China and its Maritime Neighbours

May 24, 2013 by Timothy Beardson

Considerable concern has been expressed about China’s confrontations in the South China Sea and with Japan over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands in the sea between them both. Less has been said about the positioning of 1,000 to 1,500 missiles in China directed at Taiwan. However, in aggregate, these situations damage the image of China’s peaceful development.

When the Japanese state agreed to buy three out of five islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyu group in September 2012 from a Japanese citizen nothing new had transpired. However it was met in China by highly aggressive language suggesting that something devious or hostile had taken place.

These islands have been administered by Japan since 1895, except when under the post-war US administration from 1945-1972. Before 1895 they appear to have been unoccupied. Even if they had been claimed by the Qing dynasty – a Manchu (non-Chinese) dynasty ruling diverse territories which are not all today inside the PRC – the islands could not be said to be owned or administered by China.

At the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the islands appear to have been neither under China’s control or claim. For a century before 1368, China was ruled by the Mongols. Fishermen of different nationalities fished the waters, so there is not much history to China’s claim, which was first made in 1971.

Beijing’s extensive claims in the South China Sea date back formally to the Nationalist government in 1947. No other state registered specific claims to islands and shoals in the area until the late 1960s. Now Vietnam, the Philippines and others are asserting rights. America, India and Japan have all expressed concerns about the security of navigation through this highly-utilised shipping lane.

China’s maritime claims seem to come down to where it once navigated, fished or traded, it can claim sovereignty despite other nationalities having navigated, fished and traded the same waters. The Chinese advantage might be that it wrote earlier and thus has written records of the same voyages that others undertook. It is as meaningless to say Chinese fishermen fished a particular bank in the eighth century as to say Spanish trawlermen fished the Somali fishing banks in the 20th century. Spain doesn’t claim Somalia.

What we do know is that for 40% of the last thousand years of imperial China, it was ruled by non-Chinese invaders who established ruling dynasties. For another third it was ruled by the Song dynasty which paid tribute to non-Chinese neighbours – Jurchen and Tibetan -accepting vassal status to avoid invasion. What this means is that for two-thirds of the last millennium of dynastic China it was not a truly sovereign force and for much of this time it was a lot smaller than when it was ruled by foreigners.

Dai Bingguo, the former top foreign affairs spokesman of China, said in a major foreign policy exposition in 2010 that “starting from the Western Han Dynasty, the Chinese territory, roughly, is what it is today.” The Western Han dynastic map differs whichever version one sees, but it does broadly resemble the PRC today – except that it invariably includes North Korea and excludes chunks of Xinjiang, all of Manchuria and Tibet. Hainan island, Taiwan and the provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian are usually outside.

It is difficult to know what point Dai was trying to make. First, it suggests that not much has changed since the Western Han in the first two centuries BC. Clearly that is wrong as China’s territory has doubled and halved since then. Second, if it suggests the Party is happy with the borders of the Western Han, then it should forget about Taiwan, get used to shedding Tibet and consider absorbing North Korea.

Harsh rhetoric

The language employed by official media such as the Party-owned Global Times is increasingly vituperative about Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Phrases like “core interest”, “non-negotiable”, “teach them a lesson” and “punish them” abound. The situation is not assisted by Japanese Prime Minister Abe also saying that Tokyo’s position is “non-negotiable”.
Much of China’s rhetoric seems to be appeasing a strongly nationalistic domestic vein, fed by subjective school history to create a victimisation-irredentism mentality. In this view China has been ill-treated by foreigners and separatists and demands revenge. However, if it is really solely for the domestic audience why is the English language edition of Global Times so belligerent?

When Beijing gets apoplectic today about claiming territories, it tends to overlook the historical reality that China’s borders have waxed and waned through the centuries – like an accordion. Historically, there is nothing sacred about the frontiers. Blink – and they have changed.

In March Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that on the North Korea nuclear issue six-party talks were a better way to resolve the problem. However, on the maritime disputes with ASEAN members such as the Philippines and Vietnam, China is strongly opposed to a multilateral solution, preferring one-to-one discussions with each of its neighbours, presumably believing that might will prevail.

The Philippines responded to the South China Seas dispute by appealing to the UN to arbitrate. This approach was roundly rejected by Beijing as “complicating” the issue. There is a double irony in the US – which has refused to sign the UN Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) – urging the Philippines to seek arbitration through it and China which has ratified UNCLOS rejecting the Philippines’ application to it.

This is no mere academic debate. China has condemned Japan for arresting scores of Chinese fishermen accused of ramming coast guard vessels around the Senkaku islands. However, China has arrested, held to ransom – and reputedly beaten – some of the hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen it has arrested over at least the last decade for merely fishing in waters they believe to be theirs.

The Chinese air force regularly approaches Japan’s airspace causing Japanese military planes to “scramble”. The number of such incidents has been growing each year. Beijing has not complained of the Japanese air force circling its air space. The Japanese navy says that in March a Chinese frigate off the Senkakus locked its firing radar on a Japanese destroyer and a helicopter, “putting it just seconds away from launching a missile”.


Beijing’s leaders don’t wish to preside over dissolution. China has spent so much time under foreign rule or fragmented that unity is entrenched in the national psychology. Small items easily become symbolic and difficult to withdraw from.

There are serious contradictions in China’s position in its confrontational maritime disputes. Combining this with increasingly peremptory language, hostile actions and a long-term military build-up, it is not surprising that Asia is the world’s largest arms-buying region. Chinese military professor Ni Leixiong has said the arms purchasing is happening “because of fears about China’s rapid military build-up”. Sadly, this is reminiscent of Europe 75 years ago.

There is a history of countries raising foreign issues to distract their citizens from anger over domestic problems. There is also a tendency for ‘limited’ military events rapidly to spiral out of control. No one saw the understandable Austrian chastisement of Serbia for protecting the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the precursor of a global war. The lesson is clear. Countries cannot play with hostile words and actions and assume at all times that they have the power to interrupt the consequences.

If China wants to rebuild the image of a peaceful development – for rebuilding is needed – then I suggest that the laying aside of bellicose language, revision of school textbooks and the initiating of constructive discussions with affected parties, based on historical realities, would be of great value.

Real leadership is about shaping public opinion to create responsible policies which are in the national interest and also internationally cooperative. Beijing’s new leaders will have to decide if they will follow public opinion or seek to shape it.

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