This is not surprising, because what exploration company is going to admit that there might be gold under them thar cays?

No matter what crude nationalistic advantage might apply by occupation of individual islets, there is the knotty problem of legally apportioning particular and economically lip-smacking spots of sandy coral to any one country. Article 121(3) of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS; recently ratified by China) says comonsensically that “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no Exclusive Economic Zone or continental shelf,” but if a lovely rich subaqueous oil gusher spouts a few kilometres away from your very own 3 by 3 lump of coral, are you going to pay much attention to UNCLOS? Last year the World Court ruled in Malaysia’s favour over a dispute with Indonesia over two tiny islands, but such cases depend on both parties submitting to international jurisdiction, and it is unlikely China would agree to any such procedure.

The gesture by China concerning non-violent resolution of regional difficulties is comforting, but we should not imagine for a moment that if military muscle is exerted by others, then Beijing will lie down like a purring pussy cat. The Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore are involved in Washington’s plans for expansion of its military presence in the region (an ‘Asian NATO’ has been suggested, to confront China, which would be reinventing a wobbly wheel “remember the farce of SEATO?), and Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz announced in Singapore last month that’’s very important to this whole region that the United States remains committed here.”

This may be agreeable to some countries, but it is disturbing for others that the Bush administration intends to meddle further in their region. Introduction of yet more US military might is not going to create stability: it is going to exasperate the PRC (perhaps it is meant to do that) and encourage division.

It will place supporters of SEATO (Two) against those who consider it foolhardy of the Pentagon (which rather than the State Department is directing foreign policy round the world; an absurd situation) to adopt a highly visible military posture in the ‘Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality’ supported by Malaysia and the Indonesian government (but not necessarily the latter’s generals, which is another complication). The US should stay right out of it and leave the ASEANs and China to look after their own region.

Brian Cloughley is a former military officer who writes on international affairs. His website is

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