Reprinted from Sputnik
The South China Sea is and will continue to be the ultimate geopolitical flashpoint of the young 21st century -- way ahead of the Middle East or Russia's western borderlands. No less than the future of Asia -- as well as the East-West balance of power -- is at stake.
To understand the Big Picture, we need to go back to 1890 when Alfred Mahan, then president of the US Naval College, wrote the seminal The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Mahan's central thesis is that the US should go global in search of new markets, and protect these new trade routes through a network of naval bases.
That is the embryo of the US Empire of Bases -- which de facto started after the Spanish-American war, over a century ago, when the US graduated to Pacific power status by annexing the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam.
Western -- American and European -- colonialism is strictly responsible for the current, incendiary sovereignty battle in the South China Sea. It's the West that came up with most land borders -- and maritime borders -- of these states.
The roll call is quite impressive. Philippines and Indonesia were divided by Spain and Portugal in 1529. The division between Malaysia and Indonesia is owed to the British and the Dutch in 1842. The border between China and Vietnam was imposed to the Chinese by the French in 1887. The Philippines's borders were concocted by the US and Spain in 1898. The border between Philippines and Malaysia was drawn by the US and the Brits in 1930.
We are talking about borders between different colonial possessions -- and that implies intractable problems from the start, subsequently inherited by post-colonial nations. And to think that it had all started as a loose configuration. The best anthropological studies (Bill Solheim's, for instance) define the semi-nomadic communities who really traveled and traded across the South China Sea from time immemorial as the Nusantao -- an Austronesian compound word for "south island" and "people."The Nusantao were not a defined ethnic group; rather a maritime internet. Over the centuries, they had many key hubs, from the coastline between central Vietnam and Hong Kong to the Mekong Delta. They were not attached to any "state," and the notion of "borders" didn't even exist.
Only by the late 19th century the Westphalian system managed to freeze the South China Sea inside an immovable framework. Which brings us to why China is so sensitive about its borders; because they are directly linked to the "century of humiliation" -- when internal Chinese corruption and weakness allowed Western barbarians to take possession of Chinese land.
Tension in the nine-dash line
The eminent Chinese geographer Bai Meichu was a fierce nationalist who drew his own version of what was called the "Chinese National Humiliation Map." In 1936 he published a map including a "U-shaped line" gobbling up the South China Sea all the way down to James Shoal, which is 1,500 km south of China but only over 100 km off Borneo. Scores of maps copied Meichu's. Most included the Spratly Islands, but not James Shoal.
The crucial fact is that Bai was the man who actually invented the "nine-dash line," promoted by the Chinese government -- then not yet Communist -- as the letter of the law in terms of "historic" Chinese claims over islands in the South China Sea.
Everything stopped when Japan invaded China in 1937. Japan had occupied Taiwan way back in 1895. Now imagine Americans surrendering to the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942. That meant virtually the entire coastline of the South China Sea being controlled by a single empire for the first time in history. The South China Sea had become a Japanese lake.Not for long; only until 1945. The Japanese did occupy Woody Island in the Paracels and Itu Aba (today Taiping) in the Spratlys. After the end of WWII and the US nuclear-bombing Japan, the Philippines became independent in 1946; the Spratlys immediately were declared Filipino territory.
In 1947 the Chinese went on overdrive to recover all the Paracels from colonial power France. In parallel, all the islands in the South China Sea got Chinese names. James Shoal was downgraded from a sandbank into a reef (it's actually underwater; still Beijing sees is as the southernmost point of Chinese territory.)
In December 1947 all the islands were placed under the control of Hainan (itself an island in southern China.) New maps -- based on Meichu's -- followed, but now with Chinese names for the islands (or reefs, or shoals). The key problem is that no one explained the meaning of the dashes (which were originally 11.)
So in June 1947 the Republic of China claimed everything within the line -- while proclaiming itself open to negotiate definitive maritime borders with other nations later on. But, for the moment, no borders; that was the birth of the much-maligned "strategic ambiguity" of the South China Sea that lasts to this day.