Saturday, May 12, 2012

China’s claims over Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal and its inconsistent precedents and different standards on territorial negotiations

China adopts different standards throughout territorial negotiations with its neighbours. As a result, it does not have a consistent set of policies to decide how to settle these disagreements with its neighbours, particularly when it comes to maritime disputes.

When Japan proposed a 50-50 delimitation in the 1970s to resolve the Sino-Japan disputes over the East China Sea continental shelf, China firmly rejected it. Instead, it adopted the position that the dispute should be settled on the basis of the “natural extension of the continental shelf”, meaning that all of the East China Sea continental shelf extending eastwards from its coastal lines should be Chinese. This formula, when compared with the “50-50” formula proposed by Tokyo, allows Beijing to increase the size of its claimed continental shelf by 30,000 sq km.

However, when China negotiated its territorial disputes over the Heixiazi Island with Russia in the 1990s (over which they fought a battle in 1969), it compromised on its claim over the whole island and accepted a “50-50” formula.

In the Gulf of Tonkin, China accepted the “50-50” formula again, with further compromises over the Vietnam-occupied islands in the Gulf. The eventual result of the boundary demarcation was “53-47”, with Vietnam taking a larger share of the maritime area. People later attributed this willingness to compromise with Russia and Vietnam to then-President Jiang Zemin’s eagerness to settle border disputes.

The maritime settlements with Vietnam also set an inconsistent precedent for China’s historical claims to territory in the South China Sea. Beijing asserts that South East Asian countries should accept its sovereignty over the geographic features within the nine-dashed line because historically they have been Chinese. However, China transferred control of White Dragon Tail Island 70 nm off the coast of Hainan to Vietnam in 1957, despite the fact that a Chinese fishing village had been on the island for almost 100 years. If this island, so close to the Chinese coastline and with historical evidence of Chinese occupation and administration, was not considered to be China’s “historical territory”, questions can be raised about how the numerous South China Sea islands, farther away from the mainland and with less historical evidence, can be considered as such. The other claimants are pointing to the territorial settlements with Vietnam as an “example of Chinese double standards”.

China has also set inconsistent legal precedents for its claim that the Nansha (Spratly) Islands – almost all of which are small islands, rocks, low tide elevations or underwater reefs largely incapable of sustaining long-term habitation – are entitled to an EEZ. In the case of the Japanese island of Okinitorishima, China maintained that small uninhabited islands should not be given a continental shelf or EEZ of their own, and added that similar practice should be followed in the South China Sea. If Beijing holds to this principle, it will be unable to justify its claim over a large part of the waters around the Spratly Islands and within the nine-dashed line. (Taken from

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