Is China Only Playing Catch-Up in the South China Sea

Robert Wade and Dic Lo, in a letter published by the Financial Times recently argued that China’s actions in the South China Sea and the Pacific have merely been attempts to catch up and respond to those activities occurring outside its borders.

In their letter, academics Wade and Lo said China has controlled most of the Paracel Islands since 1946; that China’s recent placement of an oil rig near the Paracels was simply an effort to catch up with other countries, whose own oil rigs were placed in the far more contentious Spratly Islands; and that China’s actions are in response to neighbors emboldened by the return of the US to the region.

The Potsdam Declaration, issued by Allied governments called for the surrender of Japan during the Second World War. Following the end of the war, the surrender of Japanese forces in Vietnam was divided along the 16th parallel, with British forces responsible for southern Vietnam and Nationalist Chinese under the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek for northern Vietnam.

Nationalist Chinese forces landed on Woody Island of the Paracels in 1947 and departed in 1950. However, neither the Paracels nor the Spratlys were never considered Chinese sovereign properties. Due to France’s insistence that the islands be considered French territory, the Paracels and Spratlys were left unmentioned in the Potsdam Declaration. Thus, the islands continued to remain properties of Vietnam.

To back up its claim to the Paracels, China recently released a 1958 letter from Pham Van Dong, then the prime minister of Vietnam, to Premier Zhou Enlai of China, saying Vietnam recognized China’s sovereignty over the islands. Vietnam has argued the letter has no validity because it was written under duress, saying on May 23 that “The late PM Dong’s official letter is a diplomatic document, the content of which has validity."

While the letter said Vietnam “respects China’s territorial waters of 12 nautical miles, and does not mention territorial sovereignty as well as the Truong Sa and Hoang Sa issue. Therefore, this letter is not valid in the issue of sovereignty over the two archipelagoes."

It's not useless to remind that PM Pham Van Dong penned this "letter" during the context of the "Cold War" and Vietnam's division (1954-1975). During that time, the two communist neighbors shared extremely close ties and the US Navy threatened them both.

Regardless, given the status of the islands, North Vietnam was not in a position to negotiate control over the Paracels. Following the partition of Vietnam and departure of France, control over the Paracels was transferred to the Republic of Vietnam (or South Vietnam). One cannot bequeath a property over which they have no ownership, thus whatever recognition of Chinese ownership made by Prime Minister Pham Van Dong was groundless and without legal basis.

Furthermore, the authors argue that China has had “effective control” of the Paracels since 1974 but fail to mention that the islands were seized from South Vietnam by force. The South Vietnamese government in Saigon did not recognize Chinese control of the Paracel Islands and maintained this position until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

Second, the authors note that China’s placement of its oil rigs in and around the Paracels is not unlike what Vietnam and the Philippines have done in the Spratlys. Moreover, due to the complex nature of the Spratly Islands dispute involving several countries, they say, China’s decision to place its oil rigs in the Paracels was comparatively restrained, despite a need for China to catch up to those countries around it in the disputed regions.

The notion that China must catch up to its neighbors is not an adequate reason in and of itself. Of course, China should endeavor to continue to raise its quality of life and standard of living to levels comparable to, and someday beyond, neighbors such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea; however, China is not owed any special consideration or privilege because it is a step behind.

If China aims to rise peacefully, it must do so peacefully and respect international law. If China believes a neighbor to be violating international law, it should bring these concerns before an international court. China may of course attempt to resolve any of its disputes bilaterally and outside international courts, but it must do so respectfully and in accordance to the law.

Lastly, the authors state that China’s activities are merely in response to increasingly volatility of the region brought about by the return of the US. With the US in the midst of its strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, some countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines may use the opportunity to antagonize China. Regardless of whether America’s return has emboldened China’s neighbors, China is not helped by adding fuel to the fire.

The authors are correct in stating that the key to de-escalation in Asia-Pacific is the US–China relationship. Productive developments between the two countries are necessary for positive relations between them. However, Beijing must also keep in mind that, regardless of the state of US–China relations, China must also live side-by-side with neighbors who may be smaller and not always share Beijing’s point of view. Still, these countries should be accorded the same level of respect.

If China hopes to become a leader one day, it must seize the moral high ground, which at times may require turning the other cheek. The territorial disputes over the Paracel Islands, to say nothing of the Spratlys, are unlikely to be settled by Vietnam or China in the near future, or to the satisfaction of either party if handled bilaterally. To resolve this dispute, the two countries should submit the legal status of the islands to an international court.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.