This latest volume in the Series on Contemporary China published by World Scientific looks at the historical, geopolitical, and legal aspects of the ongoing disputes over the South China Sea and its islands, reefs, and rocks. Edited by Tsu-sung Hsieh, a retired Taiwanese navy captain and professor at the Ming Chuan University School of Law in Taipei, the book is composed of papers presented at the 2017 South China Sea Conference by scholars from Taiwan, China, the Philippines, and the United States.
The South China Sea is one of the major flashpoints of world politics. China claims the entire sea as its territory—via the now much discussed nine-dash line. This claim is countered by rival claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia. The United States’s interest is part legal—freedom of navigation—and part geopolitical, ie preventing Chinese hegemony in East Asia and beyond.
In 2016, the international tribunal at The Hague sided with the Philippines against China and the latter’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. China has ignored the ruling, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute—a legal position supported by Professor Tsu-sung Hsieh in the book’s final chapter.
Similarly, in another chapter, historian Man-houng Lin of National Taiwan Normal University supports China’s position that The Hague Tribunal “is not the right place for settling” the South China Sea disputes. She believes that the arbitration tribunal and the UN have overlooked the significance of the Taipei Treaty of 1952, in which Japan surrendered “all right, title, and claim to the Paracel and the Spratly Islands” to the Republic of China on Taiwan. As a result, the South China Sea, she writes, is not the “inner sea” of any country and all interested countries should each have their Exclusive Economic Zones without impinging on the rights of any other country. She believes that both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) would benefit by such a resolution.
Nanjing University professor Chen Qianping reviews the Nationalist Chinese government’s efforts to recover sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea, including Dongsha, Yongxing, Xisha, Nansha, and Taiping, after World War II. The Nationalists, he writes, complied with international law in reclaiming those islands. Both history and international law, he asserts, support the PRC’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. Implicit in this analysis is the PRC’s official position that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China.
But it won’t be history or international law that ultimately decides the South China Sea disputes; it will be geopolitics. The most important articles in the book by Nathan Kuanghua Liu and Jay L Batongbacal analyze the broader China-US rivalry and its impact on the South China Sea disputes. China’s “increasingly coercive maritime policies” in the context of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”, which includes the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, is a long-term challenge to the US-led world order.
For now, however, China and the US compete in some areas and cooperate in others. The South China Sea, North Korea’s ambitions, and the always-dangerous issue of Taiwan’s status could result in conflict unless wiser heads prevail. US policy has veered between engagement and containment. “The million dollar question,” writes Kuanghua Liu, “is will China overthrow the existing order set by the US and replace its role in the region, or will China coexist peacefully with the US?” It is a question on the minds of statesmen throughout the world.