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Daniele Pestilli

Op-Ed: To Understand China-Philippines Dispute, Look to Japan and Korea's Tussle

[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]

Dokdo in Korean, Takeshima in Japanese, beautiful in any language. Author: Rachouette, teacher in Seoul, South Korea

The recent dispute over “illegal fishing” off the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines calls to mind the Dokdo/ Takeshima dispute between Korea and Japan in the East Sea.

Just as the Japanese flaunt historical documents proving the Dokdo islets are Japanese, so too do the Chinese vociferously underline the existence of records proving that the Scarborough Shoal, or “Huangyan Island,” belongs to China. The Chinese claim that the earliest maps charting the territory were drawn up during the Yuan Dynasty, circa 1280 C.E. However, anyone with a humble knowledge of Chinese history is aware of the fact that the Yuan Dynasty corresponds to an epoch when China was ruled by the Mongols–the first non-Han (and thus by definition, non-Chinese) dynasty to rule over the Middle Kingdom. 

The Koreans claim the first record of Dokdo was made in an important Korean document dating back to 1454: the Annals of King Sejong. This is approximately 200 years before it was officially acknowledged in Japanese texts. The Japanese document that mentions Dokdo for the first time is the 1667 text, Records on Observations in Oki Province, by Saito Toyonobu, a samurai of Izumo.

But Dokdo remained thoroughly insignificant to Japan up until the year preceding the Russo-Japanese War. As the situation between the Japanese and Russians escalated, Japan decided to build watchtowers and undersea telegraph cables in preparation for the inevitable clash with the Vladivostok fleet. It was at this time that Dokdo became highly valued for military and strategic reasons.

In the same vein, the Scarborough Shoal was insignificant to China, even during its exploration by the Yuan. Its importance is an extremely new phenomenon.

As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “Politics have no relation to morals”

Alas, Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who coined the term politika, or politics, would undoubtedly have reacted with a decisive face-palm upon hearing of such infantile political brawls. The “I saw it first” mentality is not only foolish and untenable, but also potentially catastrophic if adopted by superpowers such as China. 

One may ask, why is China’s argument of past glories untenable?

The Mongol empire at its zenith

It would be all too nice for Italians to reclaim Northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkans, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and, while we’re at it, the lower half of Great Britain based on Roman conquests of yore. Not only is this presently unfeasible; it also makes little logical sense.

As for China, it just so happens that the Mongol Empire was the world’s second largest empire, after Great Britain’s. In other words, if China lays claim on territories charted during the Yuan Dynasty and acknowledges them to still be under its jurisdiction, it would end up fighting for countries it neither wants nor could even remotely handle: Putin’s Russia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and half of the Middle East. By extension, it would inherit all their problems.

In recent months, China has already had to face Tibetan protests and self-immolations, the Jasmine revolutionaries, an uprising in Wukan fishing village, a political scandal concerning Bo Xilai and the escape to the U.S. embassy of a blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng. At a time when China must maintain its stability for the impending 18th National Congress, where China’s new leaders will be elected, this is something the country cannot afford.

As an article on Al Jazeera notes, for Filipinos, “it’s a no-brainer: Scarborough Shoal, the triangle-shaped 150 square kilometer grouping of reefs and rocky islets less than 200 nautical miles from their eastern coastline, belongs to the Philippines.”

Who of the two, then, is right? Must we rely on historical records and maps to settle such matters? To answer this, let us observe the three biggest differences between the Scarborough Shoal maritime dispute and the Dokdo dispute.

First, the Dokdo/Takeshima conundrum has not yet been resolved on international terms. After World War II, the Allies forced Japan to leave Korean territory. However, during the Tokyo trials, many Asian countries had no representatives of their own. Korea was one of them. As John W. Dower explains in his book, Embracing Defeat, “Korea was not a bona fide sovereign nation at the time, nor was it clear when it would be. For the duration of the Tokyo trial, Japan’s former colonial subjects remained under alien occupation in a land divided between United States and the Soviet Union. They were not allowed to judge their former overlords and oppressors or to participate in preparing the case against them.”

During these trials, the Dokdo/Takeshima incident was not settled because its importance was deemed to be minor. This held true until Japan became a more lucrative ally than Korea during the Cold War, when the UN (i.e. U.S.) agreed to Japan’s claims over Dokdo in return for support against the Soviet Union and the Communist Block.

A Chinese cartoon depicting the Philippines as a pesky fish

The “illegal fishing” conundrum near the Scarborough Shoal, has also not been resolved on international terms, but for very different reasons: China is unwilling to take the matter to international arbitration. Both China and the Philippines have signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that Exclusive Economic Zones extend from the edge of a territory out to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the baseline. The only exception to this rule is when an overlap occurs, in which case territoriality defaults to the closest nation. Scarborough Shoal is 472 nautical miles from China and 200 from the Philippines. China knows that it has lost the argument a priori.

Second, the waters surrounding Dokdo are rich in marine life, and the seabed may contain large gas deposits, oil resources, and coal. Similarly, the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal are also rich in marine life; in fact, fishing rights are the pretext for China’s tussle. However, the biggest difference between the two groups of islets–Scarborough and Dokdo–lies in the amount of gas and oil resources in their proximity. 

According to a May 11 article in the Italian daily, La Repubblica, the estimated amount of oil near the Philippines is equivalent to 80% of the reserves in Saudi Arabia–the world’s top petrol exporter. Chinese access to such a resource could be vital to a speedy ascent towards becoming the world’s first economy. What’s more, during a joint exploratory mission in these waters by the American multinational corporation Exxon and PetroVietnam, a gargantuan gas reserve was found. These mirages appear as miracles to Vietnam and the Philippines, but as potential nightmares to China: A facile takeover of the disputed seas will not be possible if the U.S. backs Vietnam or the Philippines.

Simply put, the “illegal fishing” dispute is everything but an “illegal fishing” dispute, as the ChinaDaily and other government mouthpieces profess. Historical claims of sovereignty are a mere strategy for blind patriotism, an illusion cast upon the Chinese people to encourage chauvinism.

Colonel Liu Mingfu's words in The China Dream raised eyebrows

Rather, as Henry Kissinger explains in his book entitled, On China, China is currently adopting PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s ideology, which he published in 2010. He argued that to become the greatest nation, their country must displace the United States while nurturing a “martial spirit.” He writes,

“Due to the competitive and amoral nature of great power politics, China’s rise–and a peaceful world–can be safeguarded only if China nurtures a ‘martial spirit’ and amasses military force sufficient to deter or, if necessary, defeat its adversaries. … It must be prepared, both militarily and psychologically, to struggle and prevail in a contest for strategic preeminence.”

As Kissinger writes, the publication of this text in 2010 coincided with tensions in the South China Sea–which is precisely where the Scarborough Shoal is located, and which reflects the situation today.

Effaced history

To conclude, let us reflect on the third biggest difference–in my opinion the most perverse–between Scarborough and Dokdo: Hypocrisy. The hypocrisy framing the Dokdo/Takehima issue cannot remotely compare to that currently taking place in China.

Mao's Cultural Revolution was not kind to ancient history. Author: Волков В.П.

China has been eager to cite its history as the reason for its sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. What the central authorities in Beijing neglect, is that the stories they allude to include the tales of emperors, heroes, concubines, temples and religions; they allude to that “feudal” history which they so thoroughly tried to obliterate during the Cultural Revolution.

The preamble to the Chinese Constitution reads, “China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world.” Are they referring to the history they so meticulously destroyed? It continues, “After waging hard, protracted and tortuous struggles, armed and otherwise, the Chinese people of all nationalities led by the Communist Party of China with Chairman Mao Zedong as its leader ultimately, in 1949, overthrew the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism, won the great victory of the new-democratic revolution and founded the People’s Republic of China.”

An entire generation of Chinese grew up unaware of its emperors, heroes, legends and gods, unaware of the Tiananmen massacre, of the names of its country’s temples, of its classical texts or of its ancient dynasties. And now, an entire generation of Chinese is being duped into believing that disputes in the South China Sea do not spring from its greed for “imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.”

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Daniele Pestilli

Daniele is an Italian alum of the University of Toronto who majored in East Asian Studies. After furthering his Japanese language studies at Keio University and Korean at Seoul National University, he won several awards at The Korea Times and decided to dedicate himself more seriously to journalism. He is currently editor-in-chief of The East Asia Gazette.
  • 59/5

    The Exclusive Economic Zone provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea govern rights over the sea, not dry land.  Sovereignty over dry land – islands – is not determined by whose mainland the islands are closer to.

    Note that “island” is defined in the Convention as “a naturally formed area
    of land, surrounded by water,  which is above water at high tide.”  Several rocks in Scarborough Shoal remain above water at high tide.

    Hence, the fact that the islands are closer to the Philippine mainland than the Chinese mainland does not lead to the conclusion that the Philippines has a stronger claim than China.

    I should also note that the Republic of China (Taiwan), a democratic sovereign state to which the arguments about hypocrisy and effacing history no longer apply, also claims Scarborough Shoal.  This is a claim that dates back to when the Republic of China was the government of China and the People’s Republic of China did not yet exist, and the PRC’s current claim is built upon the ROC’s historical claim.  And Taiwan continues to press this claim:

    http://opinion.inquirer.net/28747/taiwan-clarifies-stand-on-south-china-sea-dispute

    • FeiLaoRightNow

      According to the provisions of the UN’s maritime law, a coastal state has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone” within the limits of the EEZ.

      Both China and the Philippines have subscribed the this international convention.

      As you can see from this map by the BBC (http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/54145000/gif/_54145268__48951920_south_china-sea_1_466-1.gif) the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal are within 200 nautical miles of the Philippines, and thus fall under the sovereign right of the Philippines.

      Regardless of whether the Scarborough Shoal was charted on ancient Chinese maps, or of whether the ROC claimed sovereignty over those waters once again, current international law has redrawn the lines to something far more fair and sensible. If we were still to regard China’s claimed territorial waters (including islands) as anything of value, swimming off the coast of Brunei would involve bringing one’s passport and applying for a visa. The same goes for Malaysia and the Philippines.

      As per Taiwan’s stance, Taipei forming a united front with Beijing is not the most clever thing to do. The U.S. is essentially Taiwan’s protectorate, without which Taiwan wouldn’t be Taiwan. The Philippines and Taiwan are able to stand strong on such issues precisely because they have the U.S.’s backing. To quote the article you linked to, “if [Taiwan] forms a united front with Beijing on this issue, it is doomed to play junior partner, the perpetual ‘Mini-Me’ to Beijing’s Dr. Evil”

      • 59/5

        The provision you cite to, from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, governs only rights over the sea.  The language is clear: “waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil…”  This language refers only to the sea and to the sea bed, not dry land.

        In my previous post, I have already explained why certain features in Scarborough Shoal  qualify as islands.  Per the very same Convention you cite to, it is because parts of the shoal are above water at high tide.  Hence, the provision you cite to does not govern sovereign rights over islands.

        As for Taiwan, the link I posted (reposted again, below) makes clear that Taiwan is not forming a united front with China.  Taiwan has expressly rejected cooperating with China on this issue.

        http://opinion.inquirer.net/28747/taiwan-clarifies-stand-on-south-china-sea-dispute

  • 59/5

    The Exclusive Economic Zone provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea govern rights over the sea, not dry land.  Sovereignty over dry land – islands – is not determined by whose mainland the islands are closer to.

    Note that “island” is defined in the Convention as “a naturally formed area
    of land, surrounded by water,  which is above water at high tide.”  Several rocks in Scarborough Shoal remain above water at high tide.

    Hence, the fact that the islands are closer to the Philippine mainland than the Chinese mainland does not lead to the conclusion that the Philippines has a stronger claim than China.

    I should also note that the Republic of China (Taiwan), a democratic sovereign state to which the arguments about hypocrisy and effacing history no longer apply, also claims Scarborough Shoal.  This is a claim that dates back to when the Republic of China was the government of China and the People’s Republic of China did not yet exist, and the PRC’s current claim is built upon the ROC’s historical claim.  And Taiwan continues to press this claim:

    http://opinion.inquirer.net/28747/taiwan-clarifies-stand-on-south-china-sea-dispute

    • FeiLaoRightNow

      According to the provisions of the UN’s maritime law, a coastal state has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone” within the limits of the EEZ.

      Both China and the Philippines have subscribed the this international convention.

      As you can see from this map by the BBC (http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/54145000/gif/_54145268__48951920_south_china-sea_1_466-1.gif) the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal are within 200 nautical miles of the Philippines, and thus fall under the sovereign right of the Philippines.

      Regardless of whether the Scarborough Shoal was charted on ancient Chinese maps, or of whether the ROC claimed sovereignty over those waters once again, current international law has redrawn the lines to something far more fair and sensible. If we were still to regard China’s claimed territorial waters (including islands) as anything of value, swimming off the coast of Brunei would involve bringing one’s passport and applying for a visa. The same goes for Malaysia and the Philippines.

      As per Taiwan’s stance, Taipei forming a united front with Beijing is not the most clever thing to do. The U.S. is essentially Taiwan’s protectorate, without which Taiwan wouldn’t be Taiwan. The Philippines and Taiwan are able to stand strong on such issues precisely because they have the U.S.’s backing. To quote the article you linked to, “if [Taiwan] forms a united front with Beijing on this issue, it is doomed to play junior partner, the perpetual ‘Mini-Me’ to Beijing’s Dr. Evil”

      • 59/5

        The provision you cite to, from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, governs only rights over the sea.  The language is clear: “waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil…”  This language refers only to the sea and to the sea bed, not dry land.

        In my previous post, I have already explained why certain features in Scarborough Shoal  qualify as islands.  Per the very same Convention you cite to, it is because parts of the shoal are above water at high tide.  Hence, the provision you cite to does not govern sovereign rights over islands.

        As for Taiwan, the link I posted (reposted again, below) makes clear that Taiwan is not forming a united front with China.  Taiwan has expressly rejected cooperating with China on this issue.

        http://opinion.inquirer.net/28747/taiwan-clarifies-stand-on-south-china-sea-dispute

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