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Proletarian issue 73 (August 2016)
US imperialism’s military aggression is the major factor behind South China Sea disputes
Hague Tribunal hands out decisions beyond its jurisdiction.
The South China Sea is a long way from the United States, but the latter is claiming that its domination is necessary there in order to protect vital US interests and ‘freedom of navigation’.

However, as was pointed out in the July 2015 issue of Lalkar: “In the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the east European people’s democracies, and the defeat of Iraq in the first Gulf War, the US proclaimed more brazenly than ever that its goal was nothing short of unrivalled global hegemony.

“A Pentagon report leaked to the New York Times in March 1992 asserted that ‘America’s political and military mission in the post-cold-war era will be to insure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in western Europe, Asia or the territory of the former Soviet Union ... The classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behaviour (sic) and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy.’ (US strategy plan calls for insuring no rivals develop, by Patrick E Tyler, 8 March 1992)”

As a decadent imperialist power, the US can only prolong its anachronistic existence by extending its economic and military domination to every corner of the globe in order to squeeze out every ounce of profit for the benefit of a handful of billionaires at the expense of the overwhelming majority of the people of the world. The latter, naturally and quite rightly, must put up resistance.

Context: imperialism and the drive to war

Since shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strongest countries resisting US expansionism have become China and Russia. Many decades of socialist construction enabled both countries to establish strong and independent industrial, scientific and military foundations, on the basis of which the encroachments of western imperialism can be effectively resisted. Russia may have abandoned socialism, but its socialist legacy is still a boon.

However, to US, Japanese and European imperialism, resistance to their domination is an unacceptable and outrageous obstacle to their desperate need for economic expansion – a need that is inexorably propelling them to war. Unlike their unceasing wars against weaker nations – Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc – which are almost entirely contained within the areas under attack (although even there victory for imperialism is elusive), war waged against Russia and/or China would inevitably involve the imperialist countries themselves as theatres of war. London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York could easily find themselves the targets of the kind of bombing that western imperialism thinks nothing of inflicting on others.

Despite this, imperialist desperation is such that it is being driven to war regardless, for which purpose it is making frantic preparations. This can be demonstrated by the enormous increase in ‘defence’ (read ‘offence’) spending, as well as by the ever more adventurous ‘war games’ being carried out by the imperialists. These practice runs include the Anaconda exercises conducted recently in eastern Europe with the intention of intimidating Russia, and the largest-ever provocative military exercises this spring around the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), simulating a nuclear attack on that country, which are also intended as an intimidation of China.

The drive to war also explains the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) in south Korea, whose purpose cannot possibly be defence – since China does not have ambitions to take over the United States – but, on the contrary, is to facilitate US military attacks on China by blocking the effects of any Chinese retaliation.

As the Lalkar article cited above pointed out, the US has openly boasted of its aggressive military build-up in the South China Sea. Its spokesman, US defence secretary Ashton Carter, announced that the defence department would “deepen longstanding alliances and partnerships, diversify America’s force posture, and make new investments in key capabilities and platforms”.

He continued: ”The department is investing in the technologies that are most relevant to this complex security environment, such as new unmanned systems for the air and sea, a new long-range bomber, and other technologies like the electromagnetic rail-gun, lasers, and new systems for space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones.”

Carter emphasised that the US would “bring the best platforms and people forward to the Asia-Pacific”. These include ”the latest Virginia-class [nuclear] submarines, the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, the newest stealth destroyer, the Zumwalt, and brand-new carrier-based E-2D Hawkeye early-warning-and-control aircraft”.

Having outlined this dangerous military build-up, Carter went on, apparently without a trace of irony, to declare that the US opposed “any further militarisation of disputed features” in the South China Sea – a reference to two small mobile artillery guns that the US claims China has placed on one of the islets.

The present disputes

It is against this background that the various disputes over ownership and control of a few largely uninhabited islands and rocks needs to be viewed. At bottom, China and the US are vying for control of a waterway that lies off the Chinese coast, many thousands of miles from the nearest US landfall.

Nevertheless, China has held these islands as a part of its national territory for centuries. “Successive Chinese governments have marked Nanhai Zhudao [the Chinese island territories in the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal] as Chinese territory on official maps, such as the 1755 Tian Xia Zong Yu Tu (General Map of Geography of the All-under-heaven) of the Huang Qing Ge Zhi Sheng Fen Tu (Map of the Provinces Directly under the Imperial Qing Authority), the 1767 Da Qing Wan Nian Yi Tong Tian Xia Tu (Map of the Eternally Unified All-under-heaven of the Great Qing Empire), the 1810 Da Qing Wan Nian Yi Tong Di Li Quan Tu (Map of the Eternally Unified Great Qing Empire) and the 1817 Da Qing Yi Tong Tian Xia Quan Tu (Map of the Unified All-under-heaven of the Great Qing Empire).

“Historical facts show that the Chinese people have all along taken Nanhai Zhudao and relevant waters as a ground for living and production, where they have engaged in exploration and exploitation activities in various forms. The successive Chinese governments have exercised jurisdiction over Nanhai Zhudao in a continuous, peaceful and effective manner. In the course of history, China has established sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao and relevant rights and interests in the South China Sea. The Chinese people have long been the master of Nanhai Zhudao.

“China has always been resolute in upholding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.” (Full text: China adheres to the position of settling through negotiation the relevant disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Xinhua, 13 July 2016)

In fact, it was not until the 20th-century imperialist incursions that China’s rights were seriously disturbed.

Of course, geographical distance makes it impossible for US imperialism to argue with any credibility that it has any maritime rights – or any rights at all except those enjoyed for peaceful purposes by all countries over the high seas. So it acts through proxies – economically and militarily weak countries such as the Philippines, to whom it offers its ‘protection’ in true mafia boss style.

Since the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of various countries in the region overlap, this has given rise to disputes from time to time between China and some of its neighbours over ownership of maritime rights, and it is these contradictions that US imperialism has eagerly – especially since Obama announced its ‘pivot to Asia’ policy in January 2013 – sought to exploit in order to further its own interests.

However, the Chinese position has always been to enter into negotiations with any neighbouring country with which disputes arise with a view to finding solutions advantageous to all parties – a policy that has worked very well in the past (indeed, China has successfully and amicably resolved its disputes with regard to land borders with nearly all its neighbours), and is only now being undermined by US imperialist interference.

Interests in the South China Sea are not purely military, although strategic interests are of course of prime importance. Fishing rights and the rights to the minerals and hydrocarbon resources lying below the sea bed are extremely valuable, and all the various countries – not least the US – want to have their ‘fair share’, which in the case of the US is undoubtedly the lion’s share. “The 4m sq km sea is crossed by ships carrying $5tn worth of cargo every year and also has large energy reserves, including an estimated 11bn barrels of oil and 190tn cubic feet of natural gas.” (Tribunal rules against Beijing in South China Sea dispute by Tom Mitchell and Geoff Dyer, Financial Times, 13 July 2016)

The map above shows the area, and also what is called the ‘nine-dash line’, which China claims represents the frontier of its territorial waters. This nine-dash line made its first appearance in maps published by the Chinese Republic in 1947 – ie, two years before the founding of the People’s Republic of China – and it represented what was generally agreed at the time to represent China’s historic rights. This included sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal. These rights had been violated by imperialist powers, especially Japanese imperialism, but that violation came to an end with the defeat of Japan in the second world war, and therefore China reclaimed all that had been hers before the Japanese incursions.

At the time, China had the full support of the United States in reclaiming its sovereignty of the islands, as was explained by Professor Dai Bingguo, honorary president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University and previously the state councillor in overall charge of China’s foreign policy at a conference recently jointly organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace of the United States and Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University.

“Historical materials of China and many western countries corroborate the fact that it was the Chinese people who were the first to discover, name, develop and administer the islands in the South China Sea, and that the Chinese government was the first to peacefully and effectively exercise continuous sovereign jurisdiction on South China Sea islands. During the second world war, Japan illegally invaded and occupied China’s South China Sea islands, which were restored to China after the war. Pursuant to the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation, which were cornerstones of the post-war international order, Japan shall return the stolen Chinese territory to China. Following the end of the war, China restored [recovered] Taiwan, Penghu Islands [presently administered by Taiwan], Xisha [Paracel] Islands and Nansha [Spratly] Islands illegally occupied by Japan.

“Many of you were probably not aware of this, but China’s actions to restore [recover] the islands were supported by General Douglas McArthur. China’s military and government personnel were ferried by US-provided military vessels to Xisha and Nansha Islands to hold the restoration ceremony. After that, the US filed applications to Chinese authorities on Taiwan to conduct geodetic survey in some of the Nansha Islands on many occasions.

“All this shows that the return of the Nansha Islands to China is part of the post-war international order and relevant territorial arrangements.” (Speech by Professor Dai, Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, 5 July 2016)

None of this was seriously disputed until the 1970s. But, in 1968, “a survey conducted by an affiliate of the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) indicated rich oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. Starting from the 1970s, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia began to occupy China’s Nansha islands and reefs, of which twenty-nine were occupied by Vietnam, eight by the Philippines and five by Malaysia.” (Uphold peace and prosperity in South China Sea by His Excellency Mr Huang Huaguang, Chinese embassy in Tonga, 5 May 2016)

These countries’ excuse for violating Chinese sovereignty was that the islands were within 200 miles of their coastline and therefore part of their ‘exclusive economic zone’. However, this argument is totally absurd, since any ‘exclusive economic zone’ necessarily ends where another state’s sovereign territory begins. Were that not the case, Britain could claim the right to occupy Holland and large parts of France, for example, since they are within 200 miles of the British coastline! What you have is overlapping economic zones, not the economic zones of one party wiping out the sovereign rights of another.

While it is true that some of these islands are closer to the coastline of the Philippines or Vietnam than they are to the Chinese mainland, that does not mean they cannot be part of China – one only has to think of the Channel Islands, which, while close to France, belong to Britain, or the various Greek islands that are much closer to Turkey than they are to the Greek mainland.

Professor Dai continued:

“For a long time, the South China Sea had remained trouble free and calm. But, since the 1970s, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have illegally occupied 42 islands and reefs in China’s Nansha Islands by force, which gave rise to disputes over territory in these islands and reefs. Over several decades, the Philippines and Vietnam carried out large-scale construction and deployed armaments on them and continued to take provocative actions at sea … The world can see that on the South China Sea issue, China is by no means a wrongdoer or trouble maker, but rather a victim.

“According to international law, China has every right to self-preservation and self-defence. It possesses the ability to recover the above-mentioned islands and reefs. However, in the interest of regional peace and stability, China has all along exercised enormous restraint, and sought peaceful settlement through negotiations. In recent years, China has taken actions only as a compelled response at a minimal level to unbridled encroachments by certain countries on China’s rights and interests. Stand in China’s shoes for a moment: if it was the US who was challenged with such provocation, it would have long since resorted to force to recover the illegally occupied islands and reefs.”

As it is, US imperialism was able to take advantage of the scramble of the various far-eastern countries to establish rights to oil at each other’s and China’s expense. So long as these contradictions exist, US imperialism is able to take advantage of them. China, however, has countered US imperialism’s troublemaking in a very intelligent manner, persuading the various countries that they will be far better off settling differences by negotiation and agreeing solutions that are to the advantage of all parties.

US imperialism, however, has been encouraging the Philippines to claim the whole of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal, and Vietnam to claim the Paracel Islands. Japan is also being encouraged by US imperialism to assert its illegal claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea – again, mainly for the purpose of helping US imperialism dominate navigation in the area for its own predatory and hegemonic purposes. The excuse is that only in this way can freedom of navigation over these seas be guaranteed – but China has never interfered with the free navigation of vessels in the maritime areas over which it claims sovereignty, or the right of overflight.

What is really at issue is quite different:

“By playing up the issue of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, the US is actually pursuing its hidden agenda. First, by alleging that its massive military presence in the South China Sea is essential for freedom of navigation and overflight, the US attempts to take all the credit. Second, by portraying China’s growing military strength as a major threat to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, the US assigns its own motive to China and dishes up another version of the ‘China threat theory’.

“Third, by playing countries in the region off against each other, the US creates an excuse to meddle in the South China Sea and bolster its global strategy and maritime hegemony. The US’s statements and actions concerning freedom of navigation reveal its own political and military calculations in the South China Sea. Politically, the US wants to create and hype up tensions in the South China Sea. Militarily, it looks for legal grounds for close-in reconnaissance activities off the coasts of relevant countries.” (China's stance in upholding peace in South China Sea, Chinese embassy in Tanzania, 25 May 2016)

China no doubt would like to interfere with the ‘right’ US imperialism claims to flood the area with its military warships in order to prevent it or any other hostile power from using the waterways as a base from which to attack China. And this is in fact precisely the ‘right’ that US imperialism is claiming for itself. US imperialism is known sometimes to deploy some 70 percent of its naval force in the Asia Pacific.

Jude Woodward of the New Cold War website pointed out on 19 July: “In 2010, the US declared that the South China Sea was within its sphere of ’national interest’ as a prelude to stepping up its military presence. US navy surveillance intensified; US air sorties for close reconnaissance increased from about 260 in 2009 to over 1,200 in 2014; more than 100 US planes have been stopping over each month at Clark, the former US airbase in the Philippines.

“In 2003, there were six visits by US warships to Malaysian ports; in 2012, there were over 50. More recently, US navy ships have sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese installations. US warships and planes have also made frequent so-called ‘innocent passage’ transits through China’s territorial waters and airspace. Japan has threatened it will also send warships to ‘defend freedom of navigation’ in the sea.

“In 2012, Manila agreed the US could return to its old Subic Bay naval base from which it had been kicked out in 1992. Australia agreed to a new US Marine base in Darwin, within striking distance of the South China Sea.” (The US, UNCLOS and the militarisation of the South China Sea)

Anybody can see that this situation is an unacceptable provocation. If China has not risen to it, it is because China does not want war – but the US clearly is doing all it can to position itself to crush China and any country allied to it when the war it is provoking finally breaks out.

The UNCLOS arbitration

Since the 1970s, the various governments of the Philippines have allowed themselves to be used as puppets of imperialism seeking to militarise the South China Sea as a means of encircling China. They have illegally occupied some of the Chinese islands and then set out to build military facilities on the Spratly Islands.

“In the 1990s, the Philippines continued to build airfields and naval and air force facilities on these illegally-occupied islands and reefs; centred on Zhongye Dao, the construction has extended to other islands and reefs, with runways, military barracks, docks and other facilities built and renovated, so as to accommodate heavy transport planes, fighter jets and more and larger vessels. Furthermore, the Philippines made deliberate provocations by frequently sending its military vessels and aircraft to intrude into [other Chinese islands], and destroyed survey markers set up by China…”

Moreover, “The Philippines has repeatedly intruded into relevant waters of China’s Nansha Qundao, harassing and attacking Chinese fishermen and fishing boats conducting routine fishing operations. Currently available statistics show that from 1989 to 2015, 97 incidents occurred in which the Philippines infringed upon the safety, life and property of Chinese fishermen: eight involving shooting, 34 assault and robbery, 40 capture and detention, and 15 chasing. These incidents brought adverse consequences to close to 200 Chinese fishing vessels and over 1,000 Chinese fishermen. In addition, the Philippines treated Chinese fishermen in a violent, cruel and inhumane manner.” (White paper: China adheres to the position of settling through negotiation the relevant disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, Chinese state council information office, 13 July 2016)

In 2013, although it was treaty bound to pursue negotiations in the case of disputes over rights in the South China Sea, the Philippines instead decided to pursue its illegal claim to Spratly Islands by taking a case to an arbitration that would be effectively run by imperialism under the provisions for dispute resolution contained in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Naturally, this move was very much to the liking of US imperialism in its ambition to reduce Chinese influence in the region.

There were, however, major obstacles to referring this matter to UNCLOS arbitration. In fact, the arbitration tribunal has no jurisdiction under the convention to determine any issue of sovereignty. It has no power to determine that China does not have sovereignty over the various islands that are disputed. In the case of the Philippines, its territory was clearly defined in treaties made between Spain and the United States – namely, the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the Treaty of Washington in 1900, and also the Anglo-American Treaty of 1930.

As clearly defined by treaty, the territory of the Philippines does not include any of the islands that the Philippines is now illegally occupying and claiming. So what the arbitration tribunal has craftily done, in the decision it has just published, with the typical weasel words of the bourgeois lawyer defending predatory ‘rights’, is to decide that the islands are territories over which under international law nobody can have full sovereignty, which is just another way of determining that China does not have sovereignty.

And, because the islands are within the ‘exclusive economic zone’ of the Philippines, even though the Philippines can obviously not have sovereignty over them either, nevertheless China has no right to try to develop the islands or to block Philippine vessels trying to prevent it from doing so. Moreover, only the Philippines and not China has fishing rights in the area. The Philippines, however, even though it doesn’t have, and can’t have, sovereignty, is free to develop the islands in any way it pleases!

China has made it quite plain that it does not accept the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS tribunal in this matter and considers its findings null and void. The Philippines had signed a treaty with China agreeing to deal with any maritime disputes by bilateral negotiations, and, that being the case, UNCLOS specifically states that matters cannot be referred to its determination unless and until all negotiations have failed. The Philippines has never entered into any negotiations on this issue and therefore UNCLOS can have no conceivable jurisdiction, regardless of the question of sovereignty.

Finally, UNCLOS makes no provision for any sanction on any party that is in breach of any arbitration determination, so no party, least of all the United States (which is not even an UNCLOS signatory), has any legal right to try to use that determination to impose any kind of sanction on China.

To the extent that the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal (arbitrary tribunal might be a better name in the light of its decision in this case) arrogates to itself the right to apply international law to the dispute brought before it by the Philippines, the law is as follows:

“If the tribunal says a particular land feature is a low tide elevation [ie, if it is covered by the sea at high tide], no country may claim sovereignty over it unless that land feature is itself within that country’s territorial sea. If the tribunal says that the land mass is an ‘island’ or ‘rock’, that has several consequences:

“(a) Countries may claim islands and rocks as sovereign territory (although the tribunal itself will not decide which country has sovereignty);

“(b) If the land feature is deemed an island, the country having sovereignty over that island also has rights to a 12 mile territorial sea and a 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and a continental shelf.

“(c) If the land feature is deemed a rock rather than an island, the country with sovereignty gets only a 12 mile territorial sea, not an EEZ or a continental shelf.” (The limits of law in the South China Sea by Paul Gerwitz, The Brookings Institution: Centre for East Asia Policy Studies)

To prevent China from building on various parts of the Spratly Islands, the tribunal, though it had no jurisdiction to say China had no sovereignty over any island or rock, could – and did – designate an island as a mere rock, which brought into play a provision of UNCLOS prohibiting any country from building within another country’s EEZ (unless it was also its own). ‘Rocks’ give no rights to an EEZ, so China’s building would be declared illegal.

One particular island, Taiping (also known as Itu Aba), which is administered by Taiwan, covers 110 acres, has been continuously inhabited by Chinese people for at least 60 years, and currently has a population of about 200 people. Yet, contrary to all common sense, the tribunal has declared it to be a mere rock in order to give the Philippines exclusive EEZ rights and deny China’s claims! This has incensed not only the People’s Republic of China but also the Taiwan authorities.

What the arbitration tribunal’s decision does is to give US imperialism an excuse to intervene militarily to ‘defend’ any country it can cajole into exercising the ‘rights’ that the tribunal has declared it has. The countries concerned may, however, find that the ‘rights’ in question are not worth defending at the cost of a regional war – particularly as China continues to be very accommodating to their economic interests.

Despite the bad behaviour of its neighbours, China has not tried to eject them forcefully from the areas that they have illegally occupied. It is well aware that US imperialism is doing its utmost to exacerbate the contradictions between them and has been careful to assist its neighbours, for instance by facilitating their oil exploration. While making it absolutely clear that in no way will it accept the illegal ruling of the arbitration tribunal, China has also emphasised that it is still willing to engage in bilateral negotiations.

The new President of the Philippines, Duterte, shows every sign of being willing to negotiate, unlike his predecessor Aquino who was a complete US puppet. Duterte in the meantime is getting a bad press in western imperialist countries for wiping out drug dealers with little regard for their human rights.

It should be noted that the bourgeois press in this country is doing its utmost to rally public opinion in favour of the US warmongers. Charles Clover of the Financial Times wrote recently: “Beijing has been working behind the scenes to blunt Tuesday’s precedent-setting rejection of its claims in the South China Sea by a tribunal based in The Hague, offering economic inducements if the Philippines would ‘set aside’ the decision.

“The strategy is a time-tested one for China – using its economic might to cajole, threaten and outright buy cooperation from its neighbours on internationally recognised territorial claims. It underlines the difficulty for Washington in convincing countries in the region to present a united front to Beijing.”

But for “the US and other key allies” to “put maximum pressure on the Duterte administration to release a strong statement and call for compliance [with the arbitration tribunal’s findings]” – ie, to use their “economic might to cajole, threaten and outright buy cooperation” – well that’s quite all right, of course! (Beijing to focus on blunting impact of South China Sea ruling, 12 July 2016)

For our part, we are firmly on the side of China in these disputes. It is only China’s control of the South China Sea that can guarantee the maintenance of peace and of navigation rights for all commercial shipping, as it has been doing hitherto, even in the face of severe provocation. It is only through cooperation with China that the various neighbouring countries can fully exert their own independence from imperialism and maximise their economic wellbeing.

US imperialism has no business to be in the area at all. Its continued presence can only lead, sooner or later, to world war.
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