Lying in the South China Sea between Indochina and the Philippines is a collection of 700 or so small islands, reefs, atolls, shoals, and rocks which are all very scattered about and collectively known as the Spratly Islands (named after the British sea captain Richard Spratly, 1802-1870, who "discovered" them in the early 19th century).[tag]
The Europeans were, of course, not the first to come across this collection of rocks and mini-islands in the ocean. Though uninhabited they had been explored by and integrated into the Chinese Empire for centuries. Many centuries before there was an England, let alone the United States, ancient Chinese maps had depicted these islands.
The Chinese were there on fishing expeditions during the Han Dynasty (Third Century B.C.). They appear on Qing (Manchu) Dynasty maps of the Empire dating from the early 17th Century but they were being regularly visited and mentioned in the literature of the Song, Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties as well.
In the 19th Century China, Indochina, the Philippines, and the areas around the South China Sea were under European control. China was in no position to exert its claims to the islands. At this time the French claimed parts of them (from which the Vietnamese claim ultimately derives) via French Indochina.
Nobody, other than the Chinese, seemed to care about these islands for many centuries but interest in them began to pick up in the second half of the last century. This interest is due to the prospects that undersea oil and gas deposits could be the source of wealth and energy and thus claims on the islands-- or at least some of them -- would allow the possessor to claim the territorial waters associated with the land. So there are now five countries besides China (PRC) who have claims in the Spratly Islands.
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It should be noted that all the fuss over the Spratly islands involves pumping up hydrocarbons that should remain just where they are, as our scientists tell us global warming is out of hand and this additional supply should remain untapped and alternative sources of energy developed. This also applies to the arctic and all major undeveloped areas on both land and in the seas. Nevertheless, short sighted political entities will probably continue to develop these regions without any concern for future consequences.
Who are the other five claimants to the Spratly islands in whole or in part? They are Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. I maintain that China, having the oldest connection with these islands (going back to the times of the Roman Empire in European terms) has the most justified claims and that if it decides to grant rights to others it should favor the claims of the Vietnamese first and foremost.
I will deal with the Vietnamese claims last. First let's deal with Taiwan. Taiwan claims the islands for the same reasons the PRC claims them, since Taiwan, as the Republic of China (ROC), considers itself the successor state to the Chinese Empire. The PRC claims Taiwan is a province of China that will eventually be reunified with the mainland. The PRC claims simply absorb those of Taiwan and we don't have to further consider them.
Brunei has a partially submerged reef within its 200 mile limit (exclusive economic zone [EEZ]). Whether this reef is recognized as an ocean "rock" or an "island" will determine whether Brunei gets to extend its sovereignty over additional areas of the South China Sea. I think the Chinese could easily grant fishing rights to Brunei in areas beyond the 200 mile limit which it claims without having to acknowledge that this reef is an island. Since drilling for oil or gas is detrimental to the entire earth, Brunei's claim should be rejected if that is its intention. I will explain later why it is more likely that China can be convinced not to drill in the Spratly's than other claimants (excepting the Vietnamese).
The Philippines claims began in 1978 when the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos issued a decree that parts of the Spratly islands within his EEZ belonged to the Philippines. He then occupied some islands. If the Chinese claim has historical priority, however, the Philippine action would be invalidated. This claim should be decided in talks between the PRC and the current Philippine government.
Malaysia's claim is based both on the position that some of the islands are in its EEZ and the fact that they were unoccupied after World War II when the Japanese abandoned the Spratly Islands after their defeat. The PRC's claim, of course, predates World War II and the fact that wars, colonialism, civil wars, the presence of hostile Western forces (the US Seventh Fleet) prevented the PRC from exercising its sovereignty until recently does not automatically give other nations the right to claim these islands as abandoned or unowned. Malaysia and the PRC should engage in bilateral discussions to resolve this dispute.
Vietnam (SRV, Socialist Republic of Vietnam) which occupies Spratly Island itself among others, bases its claims on having taken over some islands after the French left Indochina and that the puppet government (US installed Republic of Vietnam) had put boundary markers on some islands, and that the Vietnamese Empire had claimed them as far back as the 1600s. Vietnam also says that the ancient claims made by China actually refer to those made by non-Chinese people who lived in what is today Northern Vietnam (yet this area was a province of China in ancient times.)
The SRV and the PRC have special responsibilities in resolving their disputes regarding the Spratly Islands; responsibilities that go far beyond legalistic arguments and interpretations of an international law system basically drawn up by colonial and imperialist powers to serve their interests.
In the first place, they both claim to be socialist countries and products of the Marxist- Leninist tradition, resulting from the Russian Revolution, regardless of the unique characteristics which the special historical and cultural developments of each nation has contributed to its form of socialist expression.
International working class solidarity is a basic element of their common socialist heritage and the interests of the Chinese and Vietnamese workers should not appear to result in antagonistic contradictions between their governments. Such contradictions are indicative of leaders who are deviating from socialist principles. We have seen the damage such deviations have caused to the international socialist movement in the last century. It behooves the leaders of the PRC and SRV to resolve their contradictions in the spirit of working class solidarity and unity against the machinations of imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism, in the region.
The U.S. involvement is adventuristic and provocative with regard to the PRC's activities in the island chain and on the same level with its provocations against Russia over NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and its attempt, along with the EU, to assert its interests in the Ukraine at the expense of Russian interests and those of millions of Ukrainians who wish to maintain friendly relations with both Russia and the EU. Here the U.S. seeks to drive a wedge between the PRC and its neighbors.
Since neither the PRC nor the SRV, in the interests of planetary survival, should be planning to extract hydrocarbons from the South China Sea, and both need to cooperate in finding alternative sources of energy, they should bilaterally resolve their rival claims in this region in the true spirit of working class internationalism by proportionally sharing in the economic development of the region and having a united policy vis a vis the non socialist governments making claims in this area. They should be united in rejecting U.S. interference and saber rattling in the South China Sea, as U.S. imperialism has a record of destabilizing areas (such as the Middle East and Ukraine) in order to justify military spending at home and a divide and conquer foreign policy abroad.
These reflections have, no doubt, overlooked some significant issues involved in the current problems in the South China Sea but I think they could be subsumed with in the framework of discussion suggested above. In any event, I think these reflections, or something very much like them, will be foundational to a general understanding what is happening in this region.
Thomas Riggins, PhD CUNY, is a retired university lecturer in philosophy and ancient history and the former book review editor for Political Affairs magazine.