The History and Reality of the South China Sea Issue
By H.E. Cong Peiwu, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Canada
10 September 2020
Twenty years ago, when I worked with the Chinese Embassy in Canada for the first time, I was in charge of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) related affairs. As ARF members, China and Canada have maintained close communication on ARF affairs and exchanged views regarding the South China Sea issue on many occasions. At present, there is increasing interest and attention over the South China Sea issue. As such, I would like to take this opportunity to share with the readers of the history and reality of this complex South China Sea issue.
The first topic of discussion is to illustrate the history and legal basis of China’s sovereignty claim over the South China Sea islands.
Chinese activities in the South China Sea date back over 2,000 years. As early as the 2nd century B.C., Chinese sailors explored the South China Sea and discovered what they called Nanhai Zhudao (aka the South China Sea islands). Well documented by both Chinese and foreign historical materials and archaeological digs, there is evidence of ancient crops, wells, houses, temples, tombs, and inscriptions left by Chinese fishermen on some of the islands and reefs of the South China Sea islands. Many foreign documents illustrate clearly that for a lengthy historical duration, only Chinese people lived and worked on these South China Sea islands. Throughout this long process of exploring and developing the South China Sea islands, the Chinese people have gradually increased and improved China’s side rights in the South China Sea. These include historic claims, which have in turn been upheld by successive Chinese governments.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, France and Japan illegally invaded and militarily occupied some of the islands and reefs of China’s Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands. The Chinese people and the Chinese government have remained steadfastly defiant in their defence of China’s sovereignty over these islands and reefs. After World War II, in accordance with the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Proclamation, Japan returned to China the Chinese territories it had occupied, including Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, the Xisha Islands and the Nansha Islands. In 1948, China published a map of China’s administrative regions, clearly marking the nine-dotted line of the South China Sea, which reaffirmed China’s sovereignty claim and related rights over this territory. For a long time after the announcement of the nine-dotted line of the South China Sea, this claim was recognized by the countries bordering the South China Sea and the international community. This recognition, whether explicit or by tacit agreement, aroused no query or objection by any foreign country at the time. After World War II, the nine-dotted line of the South China Sea was the national demarcation line drawn on many official maps produced by the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan among others. Even those neighbouring countries around the South China Sea, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, had maps recognizing that the Nansha Islands were clearly marked as Chinese territory.
On September 4, 1958, the Chinese government issued the Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s Territorial Sea. This proclamation declared that all the territories of the People’s Republic of China including the Dongsha Islands, the Xisha Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, the Nansha Islands and other islands belonging to China. The encyclopedias, textbooks, and maps published in many countries also list the Nansha Islands as China’s territory. In 1998, the Chinese government promulgated and implemented the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf to reaffirm once again China’s historic claim in the South China Sea. The Chinese government also adhered to its territorial position on the nine-dotted line of the South China Sea. On July 12, 2016, the Chinese government issued the Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on China’s Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights and Interests in the South China Sea, reiterating that “China has historic rights in the South China Sea”.
The second point of discussion is regarding the origin of the current South China Sea disputes vis-à-vis China’s policy and position.
Prior to the 1970s, China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea islands had never been challenged by any external forces. The root cause of the disputes over the South China Sea lies in the fact that since that date some countries have invaded and illegally occupied some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands. Since then, with the promulgation and subsequent enforcement of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, disputes over maritime rights and interests such as exclusive economic zones and continental shelves have arisen between China and these countries. On the South China Sea issue, China remains committed to upholding China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and trade interests in the South China Sea. To accomplish this requires; the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea, resolving disputes peacefully through negotiation and consultation, managing differences through rules and mechanisms, safeguarding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, and achieving win-win outcomes through mutually beneficial cooperation. Historically, China has never sought to establish an “empire of the sea” in the South China Sea, but rather they have always treated countries bordering the South China Sea on an equal basis. To date, China has exercised the utmost restraint in safeguarding sovereignty claims, rights and interests in the South China Sea. On November 4, 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea was signed into agreement. This DOC is the first political document regarding the South China Sea issue to be signed by China and ASEAN countries, and it has played an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The China is currently working with ASEAN countries to; fully and effectively implement the DOC, properly handle relevant disputes through dialogue, avoiding actions which would complicate or escalate disputes, and actively striving to reach achieve a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea at the earliest opportunity. As an upgraded version of the DOC, the COC will conform to international law and give due consideration to the legitimate rights and interests of countries outside the region in the South China Sea. This COC will therefore become the institutional cornerstone for building the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.
The third point I wish to address is the fact that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has historically never been an issue.
The South China Sea is currently one of the safest and most open sea routes in the world. In accordance with international law, China always respects and supports the freedom of navigation and overflight currently exercised by all countries in the South China Sea. Approximately fifty percent of the world’s merchant ships and a third of its maritime trade pass through these waters, with more than 100,000 merchant ships sailing across the area each year. Nearly 60% of China’s maritime trade and 85% of its energy imports pass through the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea has never been an issue. Although there have been some disputes over maritime rights and interests between China and other relevant countries, such disputes have never affected the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all countries in the South China Sea. Located on China’s doorstep, the South China Sea is China’s maritime lifeline. China cherishes the peace and stability of the South China Sea more than any other country and attaches even greater importance to keeping the sea routes of the South China Sea safe and unimpeded. At the same time, China firmly opposes any act that undermines the sovereignty and security interests of countries along the South China Sea under the false pretext of enforcing “freedom of navigation”. The U.S. has frequently sent warships and aircraft to the South China Sea to project their martial presence using this “freedom of navigation” excuse to justify their actions. It is reported that U.S. military aircraft have conducted more than 2,000 sorties in the South China Sea during the first half of this year alone. Not long ago, the U.S. flexed its muscles by sending two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. Facts have proven that the actions of the U.S. mentioned above pose a significant threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea. The U.S. has been an aggressive meddler through their continued attempts at the disruption of peace and stability in the region.
The U.S. is not a party in the territorial concerns of the South China Sea issue, nor is the US an adherent to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the US has repeatedly meddled in the South China Sea issue in a vain attempt to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN countries. It is my opinion that this plot will not work.