Reflections on China's South Sea Trouble by Thomas Riggins

Reflections on China's claim to the Spratly Islands.

Lying in the South China Sea between Indochina and the Philippines is a collection of 700 or so small islands, reefs, atolls, shoals, and rocks which are all very scattered about and collectively known as the Spratly Islands (named after the British sea captain Richard Spratly, 1802-1870, who "discovered" them in the early 19th century).


The Europeans were, of course, not the first to come across this collection of rocks and mini-islands in the ocean. Though uninhabited they had been explored by and integrated into the Chinese Empire for centuries. Many centuries before there was even an England, let alone the United States, ancient Chinese maps had depicted these islands.


The Chinese were there on fishing expeditions during the Han Dynasty (Third Century B.C.). They appear on Qing (Manchu) Dynasty maps of the Empire dating from the early 17th Century but they were being regularly visited and mentioned in the literature of the Song, Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties as well.


In the 19th Century China, Indochina, the Philippines, and the areas around the South China Sea were under European control. China was in no position to exert its claims in the islands. At this time the French claimed parts of them (from which the Vietnamese claim ultimately derives) due to French Indochina.


Nobody, other than the Chinese, seemed to care about these islands for many centuries but interest in them began to pick up in the second half of the last century. This interest is due to the prospects that undersea oil and gas deposits could be the source of wealth and energy and thus claims on the islands— or at least some of them — would allow the possessor to claim the territorial waters associated with the land.  So there are now five countries besides China (PRC) who have claims in the Spratly Islands.


It should be noted all the fuss over the Spratly islands involves pumping up hydrocarbons that should remain just where they are as our scientists tell us global warming is out of hand and this additional  supply should remain untapped and alternative sources of energy developed. This also applies to the arctic and all major undeveloped areas on both land and in the seas. Nevertheless, short sighted political entities will probably continue to develop these regions without any concern for the future consequences.


Who are the other five claimants to the Spratly islands in whole or in part? They are Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.  I maintain that China, having the oldest connection with these islands (going back to the times of the Roman Empire in European terms) has the most justified claims and that if it decides to grant rights to others it should favor the claims of the Vietnamese first and foremost. 


I will deal with the Vietnamese claims last. First let’s deal with Taiwan. Taiwan claims the islands for the same reasons the PRC claims them since Taiwan, as the Republic of China (ROC), considers itself the successor state to the Chinese Empire. The PRC claims Taiwan is a province of China that will eventually be reunified with the mainland. The PRC claims simply absorb those of Taiwan and we don’t have to further consider them. 


Brunei has a partially submerged reef within its 200 mile limit (exclusive economic zone [EEZ]). Whether this reef is recognized as an ocean “rock” or an “island” will determine if Brunei gets to extend its sovereignty over additional areas of the South China Sea.  I think the Chinese could easily grant fishing rights to Brunei in areas beyond the 200 mile limit which it claims without having to acknowledge that this reef is an island. Since drilling for oil or gas is detrimental to the entire earth  Brunei’s  claim should be rejected if that is its intention. I will explain later why  it is more likely that China an be convinced not to drill in the Spratly’s than other claimants (excepting the Vietnamese).


The Philippines claims began in 1978 when the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos issued a decree that parts of the Spratly islands  within his EEZ belonged to the Philippines. He then occupied some islands. If the Chinese claim has historical priority, however, the Philippine action would be invalidated. This claim should be decided in talks between the PRC and the current Philippine government.


Malaysia’s claim is based both on the position of  some of the islands are in its EEZ and the fact that they were unoccupied after World War II when the Japanese abandoned the Spratly Islands after their defeat. The PRC’s claim, of course, predates World War II and the fact that wars, colonialism, civil wars, the presence of hostile Western forces (the US Seventh Fleet) prevented the PRC from exercising its sovereignty  until recently does not automatically give other nations the right to claim these islands as abandoned or unowned. Malaysia and the PRC should engage in bilateral discussions to resolve this dispute.


Vietnam (SRV, Socialist Republic of Vietnam) which occupies Spratly Island itself among others, bases its claims on having taken over some islands after the French left Indochina and that the puppet government (US installed Republic of Vietnam) had put boundary markers on some islands, and that the Vietnamese Empire had claimed them as far back as the 1600s. Vietnam also says that the ancient claims made by China actually refer to those made by non-Chinese people who lived in what is today Northern Vietnam (yet this area was a province of China in ancient times.)


The SRV and the PRC have special responsibilities is resolving their disputes regarding the Spratly Islands; responsibilities that go far beyond legalistic arguments and interpretations of an international law system basically drawn up by colonial and imperialist powers to serve their interests. 


In the first place they both claim to be socialist countries and products of the Marxist- Leninist tradition, resulting from the Russian Revolution, regardless of the unique characteristics which the special historical and cultural developments of each nation has contributed to its form of socialist expression.


International working class solidarity is a basic element of their common socialist heritage and the interests of the Chinese and Vietnamese workers  should not appear to result  in antagonistic contradictions between  their governments. Such contradictions are indicative of leaders who are deviating from socialist principles. We have seen the damage such deviations have caused to the international socialist movement in the last century. It behooves the leaders of the PRC and SRV to resolve their contradictions in the spirit of working class solidarity and unity against the machinations of imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism, in the region.


The U.S. involvement is adventuristic and provocative with regard to the PRC’s activities in the island chain and on the same level with its provocations against Russia over NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and its attempt, along with the EU, to assert its interests in the Ukraine at the expense of Russian interests and those of millions of Ukrainians who wish to maintain friendly relations with both Russia and the EU. Here the U.S. seeks to drive a wedge between the PRC and its neighbors.


Since neither the PRC nor the SRV, in the interests of planetary survival, should be planning to extract hydrocarbons from the South China Sea, and both need to cooperate in finding alternative sources of energy, they should bilaterally resolve their rival claims in this region in the true spirit of working class internationalism by proportionally sharing in the economic development of the region and having a united policy on resolving their problems with the non socialist governments making claims in this area. They should be united in rejecting U.S. interference and saber rattling in the South China Sea as U.S. imperialism has a record of destabilizing areas (such as the Middle East and Ukraine) in order to justify military spending at home and a divide and conquer foreign policy abroad.


These reflections have, no doubt, overlooked some significant issues involved in the current problems in the South China Sea but I think those problems could be subsumed with in the framework of discussion suggested above. In any event, I think these reflections, or something very much like them, will be foundational to understanding what is happening in this region.

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  • Thanks to Rosalio Munoz.
    It was protean human rights activist Paul Robeson and the Communist lawyer William Patterson, who followed in the footsteps of the National Negro Congress and great Communist W. E. B. Du Bois, at the creation of the United Nations (which you mentioned), petitioned for African Americans, which struggle should be remembered in the struggle to expand the reach of labor revolving around resolving trade and military concerns in the South China Sea, which at first thought, seem to have nothing to do with genocide, labor, and human rights. Because the discussion is basic-granted- does not mean it is "idealistic". As Thomas Riggins states in ending- "These reflections have, no doubt, overlooked some significant issues. . region. "
    That the U. S. working class, especially its unions; therefore, the Card Check, the Wagner Act, Taft-Hartley issues, international labor relations law, the United Nations, and peoples of color (the United States' non-union majority, including the Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, African Americans and others) engage in the politics and implications around these, in the wake of the coming national and local elections, is badly needed-the more massive, the better-so it seems everyone would agree there.
    The development vs. non-development prospects, hinged on whether there is a world economy fueled by peace rather than war, will focus the real material development for the working class and poor peoples of all countries, and potential countries (especially China and the U. S., the two biggest GDPs, gross domestic products, in the world) involved in China's South Sea trouble, in our one world economy.
    To promote peace and its necessary democracy, in this conflict and all, is to change the world and the South China Sea trouble in a positive way.
    By the way, it was the great Henry Winston who in his seminal What it Means to be a Communist, reminds us of the active and successful international fight(with the communists and the CPUSA as catalysts) to gain recognition of China and seat it in the United Nations-and especially, to ban the Atom Bomb.

    E.E.W. Clay

    Posted by Peaceapplause, 06/24/2015 1:07pm (3 years ago)

  • An all too idealistic discussion of the problems that basically ignores the issues of of trade and military concerns unipolarity and multipolarity, developed global economies vs the developing, trilateral vs BRICS, international law and the United Nations.
    Then there are the implications the exacerbation of such contradiction on living standards and quality of life for the workers and peoples of the world.
    What I would like to see Political Affairs and related venues address is the pivot to the Pacific by our government as it is starting to be implemented with, escalated China bashing, Military encirclement of the South China Sea, TPP, military/intellegence ventures with Japan and South Korea developments, and how such issues can be addressed in the upcoming elections. This week the US and China are engaging in major bilateral discussions leading to summit between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping

    Posted by Rosalio Munoz, 06/23/2015 10:17pm (3 years ago)

  • E.e.w. Clay makes valuable. Point. The contradictions between two countries seeking to build socialism are secondary as Mao contended. The contradictions between capitalist countries, blocs , the capitalist world system and socialist countries and movements is primary. That remains a constant

    Posted by Norman markowitz, 06/20/2015 5:20pm (4 years ago)

  • Recent literature(Marxist I Q and panels, seminars) from this post on Asia and the revolutionary activity in contemporary history in the aria of the world, has shown how difficult progress can be against imperialism and how the world movement, led by the working class, has to cooperate to help make that freedom. China and the Soviet Union had to, in many ways, stated and unstated, cooperate to help bring socialism to Uncle Ho's united Vietnam. Of course, the peace and social justice, the Anti-War movements and Civil Rights movements, had to coalesce to help the over-arching struggle for freedom there-freedom from United States imperialism. Thanks to Thomas Riggins for pointing out the need for continued international solidarity and working class internationalism to defeat the continued imperialist adventurism in the South China Sea, and the long history of the Chinese there, especially with the established socialist states of China and Vietnam. The need for peace, between socialist states in the first place, ranks high in the need to extinguish the yet provocative and explosively disastrous designs of Western imperialism. The people's needs are being met, and we must continue to reason and struggle together, coalescing with one another, as the united, international working class.

    E.E.W. Clay

    Posted by Peaceapplause, 06/17/2015 12:03pm (4 years ago)

  • Excellent Tom
    You make the relevant points, using very restrained and effective language on the specific issues involved. My language would be a little different, emphasizing the "neo cold war:ideology and policies of the U.S. government in the region and what is the obvious attempt to use Vietnam as an anti-Chinese "containment state" which is where the U.S. interventionion in Indochina 61 years ago in reality began, an intervention that led to all of the devastation that followed. This article deserves to be highlighted
    Norman Markowitz

    Posted by norman markowitz, 06/14/2015 7:08pm (4 years ago)

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