China’s “South Sea” Maritime Claims on “Dangerous Ground”

Taipei Times


In 1602, Matteo Ricci (利瑪竇), Jesuit cartographer to the court of the Wan Li (萬曆) Emperor, traced out a great map of the entire world (坤輿萬國全圖) on which he noted that the domain of the “Great Ming” stretched from “the 42nd parallel in the North to the 15th in the South” (自十五度至四十二度).   Far south of the 15th latitude, Fr. Matteo’s map marked a seafaring region well-known to Arabs and Europeans, the “Sands 10,000 miles long” (萬里長沙).  That very portion of the South China Sea has been known to modern seamen for over a hundred years as the “Dangerous Ground” where much of this essay is set.
Over the past three years, the United States has changed its legal view of sovereignty in the South China Sea and specifically in the Sea’s “Dangerous Ground.” It is a vast water, 180,000 square kilometers, jammed with myriad reefs, shoals and sandbanks, wherein sailing is discouraged.  
In the 1950s and 60s, Washington officially dismissed sweeping “Chinese” claims to entire swaths of the “South Sea” (南海) by both the Nationalist Chinese and the People’s Republic as irrelevant nonsense. They were claims to a non-navigable “no-man’s sea” which no one took seriously.  But in the 1970s and 1980s, as Taipei and Peking were adamant, U.S. diplomats reasoned that “taking-sides” for or against “the Chinese” would needlessly antagonize the parties concerned.  They “took no position” as Chinese armed forces took the Paracels (西沙) from South Vietnam in 1974 and in 1988 seized Spratly (南沙) islets from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  There is no need to spell out Taiwan’s stake in the “South China Sea” nor the peril if it embraces mythic claims of rival republics of China from the last century.  
But last week there was considerable excitement in the Dangerous Ground.  And in light of that excitement, President Tsai Ing-wen  (蔡英文) might reexamine the Philippines’ predicament for inspiration on how to construct a more secure position for Taiwan among the community of democracies.   
The Dangerous Ground does not look forbidding on a sunlit day.   
Midday last Saturday, August 5, the Dangerous Grounds’ waters reflected deep sapphire-blue back out into space.  American satellites glimpsed a small convoy of Philippine Coast Guard escort vessels with two chartered logistics boats as they approached the turquoise-fringed atoll of “Second Thomas Shoal” (仁愛礁) barely a hundred miles west of Palawan Island.  Magnified, the satellite imagery reveals Second Thomas shoal as a sodden sandbank at low tide; completely underwater at high; with a solitary shipwreck, the “BRP Sierra Madre,” lodged edgewise to the breakers.  Inside its hulk, eleven stalwart Philippine Marines make home.  
The photo-reconnaissance “take” produced by America’s spy satellites goes directly to Dr. Kurt Campbell, czar of all “Affairs Indo-Pacific” in the Biden White House.  From his all-source intelligence, Dr. Campbell was informed that the Philippine Coast Guard resupply officers expected to encounter Chinese maritime harassment.  Commercial satellite imagery compiled by the “Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative” (AMTI) last year logged 315 days (out of 365) of a Chinese blockade of “Second Thomas.”  That blockade continues for the entirety of 2023 thus far.  For six years after 2014, “Second Thomas” could only be resupplied via RP Air Force parachute drops.
Last week, as the little Philippine convoy approached the grounded “Sierra Madre,” it was swarmed and halted by Chinese “maritime militia” fishing boats. A 2000-ton China Coast Guard cutter (Haijing 海警4203) then intercepted a small Philippines Coast Guard escort, pulling within a few tens of meters before blasting it with high-powered water cannon.  The U.S Department of State issued a stern protest which described the encounter.
For Dr. Campbell at the White House, last weekend’s satellite imagery and his intelligence briefings must have been “déjà vu all over again.” You see, thirty miles to the west of “Second Thomas” is another low-tide mud flat called “Mischief Reef” (美濟礁). There, in January 1995, a determined force of Chinese sailors and engineers ejected a population of Filipino fishermen who thought they were anchored in home waters.  The marauding Chinese then jerry-rigged “fishermen’s shelters” on stilts and literally dug-in for the long haul.  (In 2023, Mischief Reef, after the application of an astronomical 100,000,000 cubic meters of dredged sand and concrete sluiced by fleets of purpose-built reclamation ships, now has the runway of five unsinkable aircraft carriers.)
Back in 1995, Dr. Campbell was a deputy assistant secretary in the Clinton era Defense Department. He and his Asia policy staff were obliged to stand-down as Chinese forces occupied Mischief.  The United States had closed its Philippine bases and relations with the Manila were fraught.  The U.S. State Department “viewed with concern” China’s peremptory takeover of the Reef, but the US position was to “take no position” on the “competing claims to sovereignty” in the South China Sea.  
It was a green light; it was the opening chapter in China’s total military takeover of the “Sea of Sanji” one of the fabled “Seven Seas” of Islam.
Dr. Campbell had a more recent encounter with another submerged Philippine reef, Scarborough Shoal (黄岩岛).  In 2012, he served in the State Department as an assistant secretary under Secretary Hillary Clinton when he was confronted by a crisis at Scarborough in April and May 2012. It was another case of armed Chinese ships appropriating Philippine waters.  But this time the Philippine vessels refused to budge.  Indeed, they bravely stood their soggy ground for over a month as Dr. Campbell worked his diplomacy.   Unlike 1995 at Mischief Reef, in 2012 at Scarborough the U.S. was pro-active.  A nuclear attack submarine USS North Carolina mysteriously arrived at the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay amid hints that it would patrol the Philippine EEZ.  With a “Big Stick” at Subic, Dr. Campbell spoke softly.  He interceded with his counterpart, the redoubtable Madame Fu Ying (傅莹), a Chinese vice foreign minister.  After “weeks of a backdoor mediation” near Washington, D.C., Campbell achieved agreement between China’s Madame Fu and RP diplomats to remove their ships from Scarborough.   
It was to be a lesson for all.  On June 15, Manila recalled its ships. Yet China’s warships and surveillance vessels remained!  Two years later, Vice Minister Fu denied there had ever been an agreement.  The Financial Times reported at length on the Campbell-Fu talks “at a hotel in southern Virginia” and on Madame Fu’s bald-faced denial she ever agreed to anything with Dr. Campbell.   Madame Fu’s lesson was that Americans were easily bamboozled.  
The Philippines’s hard lesson was about China’s perfidy.  But, unlike the Americans, they would not put up with China’s lawless behavior.  The Republic of the Philippines immediately brought a landmark suit against the People’s Republic of China in the international court of arbitration at The Hague. On July 12, 2016, Manila won a unanimous verdict: “that Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal are within the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines” and that China’s claims to ‘historic title’ in the South China Sea were fictitious.  Father Matteo’s map of 1602 proved that conclusively. 
The Tribunal’s decision was an eye-opener for the United States.  Mercy! The State Department now celebrates the anniversary of the Tribunal’s decision!  Last year and this, the Biden State Department reiterated: “The United States reaffirms its July 13, 2020, policy regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea.”  
This is striking because the “July 13, 2020” policy was enunciated by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.  Pompeo’s first point asserts: “the PRC has no lawful territorial (i.e., “land”) or maritime claim” to any Philippine waters.  Both are “fully” under Philippines’ sovereignty.  And, said Secretary Pompeo, about those unsinkable aircraft carriers in the “Dangerous Zone”? Beijing may make no “territorial [] claims generated from these features.”  
For the first time, the U.S. took a firm stand on both “sovereignty” and “territory.”  In July 2020, the previous administration graciously recognized the “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” of the Republic of the Philippines over both landforms and maritime zones in the jurisdictions of the Arbitral Tribunal decision.  
It would be overthinking to construe the Biden administration statement as limited to “maritime claims” or to complain that the Biden Administration has retreated from its predecessor’s bold stance of recognizing the Philippines’ “territorial” sovereignty. 
Nonetheless, Taiwan’s government should take heed.  The United States, as well as Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Japan, continue to “take no position” on Taiwan’s sovereignty.  But they all regard the Taiwan Strait as international waters.  China’s omnivorous maritime claims prod the international community to reassess the challenge of “Chinese sovereignty.”  Taipei should make it easier, not more dangerous, ground to achieve that reassessment.




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