Irrational arguments in Xi ’s speech on China’s sovereignty over the Spratlys since “ancient times"

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On September 22nd 2015, prior to his visit to the United States of America, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered written answers to questions from the Wall Street Journal stating that “the Nansha (Spratly) islands have been China’s territory since ancient times”[1].

The sovereignty so-called by Xi is used to justify China’s island reclamation and militarization activities in the reefs and islands illegally occupied by the country in the Spratlys.

How ridiculous and unreasonable it is when Xi said that the Spratlys belong to China since ancient times. It is so irrational since Xi presented no evidence, no basis to justify what he called China’s sovereignty over Spratly islands.

China’s consistent vague position is that it has had historic claims in the South China Sea and its sovereignty over the area was acquired from such various activities as exploration, naming, map-drawing, patrol and control, exercise and administrative management. In a diplomatic note submitted to the Secretary General of the United Nations in May 2009, China announced that the country had the so-called indisputable sovereignty over islands, reefs and adjacent waters, and had sovereign rights over related waters, the seabed and the sediment layers. Therefore, China said it had the right to physical presence, establish military and non-military bases in the area, resulting in a series of other destabilizing operations.

Initially, it sounded logical; however, China’s sovereignty as called by Xi was acquired through invasions so it is groundless in terms of international standards, regulations and practices.

First, the initial discovery by China are invalid. The “ancient times” that Xi stated refer to the time of the Han Dynasty from year 206 B.C. to year 220 A.D., when China believes the discovery was made. China used to present a variety of historical evidences to justify its claims, especially those related to resources exploitation by Chinese fishermen and map drawing activities. However, according to international law standards, the access of Chinese fishermen to Spratly islands was dispersed and spontaneous. Furthermore, Vietnamese and international scholars pointed that China’s ancient documents on this issue were not persuasive and even contained distorted explanations aimed to serve China’s political purposes on Paracel and Spratly archipelagos[2]. In addition, such arguments are not found in official historical documents of China but are only collected from reports on maritime itineraries, maritime researches and books, where Chinese people notice territories belonging to China and also those under other countries’ sovereignty.

In fact, Chinese ancestors arrived in the South China Sea after Vietnamese and other South East Asian ancestors. For instance, the Cham Kingdom (now the central area of Viet Nam) was the leading trader through the South China Sea until it became part of Viet Nam in the 15th century.

Photo: AFP

Second, historical factors are taken into account for a State to claim sovereignty over an area if the State demonstrates effective and continuous exercise of authority in that area without being challenged by other related parties. China failed to prove its claims conform with the mentioned principles. In particular, China’s historic claims do not conform with Articles 10 and 15 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on historic title, including areas that other coastal states have sovereign rights over their Exclusive Economic Zones and continental shelves.

Third, China’s “nine-dashed line” map enclosed in the Diplomatic Note in 2009 is invalid and does not prove China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea as it does not establish title in accordance with international law standards. A map is applicable in international territorial disputes when it meets the following two important requirements: (i) it provides accurate and reliable geographic information; and (ii) it ensures neutrality among related parties. In fact, China’s “nine-dotted line” does not result from an agreement signed by related parties nor created by a third party with credibility, objectiveness and neutrality. The “nine-dashed line” map is not reliable since it fails to provide clear information on China's maritime sovereignty limits (with no identification of the thickness of the dotted line nor any coordinate to define the area inside the dotted line). Lines 2, 3 and 8 are drawn too close to the coastlines of other countries and also exceed 200 nautical miles from China’s coastlines and exceed 12 nautical miles from the features occupied by China.

Fourth, using force to occupy features in the Spratlys does not mean China has ownership over these islands. The Republic of China (now Taiwan) occupied Itu Aba Island in 1946 and 1956, China used force to occupy Johnson South Reef and six other surrounding reefs in 1988, violating Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter which states that: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Therefore, China has no right to conduct any operations in the features it has occupied illegally by force in Spratly islands. Any operations by China in this area are considered illegal: whether they involve island reclamation, increasingly intensive military, para-military or civilian presence to bully other countries, imposing coercion on other claimants; or keeping major powers away in order to expand China’s jurisdiction and control on the ground.

More noticeably, China's actions have caused concerns all over the world. However, the country has insisted on continuing such actions irrespective of the criticism of the international public. China has ignored the opinions of the United Nations Secretary General, G7-leaders (composing of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom), ASEAN, the European Union (EU) and several major powers such as the United States, Japan, India and Australia. At different levels, these nations have released their statements on the South China Sea, raising their serious concerns over “China’s unilateral actions aimed to change the status quo and increase tension in the region” and warning China not to “bully other countries” in the South China Sea.

It is evident that the so-called historic rights and the “nine-dashed line” map claimed by China in the South China Sea are invalid and groundless. Therefore, China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea are not for protection of sovereignty but are invasion. Those actions totally go against what Chinese leaders called “peaceful development”, violate international law and fail to fulfill the hopes of the international community./.

Tung Nguyen

[2] Pham Kim Hung, “Finding out the truth about the history of two archipelagoes in the South China Sea”, Border and Territory Review, No. 12/2012