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Defining a Territorial Sea:

China’s South China Sea Policy in the 1950s

and its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea
Outline of a Research Proposal

Ian Lamont
January 26, 2004

Harvard DCE/SSCI E-100B

Graduate Research Methods and Scholarly Writing in Social Sciences:
History and Government
Professors Joe and Doug Bond
“Painted on the walls of Yunghsing’s houses are huge inscriptions: ‘The islands
are our homes! Build up the Sishas!’ Every evening I would sit with groups
eagerly listening to the radio which brought news of the Great Leap Forward in
industrial and agricultural development all over our country, from the tropical
south to the cold northwest. The ocean-girt Sishas live the same life, are part of the
same great effort.”
Cheng Wen-kuang1

“Mao frankly admitted that he—not Chiang Kai-shek—triggered the crisis over
Quemoy and Matsu. ‘A few shots’ he modestly called his adventure. It was not that
he wanted a real war. ‘I just did not expect,’ he confessed, ‘that it would kick up
such a storm.’”
Ross Terrill2

I. Introduction

Thirty years ago this month a watershed event occurred in the South China Sea: For the
first time since its revolutionary beginnings, The People’s Republic of China (hereafter
China, or the PRC) used military force to seize disputed territory in the region from a

While the use of force was a new tactic, China’s claim to the area was not. In fact, almost
since its inception in 1949, the PRC had vocally and regularly declared to the world that it
viewed numerous islets and reefs in the South China Sea and surrounding waters to be its
sovereign territory. The claims culminated in the September 1958 “Declaration on the
Territorial Sea” which is now a crucial part of China’s argument.

My general research question asks, “What are the issues that contributed to China’s
South China Sea policies in the 1950s?” There are several specific questions that I would
like to address as well, chief among them identifying the factors that led to the 1958

At first glance, debates over China’s actions in the 1950s may seem to be of interest
mainly to scholars of Marxist dogma or historians studying the development of Chinese

Wen-kuang Cheng, “Life Comes To China’s Tropic Isles,” China Reconstructs ([North American ed.]
Beijing, China: China Reconstructs, March 1959) p. 34
Ross Terrill, Mao: A Biography (New York: Harper and Row, 1980) p. 280
The location of the battle was the Paracels Archipelago, a group of 15 islets and reefs located roughly
400 kilometers east of Da Nang in Vietnam and 350 kilometers south of China’s Hainan island. South
Vietnamese troops were driven from several outposts in the Paracels group — with a heavy loss of life
— by Chinese forces following a surprise attack on January 19 and 20,

society under Communist rule. However, this particular study also has great relevance to
current geopolitical situation in East and Southeast Asia, and throws some light onto why
this area has become so important to the nations that have overlapping territorial claims in
the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has enormous strategic value, more so now than 50 years ago. This
has much to do with the rise of a world economy dependent upon oil, and the race to find,
exploit, and deliver oil to markets all over the world. The South China Sea has become a
linchpin in this international competition. Major shipping routes (including the most
direct route from the oil fields of the Middle East to Japan) pass through it, and oil has
been found in several locations in the South China Sea.4

China’s need to develop new petroleum resources cannot be understated. Simply put, if
China wants to maintain a high level of economic growth, the exploitation of new energy
sources will be crucial.5

When did China determine force would be necessary to safeguard South China Sea oil
resources? While the answer to this question is beyond the scope of my research, there is
evidence suggesting a connection between oil resources and China’s first military strike in
the South China Sea three decades ago. China’s forceful eviction of South Vietnamese
forces from the Paracels in 1974 came not long after the government in Saigon awarded oil
contracts to North American firms to drill in the Spratlys.6 The Vietnamese government
also says that another battle with Chinese forces in the Spratlys in 1988 (which resulted
in Vietnamese forces partially withdrawing from the area) were centered around
Vietnamese-held islands that had the “most potential for oil and gas” compared to islands
held by other nations.7

As for the decade under study, oil was not a factor in the competing South China Sea
claims. In Asia, offshore oilrigs were operating in Dutch Indonesia as early as 1957, but
the relatively high cost of offshore-produced oil and technological limitations relating to
exploration and exploitation meant that oilmen didn’t start poking around the Paracels and
Spratlys until the late 1960s.8 For China in the 1950s, the South China Sea territorial
claims (inherited from the hated Nationalist government it had only recently driven to
Taiwan) were important for several economic, military, and political reasons, including
shipping, fishing, guano deposits (used for fertilizer), its rivalry with Taiwan, its desire to
limit the influence of the United States in the region, and as a domestic propaganda tool.

Catley and Keliat describe some of these oil discoveries, as well as suspected deposits, in the
Spratlys in the South China Sea. Bob Catley and Makmur Keliat, Spratlys: The Dispute in the South
China Sea (Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 1997) pp. 45-48, 50.
Catley and Keliat, pp. 49-51
Oil did flow in limited quantities from several plots. Marwyn S. Samuels, Contest for the South China
Sea (New York: Methuen, 1982), p. 99
Catley and Keliat, p. 46
Samuels, p. 155

In the following pages, I will discuss several aspects of my general research question,
starting with a brief review of the pertinent literature (section II), followed by a
discussion of the gaps in existing research (section III). In section IV, I will operationalize
relevant terms, participants, place names, and concepts. In section V, I will describe my
specific research question, concerning the 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea, and the
variables that potentially influenced its drafting and release. Lastly, in section VI, I will
delve into the methodology I intend to use to measure these variables. While the 1958
declaration may now seem irrelevant, in the light of subsequent military, geopolitical,
economic and legal developments, the document is still an important element in China’s
current strategy to advance its claims in the South China Sea and assert its control over
this important region.

II. Literature Summary/Research Overview

The literature that directly addresses China’s policies in the South China Sea 1950s is
sparse. Samuels (1982) has done a thorough job of examining China’s historical claims to
the area, and suggests Beijing’s declarations of territorial ownership in the late 1950s were
tied to the Taiwan Strait crisis and possibly Vietnamese deployments in the area
following the departure of the French colonial government from Vietnam. However, he
does not offer evidence to support these assertions.

Additional clues that may help explain what made Beijing act in the way it did can be
found in the literature on other variables that influenced China at the time. I have
identified the following broad variables as likely factors that influenced China’s South
China Sea policies from 1950-1959:

I. The PRC’s foreign policy: ideological factors; objectives and rivalry regarding
Taiwan; the influence of Mao Zedong and other high-ranking CCP officials;
conflicts with Vietnam (and the French colonial administration); the relationship
with Moscow and the USSR’s aims; conflict with the United States.
II. Domestic issues.
III. Military capabilities.
IV. The development of international treaties and laws concerning territory in South
China Sea.

There is a large amount of literature covering these broad variables and some (but not all)
subsets of these variables. I will describe those studies which I believe have particular
relevance to my research question.

Bong (2002) provides a general overview of international relations theories in the context
of disputed East Asian territories. He looks at three groups of policy behavior models in
territorial disputes: ideational, realist, and domestic. Ideational is divided into three
subsets: “historical animosity stemming from the Japanese imperialist past”; a skepticism

toward international law owing to the poor treatment of Asian countries by Western
powers in colonial times; and a traditional worldview in which China is and always has
been at the center. The realist view of territorial disputes reflects military-strategic goals
to secure sovereign territory. The domestic view has two subsets: one which measures
foreign policy behavior against the level of democracy in a state; and the other which
looks at the domestic platforms of political leaders and certain personality characteristics.

Huth (1996) expands upon the domestic view in his examination of how territorial
disputes develop. He suggests that the factors in making territorial policy are leaders’
attempts to enhance domestic legitimacy and public support for the regime, as a way to
appeal to nationalist sentiment.

I believe that Communist ideology played an important role in China’s South China Sea
policy in the 1950s. Some research has been undertaken in this area: Armstrong (1977)
suggests that Communist ideology strongly influenced Chinese foreign policy in the
1960s. His thesis: building a “united front” would not only defeat China’s enemies, but
encourage the other members of the front to shift leftward. Guillermaz (1976) gives a
structured, chronological approach to the early history of the People’s Republic of China,
paying close attention to the nitty-gritty bureaucratic and political details of party
ideology and doctrine; defense; foreign policy; domestic policy; economics and
population; and culture and other general issues.

On the other hand, Gurtov and Hwang (1980) discount the influence of Communist
ideology on foreign policy in the 1950s. Instead, the authors attempt to make a
connection between China’s reactions to external threats at times of domestic political
weakness. For instance, they believe China’s involvement in the Korean War was
prompted by what it perceived to be an urgent external threat and the domestic need to
mobilize production following the Chinese Civil War. As for the Taiwan Strait crisis later
in the decade, the authors dismiss the possibility that it was military adventurism
prompted by domestic instability, and instead suggest Beijing overestimated the
combined threat of the U.S./Taiwan alliance.

Beyond foreign policy and domestic issues, one broad influence that I believe had a
significant impact on China’s South China Sea policies in the 1950s concerns China’s
military capabilities. Deficiencies of the People’s Liberation Army can help explain why
the leadership in Beijing was unable to back up their strongly worded territorial claims
with force. Shambaugh’s (2003) history of the PLA describes important developments in
the Chinese military in the 1950s, including information relating to PLA leadership,
organization and budgets. He makes some interesting correlations between defense
spending and external issues (the Korean War and flare-ups in the Taiwan Strait) as well
as internal issues, such as the Great Leap Forward. He also examines significant military
restructuring that took place in the mid- to late-1950s.

Another broad variable that relates to China’s South China Sea policy are Beijing’s use of
international treaties and maritime law to further its territorial claims. In September 1958,
Beijing issued a “Declaration on the Territorial Sea” which would form the basis for all
subsequent claims over the islands of the South China Sea. Samuels (1982) notes that
according to the claim, if the straight baseline method were used to calculate 12-mile
territorial limits around the islands and reefs, and contiguous areas in between, it would
“effectively enclose the entire core of the South China Sea within China’s territorial sea.”9

Samuels also delves into China’s participation in the Third United Nations Conference on
the Law of the Sea in the 1970s (shortly after the People’s Republic of China joined the
United Nations) and its relevance to China’s goals of strengthening its southern frontier,
projecting its power in the region, and limiting the power of neighbors and the two
superpowers. While this conference took place in a time period after the period under
study, I suspect that China many years before then planned its readmittance to
international organizations and plotted its strategies with its South China Sea territorial
claims in mind. After all, China’s 1958 declaration appeared just five months after the
UN’s Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone was drafted in

In summary, my research question can draw upon research in several broad areas. There is
a great deal of literature on international relations, foreign policy, and related influences,
including several studies that focus on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South China
Sea. Several researchers have also explored Communist ideology and its influence on
foreign policy. Domestic issues and their impact on foreign policy are also covered, as are
military issues specific to the PRC. Lastly, the role of international treaties, international
organizations, and maritime law vis-à-vis China and the South China Sea have been
adequately explored.

III. Gaps in the Research

Despite the existence of the aforementioned research, there are three crucial areas relating
to my research question that are either not addressed or only partially explained by the
available literature. They are the military and ideological rivalries between the Nationalists
on Taiwan and the Communists in mainland China; China’s attitudes toward South
Vietnam — which inherited territorial claims in the Paracels from the French colonial
government — versus attitudes toward its ideological allies in Communist North Vietnam;
and the sharp shift domestically toward a more radical Communist ideology in the late
1950s, and its effect on cadres who had responsibility for deciding and implementing
foreign policies as well as strategies opposing Taiwan.
Samuels, p. 87
The convention did not come into effect until September 1964 (China was not a signatory) and was
later superceded by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Convention on the
Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, 1958” United Nations website. Available at

I should note that these gaps are apparent in English-language studies. There may well be
a great deal of research on these subjects in Chinese, Vietnamese, and perhaps French. I
plan to examine some foreign-language research, keeping in mind that scholars in China,
Vietnam, and (until the early 1990s) Taiwan have not been free to publish research which
might undermine their own government’s stance on sensitive territorial claims. Indeed,
Catley and Keliat (1997) note it is not unusual for scholars to “endorse their respective
governments’ positions” on territorial claims in the Spratlys while criticizing other
claimants’ reasoning.11 Furthermore, they note that overseas Chinese are apt to support
Chinese claims, despite other reservations they may have about the government in

Fortunately, primary sources and other sources of information may counter some of the
shortcomings in the scholarly literature. For instance, China and Taiwan went to great
lengths in the 1950s to legitimize to their own populations and the world via state media
outlets and official government statements the merits of their respective political systems
and the ideological failings of the other side. It may be easy to dismiss such statements as
shrill propaganda, exaggerated bragging, and ranting put-downs, typical of the Cold War
mentality of the time, yet I think it is possible to glean from such sources not only a
sense of the intense rivalry and mutual hatred between China and Taiwan but also the
specific issues that divided the two sides.

As for the PRC/Taiwan military rivalry, which manifested itself throughout the decade in
small and large battles along the coast of central and southern China, there are several
potential primary sources to examine. For instance, the Western press was on hand for
the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis (but reported on the battle from Taiwan, which could have
created bias in the coverage). Furthermore, I am quite certain military appraisals of the
1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis were produced by the PLA, Taiwan’s military, and the U.S.
military. Military archives in China may be difficult to access (but not impossible, as
evidenced by Shambaugh’s work). Taiwan’s military archives may be more accessible,
but the language barrier and inconvenience of flying to Taiwan to view them is a deterrent.
That leaves American appraisals of the situation, which, judging by the huge military
presence in East Asia at the time, must have been extensive. I am counting having access
to these American archives — even if they are still classified, it may be possible to file an
application under the Freedom of Information Act to view them.

Primary sources relating to the three-way relationship between China, South Vietnam,
and North Vietnam in the late 1950s (after France’s withdrawal) could present a problem.
Samuels (1982) noted that state media outlets and government officials in Beijing and
Saigon expressed official views regarding their conflicting South China Sea territorial
claims, but North Vietnam’s stance on the issue at this point in time is unclear. North
Catley and Keliat, p. 17
Catley and Keliat, p. 17

Vietnam did not occupy any of the islands in the South China Sea, and it certainly would
have been awkward for Hanoi to lay claim to territory that its ideological ally and
powerful neighbor (the PRC) said in no uncertain terms was Chinese territory.

Lastly, primary sources on the shift toward radicalism in Chinese political circles and
society in the late 1950s — and its affect on foreign and South China Sea policies — may
be the most difficult gap to fill in. The late 50s was a terrible period in modern Chinese
history. In 1956, the “Hundred Flowers” campaign13 resulted in the purge of hundreds of
thousands of intellectuals and party members critical of Mao and his policies. Two years
later, Mao’s call for renewed struggle resulted in the “Great Leap Forward,” a disastrous
three-year plan to rapidly create an industrial economy in the Chinese countryside.

Some of the literature describing this era — such as Terrill’s biography of Mao Zedong
(1980) and Han’s biography of Zhou Enlai (1994) — rely on official speeches by both
men, and a few details of visits to foreign capitals, summaries of participation in
conferences, etc. This concentration on public statements in this period glosses over the
tremendous shift taking place in China at the time, and the huge impact it had on domestic
policy, foreign policy, and government personnel responsible for implementing policy.14
It was in 1958 — not long after the start of the Great Leap Forward — that three
significant events related to China’s foreign policy occurred: the stepping down of the
moderate Zhou Enlai from the PRC Foreign Ministry; the August 1958 assault on
Taiwan-held Jinmen; and the formal release of the PRC’s Declaration on the Territorial
Sea. The documents I would be most interested in seeing are the minutes of Foreign
Ministry meetings following the departure of Zhou, and the early drafts of the 1958
declaration. I assume they exist, but are almost certainly classified.

IV. Operationalization

1951 San Francisco Peace Conference: This gathering brought together fifty two states to
clarify the legal issues relating to Japan’s surrender in 1945, including territorial claims.
This conference was also an early Cold War diplomatic sparring ground between
Communist and non-Communist states.

1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis: The military confrontation initiated by the PLA against
Nationalist-held Jinmen off the coast of Fujian province in August 1958.

Baseline concept: This concept, used to determine the maritime boundary of coastal
country, has evolved over the decades. As of 1958, it was based on the “archipelagic
principle.” Samuels describes the original concept thusly: “Using straight baselines to
Named after Mao Zedong’s call to let 100 flowers bloom. Originally intended to encourage intellectual
discussion and discourse over the China’s direction, it turned into a purge after criticism was directed at
the Chinese Communist Party and government policies.
Neither Terrill nor Han Suyin (Zhou’s biographer) spend much time discussing Chen Yi, Zhou’s
successor as Foreign Minister in 1958.

connect the outermost points of the outermost islands, rocks and reefs of an archipelago,
a special regime would be established equivalent to the territorial regime of continental
states. The waters within the archipelagic regime, sometimes extending hundreds of miles
to sea, would constitute ‘internal waters’ much like lakes or rivers of any continental
state, and the territorial sea of the new regime would extend outwards from the straight

Bohai Sea: An large bay of the Yellow Sea bounded by Shandong province, coastal Hebei
province, and Liaoning province in Manchuria.

Chen Yi: PRC Foreign Minister from 1958 to 1966. Spelled Chen I according to an older
Romanization system.

China: The People’s Republic of China (PRC). This definition includes mainland China,
the island of Hainan, and several smaller coastal islands controlled by the PRC
government and military. This definition does not include territories claimed by the PRC
but not occupied by its government or military, such as Taiwan, islands off the coast of
China occupied by Taiwan’s military, and islands in the South China Sea.

Chinese Civil War: The military and political conflict that took place from the 1920s and
the late 1940s in China between the Communist and Nationalist parties. The former
defeated the latter on the mainland and Hainan island, but the Nationalists were able to
survive by withdrawing to Taiwan. Military confrontations between the two sides
persisted in and around the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s and 1960s.

Chinese Communist Party: (CCP) The political party that has controlled China and its
government administration from the end of 1949.

China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea: In the early 1950s, China stated claim to
the Paracels and Spratlys groups, Pratas Island, and Macclesfield Bank. In the 1958
declaration, the territory was specified according to the straight baseline method at the 12-
mile limit from the islands in these groups. All national maps published in China
thereafter have represented this territory as an extended lasso stretching from Guangdong

Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone: An international agreement
negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations from February to April 1958, and
entered into international law in 1964. The convention describes rules and codes of
conduct for calculating, declaring, and managing maritime territory.

Samuels, p. 125

Declaration on the Territorial Sea: A document released by the PRC on September 4,
1958 formally titled “Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China
on the Territorial Sea.” The declaration described what China viewed as its maritime
territory around mainland China, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and warned foreign
aircraft, military vessels, and the United States not to intrude in these areas. See section V
for the English translation.

Great Leap Forward: A CCP campaign from 1958-1961 to rapidly industrialize China via
massive public works projects and creation of small factories in the countryside. The shift
of resources away from agriculture caused widespread famine — estimates range between
20 and 30 million deaths between 1958 and 1962.

Jiang Jieshi: The Mandarin name of Chiang Kai-shek. Also known as Jiang Zhongzheng.
A leading military man and Nationalist politician who was China’s leader from the late
1920s until he, his army, and government were driven to Taiwan by Communist forces in
the late 40s. From 1945 (the year Japan was defeated in World War II) until his death in
1975 he ruled Taiwan.

Jinmen: Also known as Kinmen, or Quemoy. A small, heavily fortified island group off
the coast of Fujian province (opposite the port of Xiamen) controlled by the Taiwan

Mao Zedong: The Chairman of the CCP and China’s leader from 1949 until his death in
1976. Also known as Chairman Mao. Spelled Mao Tse-t’ung according to an older
Romanization system.

Mazu: Also known as Matsu. A small, heavily fortified island group off the coast of
Fujian province controlled by the Taiwan government. Mazu is located north of Jinmen.

Nationalists: The Nationalist Party of China, also known as the Republicans. In Chinese,
Guomindang (GMD) or Kuomintang (KMT). From the teens until 1949 the Nationalists
dominated China; after 1945 (the year Japan was defeated), the Nationalists dominated
Taiwan until democratic reforms in the late 1980s.

North Vietnam: The Communist state (located north of the 17th parallel) created by the
division of Vietnam in 1954.

Paracels Group: An archipelago roughly 400 kilometers east of central Vietnam and about
350 km. southeast of China’s Hainan island. There are no native inhabitants of these
islands, although some have been occupied by the military forces of Vietnam, China,
France, and Japan in the 20th century. Known as the Xisha, Sisha, or Hsisha islands in

People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China: (PLA) This is the formal
name of China’s military, including ground forces as well as air and naval units.

Pescadores: A Taiwan-controlled archipelago located in the middle of the Taiwan Strait.

Known as Penghu in Mandarin.

Pratas Island: An island in the South China Sea, located about 350 kilometers southeast of
Hong Kong. Known as Dongsha or Tungsha in Mandarin.

South China Sea: A subarea of the western Pacific Ocean which is bounded by the Malay
peninsula to the west, Borneo to the south, the Philippines to the east, and China’s
southeast coast and Taiwan to the north and northeast. This area includes numerous
island groups including the Spratlys, Paracels, Macclesfield Bank, Pratas island. The
Pescadores, Jinmen and Mazu in the Taiwan Strait are not included in this definition.

South Vietnam: The non-Communist state (located south of the 17th parallel) created by
the division of Vietnam in 1954.

Spratlys Group: An archipelago midway between Vietnam and the Philippines. The
military forces of Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, France, Japan, and the Philippines
have intermittently occupied some of the islands in the group since the 1930s. Known as
the Nansha islands in Mandarin.

Taiwan: A large, semitropical island located off the southeastern coast of mainland China.
Taiwan has remained independent of Chinese Communist control. The government of
Taiwan (which, until the late 1980s, was controlled solely by the Nationalist political
party) also has administrative and military control of the Pescadores in the Taiwan Strait
and the Jinmen and Mazu island groups off the coast of the PRC’s Fujian province.
Taiwan is considered the northern boundary of the South China Sea.

United States: The nation commonly known as the U.S. or America.

Vietnam: The territory comprising North and South Vietnam created by the withdrawal of
the French colonial government in the mid-1950s.

Zhou Enlai: Premier of the PRC from 1949-1976 and Foreign Minister from 1949 to
1958. Also a senior figure in the CCP. Spelled Chou Enlai according to an older
Romanization system.

V. Specific Research Question

Among the broad set of influences and developments concerning China’s South China Sea
policies in the 1950s, there is a narrow set of questions that I would like to explore in
more detail. They concern the PRC’s Declaration on the Territorial Sea:



(Approved by the 100th Session of the Standing Committee of the National

People’s Congress on 4th September, 1958)

The People’s Republic of China hereby announces:

(1) This width of the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China is twelve
national miles. This provision applies to all Territories of the People’s Republic of
China, including the mainland China and offshore islands, Taiwan (separated from
the mainland and offshore islands by high seas) and its surrounding islands, the
Penghu Archipelago, the Dongsha Islands, the Xisha islands, the Zhongsha Islands,
the Nansha Islands and other islands belonging to China.

(2) The straight lines linking each basic point at the mainland’s coasts and offshore
outlying islands are regarded as base lines of the territorial sea of the mainland
China and offshore islands. The waters extending twelve nautical miles away from
the base lines are China’s territorial sea. The waters inside the base lines, including
Bohai Bay and Giongzhou Strait, are China’s inland sea. The islands inside the
base lines, including Dongyin Island, Gaodeng Island, Mazu Inland, Baiquan
Island, Niaoqin Island, Big and Small Jinmen Islands, Dadam Island, Erdan Island
and Dongding Island, are China’s inland sea islands.

(3) Without the permit of the government of the People’s Republic of China, all
foreign aircrafts and military vessels shall not be allowed to enter China’s territorial
sea and the sky above the territorial sea.

Any foreign vessel sailing in China’s territorial sea must comply with the relevant
orders of the government of the People’s Republic of China.

(4) The above provisions (2) and (3) also apply to Taiwan and its surrounding
islands, the Penghu Islands, the Dongsha Islands, the Xisha Islands, the Zhongsha
Islands, the Nansha Islands and other islands belonging to China.

Taiwan and Penghu are still occupied with force by the USA. This is an illegality
violating the People’s Republic of China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Taiwan and Penghu are waiting for recapture. The People’s Republic of China has
rights to take all appropriate measures to recapture these places in due course. It is
China’s internal affairs which should not be interfered by any foreign country.16

A few assumptions can be made about this document. One, even if it was drafted by
China’s Foreign Ministry, it had the stamp of approval of the Chinese Communist Party
leadership and the National People’s Congress. Two, it directly links the South China Sea
claims with the Taiwan dispute. Three, even though it ostensibly addresses “internal
affairs” (i.e., the dispute with Taiwan and maintaining China’s own territorial integrity) it
also puts forward foreign and military policy goals, accusing the U.S. of occupying

“Declaration Of The Government Of The People’s Republic Of China On The Territorial Sea” Hong
Kong Constitutional Law Sourcebook. Available at

Taiwan and the Pescadores and warning foreign military forces not to intrude upon
China’s maritime territory and airspace.

My specific research question is as follows:

“What are the factors that contributed to the drafting and release of the PRC’s 1958
Declaration on the Territorial Sea?”

In terms of exploring the development of this declaration, it would be ideal to examine all
of the variables which played a part in its drafting. However, it may only be practical to
examine a few of them. Of the four broad categories listed in section II of this proposal, I
would opt to put aside domestic and military issues, and concentrate on foreign policy
issues and international treaties and their individual and collective influence on the
development of the 1958 declaration. The specific variables I would like to analyze are:

i. China’s South China Sea territorial claims

ii. China’s initiation of the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis
iii. U.S. political and military support for Taiwan during the 1958 Taiwan Strait
iv. China’s (a) short-term goals and (b) long-term goals vis-à-vis U.S. policy in East
v. China’s (a) short-term goals and (b) long-term goals vis-à-vis U.S. policy in
Southeast Asia
vi. The trilateral relationship between China, North Vietnam and South Vietnam vis-
à-vis their respective territorial claims in the South China Sea
vii. The UN Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone

VI. Methodology

a. The Direct Approach

One way to measure these variables’ respective influence would be to ask individual
questions about related theories, events, and players from this period. The questions
might include the following:

Aside from reaffirming China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, was the 1958
declaration related to the PRC assault on the Taiwan-held island of Jinmen in the
previous month?

If yes, was the declaration intended to distract US and Taiwan strategists, keep them
guessing about the PLA’s next moves, or induce them to deploy forces away from the
south China coast, to the South China Sea?

If no, why did the 1958 declaration mention Taiwan and the U.S. occupation, and
presence of foreign military aircraft and vessels?

Did the 1958 declaration immediately create problems for U.S. military strategists and
policymakers regarding
a) Taiwan
b) Wider U.S. military, political, and economic goals in East Asia; and
c) Wider U.S. military, political, and economic goals in Southeast Asia?

If yes, what were they? If no, why not?

What short-term effects did China hope the declaration would have on
a) Taiwan
b) The United States
c) South Vietnam
d) Other individual states
e) The U.N.
f) Worldwide opinion?

Were these hopes realized (i.e., did a-f react in the way China hoped?)

What long-term effects did China hope the declaration would have on
a) Taiwan
b) The United States
c) South Vietnam
d) Other individual states
e) The U.N.
f) Worldwide opinion?

Were these hopes realized (i.e., did a-f react in the way China hoped?)

Note that the above questions collectively form a potential starting point. However, for
each one, individual answers would likely lead to more questions, and some answers could
influence the way other questions are constructed. I have therefore concluded that this
approach, while direct, is too complex. There are simply too many questions and
possibilities to consider, and the paths of logic indicated by the answers would rapidly
extend in multiple directions. The design of such a study, and an analysis of the results,
would prove problematic.

b. The Counterfactual Approach

Another way of examining these questions would be to employ counterfactuals.
Applying “what if” scenarios according to the idiographic method described by Tetlock
and Belkin (1996) would be an effective way of isolating and testing variables.

In brief, idiographic case study counterfactuals focus on conceivable causes that, if

removed or altered, could cause a different outcome in the situation under study. To see
how this works, take the following hypothetical counterfactual:

“Would Bob Dole have been elected president if Ross Perot had not participated in the
1996 election?”

Far from being an idle exercise by barstool analysts, asking this type of question allows
us to remove an important variable that affected the results of the election and focus on
other major variables, such as the platforms of the remaining candidates, their
performance in the debates, voting patterns of regional, demographic, and political
constituencies, etc. This question also meets Tetlock and Belkin’s standards for creating
(or judging) counterfactuals:

1. Well-specified antecedents and consequents

2. Cotenability
3. Consistency with historical fact (also known as the “minimal rewrite rule”)
4. Consistency with historical theory
5. Consistency with well-established statistical generalizations
6. Projectability17

For my specific research question, using a similar counterfactual approach — combined

with the direct method of questioning described earlier — would enable me to measure the
influence of variables i-vii, thereby revealing a lot about this relatively obscure chapter of
the Cold War.

Where would be a good place to start with counterfactuals? The text of the PRC’s 1958
declaration holds the answer. In the document, there are clear references to the United
State’s support of Taiwan, and the incursion of foreign military aircraft and naval vessels
into what China defines as its maritime territory. I believe these references must be
analyzed in the context of the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which had started just one
month before the declaration was released. The Taiwan Strait Crisis involved at least three
of the variables described above (ii; iii; and iv) and possibly two others (i, if the South
China Sea elements of the declaration were intended as some sort of military distraction or
flanking maneuver; and v, if one considers the United States’ goals relating to the South
China Sea as also relating to U.S. goals in Southeast Asia). What if the crisis were
subtracted from history, via a counterfactual question? That question could be:
Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin, Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical,
Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) p. 3

A) “If the PRC didn’t attack Jinmen in August of 1958, would it have issued the
Declaration on the Territorial Sea in September of 1958?”

Counterfactual question A removes the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis from consideration, but
has two limitations. First, in terms of addressing the influence of the crisis, it does not
discern the individual influences of variables ii and iii. Since U.S. support of Taiwan
during the crisis (iii) was a dependent variable of the PRC’s initiation of the crisis (ii), the
influence of iii can removed while leaving ii intact, but not vice versa. Therefore, a
modified version of A, aimed at removing the influence of iii, can be phrased as follows:

A [modified] “If the U.S. did not provide support to Taiwan during the 1958 Taiwan
Strait Crisis, would the PRC have issued the Declaration of the Territorial Sea in
September of 1958?”

A second limitation relating to counterfactual question A is it does not adequately isolate i

(China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea). The 1958 declaration defines a great
deal of maritime territory, from the Spratly islands in the south, to Taiwan and the
Pescadores off the south-central coast of mainland China, to the Bohai Sea in the north.
Therefore, a counterfactual that removes not only the Taiwan Strait Crisis, but also the
PRC’s maritime claims outside of the South China Sea, might throw some additional light
onto the variables that contributed to the 1958 declaration. That counterfactual question
could be phrased as follows:

B) “If the PRC hadn’t attacked Jinmen in August of 1958, would the PRC government
have felt it necessary to issue some kind of public declaration explaining its South
China Sea territorial claims?”

To answer this question would not only require examination of China’s earlier claims
regarding the South China Sea (such as those made during the San Francisco Peace
Conference seven years earlier) but also previously unarticulated aspects of the South
China Sea claims. The South China Sea claims expressed in the 1958 declaration were not
much different than those expressed by the PRC in 1951, with a few notable exceptions:
The 1958 declaration included references to baselines and a 12-mile limit. These details
were new to China’s claim, and their presence in the declaration is no coincidence. Just
five months before the Declaration on the Territorial Sea was released, in April of 1958,
the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, a United Nations
agreement that addressed maritime territorial claims, was drafted in Geneva.18 China did
not participate in the conference, and was not a signatory when it entered into force in
1964. However, the timing of the release of China’s declaration, the similar language in the
titles of both documents, and the references in the earlier document to the twelve-mile
This agreement was superceded by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
United Nations website.

baseline limit on maritime territorial claims19 indicates that the UN convention not only
served as a partial template for China’s 1958 declaration, but also enabled China to
formally and precisely identify its maritime territorial claims according to international
standards. The convention’s extension of national maritime territory to 12 miles from the
previous maritime standard of three miles would have been regarded by officials in Beijing
as a boon to China, effectively adding thousands of square miles of coastal seas to its
national territory. Furthermore, China’s interpretation of the limit according to the
baseline concept enabled China to claim large swathes of ocean beyond the 12 mile limit,
but lying between the mainland and remote islands, such as those in the South China

At this point, it would be necessary to compare the two documents, to precisely identify
what concepts and language the PRC borrowed from the UN convention. Afterwards, an
appropriate counterfactual question could be posed, to confirm and analyze the influence
of the UN document:

C) “Had the UN not discussed or released a draft version of the Convention on the
Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone in April of 1958, would China have released
the Declaration on the Territorial Sea in September of 1958, or felt it necessary to
issue some kind of public declaration explaining its South China Sea territorial

While this question would help isolate the influence of the UN convention, it doesn’t
address the influence of the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Therefore, it would be necessary
to refine this counterfactual question as follows:

C [modified]. “Had the UN not discussed or released a draft version of the

Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone in April of 1958, and
China had not attacked Jinmen in the summer of 1958, would China have released the
Declaration on the Territorial Sea in September of 1958 or felt it necessary to issue
some kind of public declaration explaining its South China Sea territorial claims?”

In terms the variables described in section V relating to U.S. goals in Southeast Asia and
the trilateral relationship involving China, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, a fair deal
of direct questioning and research may be more effective at determining their influence on
the PRC’s 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea. The reason for this is the complexity
of the competing territorial claims of China, Taiwan, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam;

Samuels provides an interesting summary of the introduction of the straight baseline concept as it
relates to archipelagic territory at the 1958 convention in Geneva, and how the concept could be used
to determine a state’s “internal waters.” Even though the concept was rejected at the insistence of the
U.S. and USSR (which were against concepts that might restrict their navies passing through straits and
other maritime territories), archipelagic countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia have
implemented this concept into their own definitions of their national territory. Samuels, pp. 125-126.
Samuels, p. 120

the unknown aspects of China’s attitude and goals regarding North and South Vietnam;
and the complexity of U.S. goals in Southeast Asia, involving its growing military and
political influence in the region, and its desire to contain Communist expansion.

My strategy for measuring these influences would be to first ask a series of preliminary
direct questions, aimed at eliciting information necessary to answer the broader questions
relating to variables v and vi:

1. What were the United States’ goals in Southeast Asia as of 1958, specifically in

2. What did China believe the United States’ goals were in Southeast Asia at this time;
specifically in Vietnam?

3. How did China believe the 1958 declaration would affect U.S. naval and air
operations in
a. The South China Sea
b. Vietnam

4. How did South Vietnam’s and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea
overlap, as of September 1958?

5. As of September 1958, how did China believe South Vietnam’s control of contested
South China Sea territory would impact China’s economic and military goals?

6. As of September 1958, what were North Vietnam’s territorial claims in the South
China Sea?

7. As of September 1958, how did North Vietnam’s territorial claims overlap with
China’s, it at all?

8. If there was overlap, how did North Vietnam and China, as ideological allies,
resolve these differences?

Once these preliminary questions are answered, I could then proceed to determine the
influence of variables v and vi using more direct questions:

D) In the short term, did China believe the declaration would force the U.S. to deploy
forces to the South China Sea, to either

i. Protect Taiwan forces based in the South China Sea

ii. Ward off a flank attack by the PRC against Taiwan from the South China

iii. Prevent PLA units from seizing and occupying (and therefore controlling)
South China Sea territory

E) If the answer to Di, Dii, or Diii is yes, did China believe a U.S. deployment in the
South China Sea would result in a reduced commitment to helping Taiwan during the
1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis (therefore resulting in a Taiwan withdrawal from Jinmen,
or some other outcome benefiting the PRC) because

i. The U.S. military would be forced to move resources from Jinmen and/or
Taiwan to the South China Sea
ii. The cost of maintaining military forces in the Taiwan Strait and the South
China Sea would be too great
iii. It would be unacceptable to U.S. leaders in terms of domestic and
international criticism.

F) Did China consider the effects the 1958 declaration would have on South Vietnam’s
current military and economic activities in the South China Sea?

i. If yes, what were the anticipated effects?

ii. If yes, did Vietnam react in the way China had anticipated?

G. Did China discuss the contents of the 1958 declaration with North Vietnam prior to
the declaration’s release?

i. If yes, a) what was North Vietnam’s reaction; and b) did North Vietnam
ask for changes in the text of the document?
ii. If no, how did China believe North Vietnam would react to the

In summary, counterfactual questions A, B, and C; as well as direct questions D, E, F,

and G; plus the preliminary direct questions 1-8; and the subquestions for all of the above
would serve to measure the influence of variables i-vii and answer my specific research
question, “What are the factors that contributed to the drafting and release of the PRC’s
1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea?”


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