Historical Support for China's South China Sea Territorial Stance

South China Sea map marked with China's claim

Published Aug 10, 2019 1:35 AM by Mark Hoskin

There have been recent claims in the media that Great Britain and other nations who operate Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea have taken no stance concerning the sovereignty of the three island groups that are the subject of dispute among China, the Philippines and Vietnam. However, there is overwhelming evidence that this is not the case. Instead, that evidence points to prior recognition of the islands as historic Chinese territory.

To examine this question, public statements by government officials regarding the Spratley, Paracel and Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands) were examined, a common legal practice used by the International Court of Justice to show official intent.

British Government efforts at understanding China’s history in the region were made in 1944 when preparations were underway for post war administration of occupied territories. The British Military Administration, Malaya, was making observations concerning Chinese maritime history in the South China Sea region:

“It must not be forgotten that while Europe was still relying on the galley in the Mediterranean and was only feeling towards the fore- and aft- rig in the North Seas and sailing in ships whose capacities measured in tens of tons, the Chinese were already ocean sailors with junks to be found from their own coasts to the mouth of the Indus whilst the Arabs in dhows of over 1,000 tons capacity were bringing the spices of the East Indies to Egypt and the European markets.”

Chinese ability to sail across the South China Sea region and into the Indian Ocean can be seen as recognized by the U.K. Government in this statement.

Economic exploitation of the resources in the South China Sea region was recognized earlier in Europe; among the first records in the post Roman Empire period were made in 1154. Roger of Sicily’s Court Geographer, the Arab al-Idrisi, provided early recorded details of Chinese junks sailing towards the West:

“All the Chinese ships, great or small, that navigate in the China Sea are solidly constructed of wood. The pieces of timber are disposed geometrically one over the other, protected by palm fibres and caulked with flour and fish oil. In the China Sea and the Indian Ocean there are large animals 100 yards [this is probably feet] long and 25 wide, on the backs of which grow bumps of rocks and shellfish like vegetation, by which the ships are sometimes damaged. Mariners recount how they attack these animals with arrows and thus force them to move out of their way. They add that they pierce the smallest of these animals and boil them in cauldrons, that their flesh dissolves and turns into liquid fat. This oily substance is renowned in the Yemen, in Aden, on the coasts of Fars and Oman, and in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. The people of these regions make use of this substance for filling the hulls of the ships.”

That al-Idrisi was able to record the hunting of whales in the South China Sea region in 1154 exhibits the longevity of the practice in Chinese maritime history and the long-term presence of the history itself, rendering it unsurprising that President Xi of China would invoke an observation of Chinese maritime use since “ancient times” in claiming the islands as Chinese territory.

The history of Chinese maritime trade in the region is also based on the foundation of Spratly Islands' exploitation and occupation. The Spratly Islands have been historically known to Chinese mariners, who were observed to sail through the South China Sea to Jakarta (then Batavia) by John Crawfurd, a mariner and trader in the 1830s. It was subsequently reported in the Japan Times in 1933 that Chinese fishing parties were leaving members who then lived on the islands.

These records of historical use have been disputed, as the BBC reporter Bill Hayton noted in 2014: “On 13 April 1930, the French Warship Malicieuse dropped anchor off Spratly Island, hundreds of kilometers to the south of Pratas and the Paracels, and fired a 21-gun salute. The only witnesses to this display of imperial pomp were four marooned and starving fishermen unaware that they were witnessing the opening salvo in a still-unfinished battle for their fishing grounds.”

However, reports of rice supplies and other necessities arriving from China contradict Hayton's suggestion that there were four marooned and starving fishermen. Junks were commandeered for military operations on the Southern Chinese coastline, making them unavailable for the 800-mile voyage from Hainan that year, adding to the maritime issues related to the ongoing conflict with Japan (1930-1945).

After World War II, the Spratly Islands were noted by the British High Commission of Singapore as territory that was returned to China. In 1971, the following statement was made: “Spratly Island was a Chinese dependency, part of Kwangtung Province…and was returned to China after the war. We cannot find any indication of its having been acquired by any other country and so can only conclude it is still held by communist China. (Far Eastern Economic Review, December 31, 1974).”

It should be noted that this was outside of any major conflict in the modern period in the South China Sea (1930–1945, 1945–1956, 1974), and made after an exhaustive study was concluded by the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It can therefore can be considered a reasoned statement of recognition made by a knowing and authoritative governmental source who was based in the Southeast Asian before and during World War II.

The consistent nature of other statements made by Britain France and Japan suggest that these nations have historically taken the same position as China, and made public statements to that effect.

For example, France occupied the Paracel Islands in the 1930s during the war between China and Japan. The occupation took place over a year after France had refused to abolish its extraterritorial rights in China, which had been held since 1844. The first official announcement concerning the seizure of the Paracel Islands was made by M. Bonnet, the French Foreign Minister at the Quay d’Orsay, stating that the islands were now occupied by two detachments of Annamite gendarmes from Vietnam in 1938. Amid the Sino-Japanese conflict, the Quai d’Orsay took the opportunity to note that “the islands have been visited by Chinese fishermen for generations” (North China Herald, July 4, 1938, June 6, 1934).

Meanwhile, the Chinese Ambassador Wellington Koo informed M. Bonnet that China continued to claim sovereignty over the islands, and Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr Horinouchi also made official representations “regarding the French occupation of the Paracel Islands’ (Japan Times & Mail, July 6, 1938; Portsmouth Evening News, July 7, 1938; emphasis added).

It is clear that the occupation by France of islands used for internationally-recognized Chinese historical economic life was protested by China as an invasion of sovereign territory, and was publicly repeated by Japanese officials, who wished to possess the islands for belligerent purposes that were directed towards China during their war of the 1930s and 40s. The impact today can be derived from a legal interpretation, as UNESCO and UNCLOS provide protections and rights for historic grave sites. 

The United States entered the fray quietly, through information published in early US Navy Sailing Directions that Japanese newspapers then published: “West York Island ....The island is of coral formation, about 1 mile in length by half a mile in breadth, and 15 feet in height. On it are a few coconut trees and some other vegetation, and it is frequented by turtles and sea birds. Chinese fishermen from Hainan appear to frequent it during the latter part of the north-east monsoon to gather trepan as a joss-house and three graves were found on the islands, as well as an old iron cannon. Some remains of wrecks were also seen. The island seems to offer no facilities whatever for a naval station, which fact may not have been without influence on it’s being neglected by the French."

The question now arises: what can the aforementioned countries do to resolve this issue? 

First, the existence of this awareness and historic knowledge can be given recognition. As publicly available material overwhelmingly supports the Chinese perception, acknowledgment would provide a united understanding of historic use and provide a foundation for resolution. 

Secondly, the historic ability of the islands to support human life and provide economic benefits of their own should be exhaustively examined, putting to rest the dispute created by the UNCLOS tribunal in Philippines v China. 

Finally, the stipulation in the Treaty of San Francisco which requires any dispute over the meaning of the treaty be taken to the International Court of Justice for a resolution should be followed, leaving the Court to resolve the question over sovereignty of the islands, and therefore the ownership of the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding them. 

However, many countries would probably not support such a path, or uphold the results.

Mark Hoskin is a Researcher at the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS, University of London, London, U.K.

This article includes a summary of a paper published in a Special Issue of Australian Journal of Maritime and Ocean Affairs DOI: 10.1080/18366503.2019.1611173


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.