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China’s Spurious Claim to Lebensraum in the South China Sea

As US President Joe Biden recently attempted to charm Chinese President Xi Jinping into standing down from his imperial ambitions of obtaining more Lebensraum for his country, all should question Xi’s right to claim dominion over the South China Sea.

Without legal authority or historic precedent, China has audaciously and arrogantly claimed most of the South China Sea as its “domestic” waters. By militarizing its presence in the South China Sea and harassing Philippine vessels (and also shadowing American ships and planes), China is risking war.

On November 25, near the Paracel Islands, China deployed naval and air forces to “track, monitor and warn away” the US destroyer Hopper.

China said the incident “proves that the United States is an out-and-out security risk creator in the South China Sea.”

On November 27, the US Seventh Fleet issued a statement that:

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.

“The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. Customary international law reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention protects certain rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by all nations. The international community has an enduring role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity.

“The United States upholds freedom of navigation for all nations as a principle. As long as some countries continue to claim and assert limits on rights that exceed their authority under international law, the United States will continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the sea guaranteed to all. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms. 

“US forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis.… The operations demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows – regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events.”

Also this month, the US and China held “candid” talks on maritime issues, including the contested South China Sea, where Washington underlined its concerns about what it called “dangerous and unlawful” Chinese actions.

In late October, Chinese coast-guard and maritime-militia vessels “recklessly harassed and blocked” Philippine Coast Guard boats on their way to resupply a Manila-held outpost in the South China Sea. One Chinese ship fired a water cannon at a supply boat, Philippine forces said.

Ship-tracking data showed at least two dozen Chinese vessels, including large ships of the China Coast Guard, descending on Philippine-controlled Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands archipelago.

Map evidence

Decades ago when he was US ambassador to Thailand, my father bought an old naval map of Southeast Asia showing in great detail the entire South China Sea. In that expanse of water, not one Chinese name appears. The only places identified with Chinese names are on the coasts of Hainan Island and the Chinese mainland.

Similarly, names on the coast of Vietnam are shown in Vietnamese, while along the coasts of Malaya, Borneo, and around the Philippine Islands names are shown in Malay.

Nearly all land features in the South China Sea are identified with names in English.

This is evidence that the Chinese had no occupation or permanent presence in the South China Sea as of 1794.

(The map was published in London by Laurie and Whittle on May 12, 1974, based on the last edition of the Neptune Oriental by Monsieur D’apres de Mannervillette, and using drafts and journals of British navigators and a Dutch coastal chart.)

Second, in 1816 the king of Vietnam, Gia Long, planted his flag on the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea with no objection from China. 

French priest J L Taberd wrote in 1837:

“The Pracel or Parocels, is a labyrinth of small islands, rocks, and sand-banks, which appears to extend up to the 11th degree of north latitude, in the 107th parallel of longitude from Paris. Some navigators have traversed part of these shoals with a boldness more fortunate than prudent, but others have suffered in the attempt. 

“The Cochin Chinese call them Con uang. Although this kind of archipelago presents nothing but rocks and great depths which promises more inconveniences than advantages, the king Gia Long thought he had increased his dominions by the sorry addition. In 1816, he went with solemnity to plant his flag and take formal possession of these rocks, which it is not likely any body will dispute with him.”

Third, there is a 1905 Chinese map of China that does not show the South China Sea at all, implying that China had no claim to those waters or any islands in that sea.

Fourth, on March 30, 1933, the government of Vietnam, then a French protectorate, placed administration of the Paracel Islands under its province of Thua Thien. The government decree stated that such islands had been under the sovereign authority of Vietnamese for many generations under previous Vietnamese dynasties.

Fifth, on December 21, 1933, the French colonial administration of Cochin China decreed that the Spratly Islands, and the islets named Amboyna Cay, Itu-Aba, and Two Islands Group – Loaito and Thi-tu – would be subordinated to the administration of Baria province. 

Previously on July 26, 1933, the Official Gazette of the French Republic published an opinion of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs relating to the occupation of certain islands by French naval units. On August 24 and September 14, 1933, the governor general of Cochin China annexed the islands and islets of the Spratly or Storm Group.

The Chinese government did not protest these claims by the governments of Vietnam and the Cochin China colony nor did it assert its own rival claim to sovereignty over those islands.

So today, why is the international community in general and the United States, in particular, not formally rejecting China’s claim to “rule” the South China Sea and taking effective steps to enforce the claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia to those waters and the right of free passage through international waters beyond the jurisdiction of any nation?

Should China make good on its pretense that the South China Sea is part of its Lebensraum, it will be able to impose restrictions on and even a blockade of the shipping which sustains the existence of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore, not to mention the wealth earned by countries which trade with those Asian nations by sea.

Source : Asia Times