World / Asia-Pacific

South China Sea: How we got to this stage

By Fu Ying and Wu Shicun (Xinhua) Updated: 2016-07-06 17:33

Imperial Japan’s Occupation of the Nansha Islands and Post-war Arrangements

The South China Sea is the largest marginal sea in the West Pacific region, covering an area of 3.5 million km2. It is located south of mainland China and the island of Taiwan, west of the Philippines, north of Kalimantan and Sumatra, and east of the Malay and Indo-China peninsulas. It connects the Pacific through the Bashi and Balintang channels in the northeast, and the Mindoro and Balabac straits in the southeast; joins the Java Sea through the Karimata and Gaspar straits, and is linked with the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca in the southwest. Rich in fisheries resources and oil and gas reserves, the sea plays an important role in the economic development of the coastal countries.

China has sovereignty over four archipelagos in the South China Sea, namely, the Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha and Dongsha Islands, which are indicated by the dash lines on the map drawn in 1947. The Nansha Islands (or the Spratly Islands; coordinates: 3°40'-11°55' N; 109°33'-117°50' E) comprise over 230 islands, islets, sandbanks, rocks and shoals that are scattered along a 1,000 kilometer span from the southeast to the northwest of the Sea. This area in question was initially discovered and named by China as the Nansha Islands, over which China was the first to exercise sovereignty and that exercise has been ongoing. Before the 1930s, there was no dispute over China’s ownership of them, as reflected in many maps and encyclopedias published around the world.

Beginning in the 20th century, western colonial powers, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France, followed by Asia’s emerging power Japan, kept coveting the Nansha Islands as they colonized Southeast Asia and invaded China. Most of their territorial ambitions ended in failure due to strong resistance from China’s Late Qing government, the succeeding Nationalist government and the general public. Japan was the first to have seized some of the islands in the South China Sea, including the Nansha Islands. In 1939, Japan occupied part of the Nansha Islands in an effort to control Southeast Asia and in preparations for an invasion of Australia.

The Cairo Declaration of November 1943, signed by the heads of the governments of China, the United States and the United Kingdom, proclaimed that “…Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.” The Potsdam Declaration of July 26, 1945 also stipulated in its eighth article that “the Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and such minor islands as we determine, as had been announced in the Cairo Declaration in 1943.”

In December 1946, a year after the defeat of Japan, the Nationalist government of China sent warships to occupy Taiping Island (Itu Aba Island) and Zhongye Island (Thitu Island) and set up a base on Taiping Island. In 1947, the Ministry of the Interior of China’s Nationalist government renamed a total of 159 islands, islets and sandbanks, including those of the Nansha Islands, historically under China’s jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the Nationalist government officially published a chart of its territorial waters that China had owned in the South China Sea demarcated by an eleven-dash line. For a long time afterwards, the US made no objections whatsoever. Given it being a long-term ally of Taiwan and its heavy presence in postwar Asia, the US had every reason to be aware of the existence of the chart. Obviously, China’s position was recognized and acknowledged.

In the face of the division of both sides of the Taiwan Straits, the outbreak of the Cold War and tensions between the two Camps, the US opted for a pragmatic attitude toward the ownership of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. This pragmatism was reflected in the Peace Treaty of San Francisco between Japan and some of the Allied Powers. Signed on September 8, 1951 and entering into force on April 28, 1952, the document served to end the Allied post-war occupation of Japan and establish Japan's role in the international arena. It officially renounced Japan's rights to the land it occupied including “renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands”. Its Article 2(6) provided that "Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands (the Nansha Islands) and to the Paracel Islands (the Xisha Islands)", but did not specify the ownership of these islands.

However, as the biggest victims of the Japanese militarism and one of the four major victors in WWII, the PRC was not invited to the treaty talks held in San Francisco. In reaction to that, on 15th August, the Chinese government issued the Declaration on the Draft Peace Treaty with Japan by the US and the UK and on the San Francisco Conference by the then Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, affirming China's sovereignty over the archipelagos in the South China Sea, including the Nansha Islands, and protesting about the absence of any provisions in the draft on who shall take over the South China Sea islands following Japan's renouncement of all rights, title and claim to them. It reiterated that "the Chinese government of the day had taken over those islands" and that the PRC's rightful sovereignty "shall remain intact".

In its effort to reconcile the relations between Japan and the Taiwan authorities for better US strategic deployment in the APAC region, the United States presided over the signing of the Treaty of Peace between Japan and the Republic of China in 1952. Article 2 of the document provided that "It is recognized that under Article 2 of the Treaty of Peace which Japan signed at the city of San Francisco on 8 September 1951 (hereinafter referred to as the San Francisco Treaty), Japan has renounced all right, title, and claim to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) as well as the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands." Indeed, the United States and Japan deemed the Taiwan authorities as China’s legitimate government to take over China’s rightful territories in the South China Sea forcibly seized by Japan.

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