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With Due Respect

Knowing what drives China in SCS

In any litigation or controversy, one must know what drives the adversary, what impels it (him/her) to act unfairly or unjustly. Specifically, why is China so aggressive in owning almost the entire South China Sea (SCS) and even the East China Sea (ECS)?

To begin with, China avows a long and glorious history that rivals Egypt and its pharaohs, and Greece and its Olympic gods. From the mid-1800s up to the mid-1900, however, China experienced a harrowing decay that forced her to accept shameful, one-sided treaties and the cruel treatment of its nationals. To the traditional Chinese, losing face is worse than losing life.

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During World War II, the Japanese invaded and occupied the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. In 1945, after the war, in accordance with the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations, the Kuomintang-led China, which was allied with the victors, accepted the surrender of the Japanese garrisons in Taiwan and in the SCS.

In 1950, Mao Zedong’s hordes drove the Kuomintang army out of the Chinese mainland into Taiwan and took over the Paracels and Spratlys. In appreciation of Chinese assistance during the Vietnam War, North Vietnam relinquished its claims to the Paracels and the Spratlys. South Vietnam differed, insisting that France ceded sovereignty over them in its favor.

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In 1974, China expelled the South Vietnamese from Shanhu Island, enabling it to control most of the Paracels. However, after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the united Vietnam turned around and adopted the South’s claim of sovereignty over all the maritime features in the SCS. As of now, most if not all the features in the SCS are occupied or garrisoned: about 29 by Vietnam, 11 by the Philippines, seven by China, six by Malaysia, two by Taiwan, and one by Brunei.

Our claim in the SCS is buttressed by the Arbitral Award that, in turn, is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, this covers only sovereign rights on and above the maritime domain, not sovereignty or ownership on and above the land features and their territorial seas. In contrast, China, Vietnam, etc. anchor theirs on history, discovery, occupation, control, and/or cession via treaties (like the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations) over the sea, air, and land domains.

During the last 30 years, China has become the second largest economy in the world (soon, the largest). It boasts of the biggest standing military on earth with a nuclear arsenal. It has propelled astronauts to the moon and built its own space station. Its science and technology titans often outbid and outstrip their Western peers.

Nonetheless, despite its might, China is constricted. It is surrounded by unfriendly and hostile neighbors: Russia on its north; former Soviet republics on its west; India and Vietnam on its south; and Japan, South Korea, and its renegade “province” of Taiwan (all three have defense agreements with the US) on its east. About its only dependable neighbors are North Korea, Cambodia, and Mongolia.

In contrast, the US has friendly neighbors (Canada on the north, Mexico on the south) and two vast oceans (the Atlantic on the east and the Pacific on the west) as its defense buffers. Moreover, unlike China, it unquestionably controls the Caribbean Sea.

In short, though already a superpower, China cannot expand its horizons except through the ECS and the SCS. To boost its economy, it needs to control the sea lanes in the SCS. And to enhance its security, it sees the SCS as its first line of defense against US military adventurism. And offensively, the SCS serves as the passageway to the Pacific and Indian Oceans for its nuclear submarines.

A serious worry of China is the US pivot to the Indo-Pacific, abetted by the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 clearly defining US foreign policy targeting China. Recently, the US has forged the “Quad” with Australia, Japan, and India to confront Chinese ambitions.

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Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was formed to counter the military threat of Russia, had been convinced a few days ago by US President Joe Biden to turn its gaze to the Far East and to issue a communique that China presents “systemic challenges.”

Throughout its storied history, China has taught its 1.3 billion people that their forefathers handed down the SCS as their cherished inheritance. Their leaders who fail to occupy and protect it cannot stay long in power. They will surely be purged, dethroned, and banished for treason and disloyalty.

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TAGS: Artemio V. Panganiban, Maritime Dispute, South China Sea, Unclos, With Due Respect
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