South China Sea: Why do small islands cause big disputes?

As tensions rise in the South China Sea, with China and the Philippines squaring up in a region that's also seen quarrels involving Vietnam and Taiwan, Chris Bowlby asks historian Michael Charney about how past and present conflicts over tiny, often uninhabited specks reflect the status of national powers

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Chris Bowlby: Why is the South China Sea a focus of tension at the moment?

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Michael Charney: The South China Sea has always been an important area, because of its strategic position between China and south-east Asia. Much of Asia’s trade passes through the South China Sea, and it has significant reserves of natural gas and oil.

On one level, the sea is subject to great power rivalries. The United States, China and increasingly, though still very much in the distance, India view the area as a strategic lane of commerce and naval passage in their grand designs regarding global dominance. On another level, particularly with regards to China, there are sovereignty issues; staking claim to parts of the South China Sea is important as a focus of national security.

Sustained rivalry began with the establishment of colonial rule over much of the surrounding lands. Colonial rule was in large part about controlling supplies of raw materials and agricultural produce, and maintaining access to overseas markets. This made the strategically located South China Sea the subject of competition among European powers and, from the late 19th century, the Japanese empire and China.

Tensions increased with the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, again with the outbreak of the Second World War, and once more with tensions between the French and the Chinese in 1945–46. Nevertheless, the rivalries we see today emerged mainly from the outbreak of the Cold War – in particular, the defeat on the Chinese mainland of the Guomindang in 1949 (and the subsequent build-up of Taiwan as a bastion protected by the US navy), and the emergence of new nation-states in south-east Asia from around that time.

CB: Do these territories have a wider psychological importance beyond just trade or military power?

MC: China has had a particular historical relationship with the South China Sea inherited from earlier eras. It was a major conduit for tributary missions to China and the major route of maritime trade. This was the waterway through which the Ming-era explorer Zheng He’s expeditionary and trading voyages passed between 1405 and 1433. In 1662, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, forces under Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong ejected the Dutch from Taiwan and threatened the Spanish position at Manila. His successors then maintained control over the island for 20 years, in the hopes of retaking the Chinese mainland.

The Europeans more successfully raced to carve up the South China Sea from the late 19th century, at a time of Chinese military weakness. So the lack of control over the South China Sea islands, in its own front yard, is viewed by many Chinese as a blow to national sovereignty and gives these islands a symbolic importance that transcends their practical value.

The current face-off has coincided with China’s drive to project naval power more widely, including its development of aircraft carriers

CB: Do new military strategies play a role in such conflicts?

MC: Yes. The current face-off has coincided with China’s drive to project naval power more widely, including its development of aircraft carriers. That drive came from China’s larger Pacific and Indian Ocean ambitions, but it makes strengthening access through, and domination over, the South China Sea both more important and more achievable.

In practice, the US military would be the most likely force to stand in the way of Chinese hegemony. However, in the unlikely event that they were inspired or pushed to actually do so, the Japanese and Taiwanese navies would be able to compete effectively with the current Chinese navy in any South China Sea contest, especially because they would doubtless be supported by the United States. The Chinese military has always looked better on paper than it performs in exercises. It has suffered in the past (and probably now) from corruption.

CB: How have powers attempted to make possession permanent other than through legal claims – for example, by fortifying these islands?

MC: In the past, many of the islands in the South China Sea were rarely visited by anyone other than fishing fleets. The colonial predecessors of the contemporary independent states of south-east Asia did not entertain the prewar claims China made on the South China Sea. Colonial powers drew up their own ‘soft claims’ through treaties and maps, and did not physically occupy many of the islands.

Once the relevant colonies in south-east Asia became independent, they maintained the same kind of claim on paper, but again without physical occupation. That has left a legacy of different kinds of mutually irreconcilable evidence for claims to the area.

In such a situation, physically asserting control over the islands and fortifying them is a natural consequence, and both Vietnam and China have done this. If you have no islands to fortify, or wish to have more of them to increase the seeming validity of your claims, then you grab a shoal and build it up, literally creating an island – as the Chinese are doing now.

Flashpoints in the South China Sea

The South China Sea is a marginal sea – it is part of the western Pacific Ocean, bounded by China and Taiwan to the north, Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula to the west, Malaysian Borneo and Brunei to the south and the Philippines to the east. Hundreds of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands stud the sea.

Over the past four decades in particular, two island groups – the Paracels and the Spratlys – and a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal have become focal points for disputes, largely because they may contain resources including large reserves of oil and natural gas.

China lays claim to the lion’s share of the South China Sea, although Vietnam has disputed China’s historical claim to the Paracels and Spratlys, leading to clashes between those nations in the 1970s and 1980s, and again during the past five years. In April this year the Philippines stated its intention to occupy uninhabited islands, backed with an increased military presence.

Chris Bowlby is a BBC journalist specialising in history. He was speaking to historian Michael Charney, professor of Asian and military history at SOAS University of London

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This article was taken from issue 4 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in 2017