Examine China's Claim to the Spratly Islands
China claims both the Paracel Islands in the north and the Spratly Islands in the southern sector of the South China Sea.
Its claim to the islands is based on historical usage, its ship captainshaving sailed across the South China Sea 2,000 years ago and having used the Sea as aregular navigational route during the Han dynasty (206-220 A.D.)."
As Chinese voyages increased in frequency and range during the T'ang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), sodid Chinese awareness of the Spratlys.From the 12th through the 17th centuries,
Chinese records made occasional reference to theislands and their "sandy banks,"
including maps displaying elevations. During this period,
Chinaviewed "itself as the centre of a universal state"
which "oversaw a hierarchy of tributarystates. From this perspective, it had no reason to make any formal claim of sovereignty. This uniquely-Chinese view of social organization presents problems for the modem analysis of a"sovereignty" claim. As one commentator has observed:Chinese legal and political thought, reflecting the influence of the Confucian ethic, conceives of thearea over which
a State, or "kuo,"
had sovereignty, not as a function of legal limits, but
as one of social organization, history and the loyalty of subjects.The Emperor ruled men and not space;
the area of rule was defined as points of humanresidence and use
. Thus, the delineation of
the scope of territorial sovereignty wasexpressed in terms of zones of influence rather than by definite linear boundaries.
Sorting out the merits of China's historic links to the Spratlys in relation to Vietnam's historic links tothe islets is particularly challenging
because China asserted dominance over Vietnam duringthis period as well.China's presence in the Spratly area is more consistently documented from the 19thcentury onward
Tombstones and household utensils from Emperor Tongzhi's reign of 1862-75
have been found on the islands.
Traders from Hainan exchanged rice and other necessities for trepang and tortoise shellswith fishers visiting the islands.
In 1876, the first formal act of a sovereignty claim was made, when China's ambassador toEngland claimed the Paracel Islands as Chinese territory, and, in 1883, a German surveyteam on the Spratly Islands was expelled by the Chinese.
An 1887 boundary treaty between France and China
allocated all the islands east of 108 degrees, 43 minutes east of Greenwich (or 105 degrees 43 minutes east of Paris) to China
(which would cover all the Spratlys if the line were extended indefinitely tothe south), but this basis for China's claim is weak because the treaty does not name anyislands and
France later argued that this line covered only the northern part of theSouth China Sea.
China itself, in fact, rejects the view that the line can be takenliterally, because it would give Vietnam more area in the Gulf of Tonkin thanChina is prepared to concede.
In 1907, China sent a senior military team to survey the South China Sea Islands.
In 1917, a Japanese company began exploiting some of the guano deposits on the Spratlyislets. Then, in the early 1930s
, France made a formal claim to seven of the "larger"Spratly features, and to some extent exercised actual physical control of theSpratlys.
By the late 1930s, Japan had established a strong presence there, using Itu Aba as asubmarine basing area to intercept shipping through the region.
In 1945, at the end of World War II, Japan left the area and in Article 2 of the Treaty of Peacesigned in 1951, Japan renounced all "right, title and claim to ... the Spratly Islands. Chinacites this statement as proof of the legitimacy of its historic claim to the islets,
eventhough the treaty does not assign the islands to any specific country.
China was militarily weak during this period and preoccupied with its own domestic turmoil,and thus did not have the capacity to patrol and protect the Spratlys vigilantly. It has,however, been relatively consistent in protesting the claims made by other nations,including in recent years the claims of the Philippines, SouthVietnam, reunited Vietnam, andMalaysia.