GREGORY CLARK. China: A Maritime expansionist?

The call is for Australia to cooperate with the US to counter Beijing’s allegedly expansionist activities in the South China Sea. But was it not the US itself, in its 1951 San Francisco peace treaty with Japan – signed and ratified by Canberra and 47 others – who in effect gifted most of the South China Sea islands – namely, the Spratly and the Paracel island groups – to China? The US then organized a separate document with the Republic of China in Taiwan – the  1952 Taipei peace treaty – making it even clearer that these islands should be taken from Japan and in effect given to China.
Some say both documents are ambiguous since they do not say who was to receive those islands.  But the Republic of China government was in no doubt.  It quickly assumed control over the large island of Taiping in the Spratlys, close to the Philippines (which calls it Itu Abu) . In Taiwan it is claimed that maintaining this treaty approved claim to the Spratlys and Paracels is crucial to Taiwan’s sovereignty as a nation.

The same wording used in the San Francisco treaty for the return of the Kurile islands to Moscow is accepted even by Tokyo. What is at dispute is the definition of the word Kurile Islands.

True, Beijing also has its claims. And other South China sea nations have also, rightfully,  begun to make counter-claims. China would be wrong to ignore them. But again which China?

We hear much about Beijing using a nine-dash line as the basis for claiming much of the  South China Sea.  But that claim was not invented by Beijing.  It was developed by the Republic of China government well before the Beijing regime  existed.  In Taiwan they call it the ‘U-shaped line’ and they still cling to it as proof of their theoretical right to claim virtually any South China Sea island of choice. Beijing has slightly reduced the U-shaped line to a less aggressive nine-dash line.

Our media make much of the fact that in July, 2016, a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled supporting Manila’s claims in the South China Sea island disputes. Fair enough, but Manila’s main claim had been against Taiwan’s occupation of the Taiping/Itu Abu island.

True other Spratly islands and shoals were examined. In its efforts to deny Beijing’s claims to the UNCLOS (UN Convention for the Law of the Sea) approved 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone around the islands it had claimed or created the tribunal said these islands were mere rocks incapable of supporting economic activity and so were not entitled to an EEZ. But it is clear the tribunal was either ignorant or biassed.  For they went on rather absurdly to rule that Taiping/Itu Abu also was a mere rock not entitled to a EEZ despite the 43 hectare island having an airport and a population of 200 engaged in a variety of economic activities. Beijing’s ‘rocks’ now also sustain airports and a range of activities that would also qualify for an EEZ.

When it comes to claiming rocks as islands, Japan is much more aggressive.  It has taken a piece of exposed coral rock called Okinotori (Offshore Bird),  the size of  bed,  in a submerged atoll far out in the Pacific to the east of Taiwan and 1740 kilometers from Tokyo, buried it in concrete, declared it is part of Tokyo city, and that it is not only entitled to claim the standard EEZ (allowing it frequently to capture or expel any fishing boats, mainly Taiwanese, in the 200 nautical mile area); it  has also decided that the bed-size rock is part of Japan’s continental shelf, allowing it to claim exclusive right to exploit the resources of an extra 177,000 square kilometers of ocean bed.  “This will help Japan to enhance its national interests through the development of resources,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declared in September 2014.

It also brings Japan a lot closer to Australia..

The Senkaku islands dispute with Japan is also often listed as proof of Beijing’s maritime aggressiveness. But this too was originally a dispute with Taiwan rather than Beijing. The island group lies at the top end of a chain of volcanic islands running down to the northern tip of Taiwan, and separated from Japan’s Okinawa by a deep ocean trough. Long before Japan began its expansionist moves in the 19th century,  Chinese fishermen had been using the islands as a base. Hence its Chinese name – Diaoyutai, or fishing platform (which also happens to be the name of an emperor’s palace in Beijing).

Japan was only able to take it over and develop it during China’s late 19th century period of weakness. According to Wikipedia, ”China claims the discovery and ownership of the islands from the 14th century, while Japan maintained ownership of the islands from 1895’. Tokyo at first did not even have a name for the islands. Only later did it begun to use the name Senkaku.

That name is a translation of the name – Pinnacle Islands – given  by an English explorer, James Colnett, during his 1789-1791 voyage into the area. Yet Tokyo, as with all its disputed territories, insists these have been and will continue to be the inherent territories of Japan.

Fortunately it has had the good sense not to try to occupy the islands; it simply maintains a defence against ships sent by Beijing into the area seeking to maintain Taiwan’s claim.  (After ugly tussles with Taiwan fishing boats in 2008-12, Taipei has been given fishing rights to ease its unhappiness.) And even the US, even if only for political reasons, has had the good sense only to admit Japan’s administrative, not sovereignty, rights to the islands.

Ultimately these island disputes represent a clash of cultures. For hundreds if not thousands of years the Chinese saw the oceans around it as natural and exclusive Chinese possessions to be used for fishing and navigation. The only intruders were Japanese pirate boats raiding eastern Chinese coastal towns. There was no need to go through any process of claiming legal possession.

Then along came the Europeans with their concepts of colonies, gunboats  and flags to claim physical possession. The area ceased to be a Chinese lake; it became an amphitheatre in which first the Westerners and then the Japanese have felt free to take advantage of China’s weakness and grab territory as they liked.   Now China is belatedly claiming the right of possession it always assumed it had, but had never claimed in the Western and then Japanese way.

Far from being aggressive, if anything the Chinese have long been too reactive and inward looking.  For years they did little to protest properly the host of US invasive ocean bottom chartings and message recording (Elint and Sigint) activities around their eastern coast. And only now are they beginning to reach out and seek distant ocean-based footholds as Western powers have long done. But even at their most acquisitive they would have a long way to go before they can match the UK/US grab for Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean and the expulsions of the original inhabitants to create the bases for US military activities in the Middle East.

Meanwhile Japan continues to act as if it has an ‘inherent’ right to territories lost as a result of its Pacific War defeat, not just to Taiwan and mainland China, but to South Korea and Moscow also. We should think first before accusing Beijing of dangerous aggressive expansionism.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat trained in Chinese who opposed the Vietnam War and in 1975 moved to an academic career in Japan (professor Sophia University, emeritus president Tama University, joint founder of the very successful Akita International University). Based in Tokyo briefly as correspondent for The Australian he organized an Australian participation in China’s 1971 pingpong diplomacy which led eventually to Canberra’s recognition of Beijing. Based in Moscow he witnessed the bizarre and still little known Canberra 1964 attempt to recruit the USSR on the side of the US in Vietnam.  In 1968 he published his book In Fear of China (Lansdowne and Cresset Press).

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7 Responses to GREGORY CLARK. China: A Maritime expansionist?

  1. Sam Lee says:

    Taking my previous comment further to make a practical and realistic point rather than one of academic interest, I hope the vested interests take a step back, take a breather, and see the bigger picture of what has unfolded over the past 50 years:-

    It is obvious for a long time the PRC loved and emulated the US and, like the Japanese before the 80s, beautified and worshipped the “West”; this is obvious across the whole spectrum of political propaganda and media down to the individual social web and clusters. It was (possibly less) obvious, at least to me, the PRC hoped to maintain the ‘status quo’ of being a mutually beneficial partner to the US (a point they had repeatedly made and I believe to be true because unlike North American interpretations of the PRC’s statements, informed by the US’ own experience of and expertise in manufacturing consent, the PRC’s experience and expertise lie in forcing consent by reason or logic, manifest in their trademark references to what is the “correct” perspective or response, and arguably misinformed by its lack of empathy and consideration for humanity); the ‘status quo’ being the US enjoying its global military clout and the pride of being the world’s policeman (along with all the benefits of soft power and sharp power) at the expense of its economy and social investment, and the PRC foregoing military spending and hard power for the benefit of being able to concentrate its attention on its 1.3+bn disparate people spread over an almost unmanageable land size bordered by a huge number of non-aligned (to the PRC) states.

    For better or worse, the US and associates projected this ‘status quo’ to a pessimistic future where the PRC is able to grow to such a unified monolithic ethnoculturally-bound entity powered by an overwhelming economy it will displace the established ruling Powers *AND* at the same time purposefully radically change the system so as to damn the US and associates to the Third World. I for one thought and still think this was a truly uninformed and misinformed projection based on a complete lack of understanding of the Chinese ‘civilisation’ and people as well as the CCP and the PRC. I thought and still believe the PRC would have, in that projected future, as much trouble holding its state together as the EU has in holding the EU together, or the US holding the 5-Eyes together, with a similar level of high anxiety and need for self-preservation, and would be very happy to exist as a power player within a US-led 1980s version of international hierarchy and relations.

    Because of this pessimistic projection the US and associates had embarked on a transformative whole-spectrum mission to control and/or undercut the PRC, resulting in predictable reactions from the PRC that included esetablishing a military base in the South China Sea, a transformation from a collaborative government to a Xi-centred one, and a driven purpose to dissociate from the threat posed by the US’ domination of the seas and global financial system. In effect we created the monster we feared the PRC would become by our own bullying, estrangement and uncompromising animosity of and towards the PRC; and our demonstration of realpolitiks and the use of false flags, stealth entities, arms-length interference etc is obviously slowly filtering into the PRC’s awareness and accepted arsenal of defence (as well as the belief in the concept of might is right and the concept that offensive action is the best defence). The turn in the PRC’s perspective and approach is evident in contemporary Chinese media, culture and movements – the US is no longer exalted, it is becoming socially acceptable for the Australian brand to be criticised, the dysfunction in the UK is no longer being censored (as much as before), and Canada is being exposed as the least regarded amongst the 5-Eyes.

    It’s clear the PRC won’t be turning inward again or ridding itself of the control it has now established (internally and externally) in reaction to our approach to it. The question for the vested interests is, do you see this bigger picture of creating the monster you most fear, and are you capable of developing a more effective strategy is maintaining our place at the top of the global hierarchy (as opposed to the obvious conclusion to the current approach, which is a physical reckoning at some stage down the road or a drawn-out pyrrhic victory at the end neither of which guarantee our security or dominance).

  2. Sam Lee says:

    Thank you Professor Clark (and P&I) for writing and publishing this synthesis and referrable account of the view from the other side (which is the true value of free speech not the popular definition of the freedom to abuse and denigrate people).

    A point that may not be fully accepted or may be deliberately ignored is the different understanding of history and perspective of time for the ethno-culturo-civilisational/political Chinese.

    The Chinese learn by cultural osmosis the full history of their written records and further back into pre(-Chinese)history (as part of cultral and oral traditions as well as later literary traditions). The changes in the Sinic world over the past two centuries are viewed with the perspective of they being a part of a 3000-5000 years of being Chinese or rather, being “hua-xia”, an ethno-culturo-civilisational self-awareness/identity that has been a central concept in Chinese scholarship for a few thousand years but, incredibly, is virtually unknown or very poorly understood even to the self-annointed “China experts” (and proponents of a radical transformation of “the West” into a comparable and competitive “Western civilisation”, which exposes as much the short historical perspective of “the West” as it does the threat we feel from the complete void of anything similar to the Chinese concept in “Western tradition” even though it is exactly this short historical perspective that drives our innovation and progress in civilisation – the underlying belief in the overturning of or *progress* from old traditions and cultures in favour of what is demonstrably better).

    The confusing debate between the Chinese and the ruling Powers is usually understandable when one accepts there is a difference in perspective and the arguments made by the two sides are unintelligible to the other side because of this fundamental difference. A simple analogy may be the views about the current sharemarket or property market upheavals from a seasoned investor who had been following the sharemarket or property markets since the 80s compared to a youthful investor who draws on their experience of the past 10-15 years only.

  3. Bill Hayton says:

    Dear Mr Clark,
    This is a poorly-informed piece of writing. The San Francisco Peace Treaty says nothing about the islands of the South China Sea.

    If you are interested in the real and chaotic story of how the Republic of China came to claim the islets in the South China Sea can i recommend my article (free access) here:
    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0097700418771678#articleCitationDownloadContainer
    I gave a summary of the story for the CSIS conference yesterday. The video is here
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=9071&v=MdDphn8ixwA
    (my remarks start at 2’30”)

  4. michael lacey says:

    Thanks for that piece it is great for reference!

  5. Lorraine Osborn says:

    Great to read a factual account of how we got to here. A pity this will not appear in MSM as a counterpoint to the beat up constantly put out about the supposed danger posed by the PRC

  6. Jim KABLE says:

    I have far more trust in this opinion piece -backed up by indisputable history and other international agreements – by Professor Gregory CLARK – than in anything from either the US government, its lackey the fawning Australian government – or any of the other claimants to the lumps of rocks in the South China Sea or on its edges – The Philippines, Viet-nam, SKorea or Japan. One hopes this is being sighted by Australian Defence Forces, the Minister and his/her (whoever it is this week) bureaucracy, too.

  7. Kien Choong says:

    Also, border disputes are common around the world. Other countries typically leave it to the countries concerned to resolve the disputes through discussion. In fact, China managed to resolve its border disputes with Russia through discussion, and while discussions continue between China and India, no other country sees fit to intervene.

    The conflicting claims over the South China Seas is simply a border dispute inherited from the ROC. Further, the Sea Convention was never intended to resolve border disputes. China is not unreasonable in arguing that the tribunal does not in fact have jurisdiction to rule on sovereignty claims. (99 words)

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