The recent dispute over “illegal fishing” off the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines calls to mind the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between Korea and Japan in the East Sea.
Just as the Japanese flaunt historical documents proving the Dokdo islets are Japanese, so too do the Chinese vociferously underline the existence of records proving that the Scarborough Shoal, or “Huangyan Island,” belongs to China. The Chinese claim that the earliest maps charting the territory were drawn up during the Yuan Dynasty, circa 1280 C.E. However, anyone with a humble knowledge of Chinese history is aware of the fact that the Yuan Dynasty corresponds to an epoch when China was ruled by the Mongols – the first non-Han (and thus by definition, non-Chinese) dynasty to rule over the Middle Kingdom.
The Koreans claim the first record of Dokdo was made in an important Korean document dating back to 1454: the Annals of King Sejong. This is approximately 200 years before it was officially acknowledged in Japanese texts. The Japanese document that mentions Dokdo for the first time is the 1667 text, Records on Observations in Oki Province, by Saito Toyonobu, a samurai of Izumo.
But Dokdo remained thoroughly insignificant to Japan up until the year preceding the Russo-Japanese War. As the situation between the Japanese and Russians escalated, Japan decided to build watchtowers and undersea telegraph cables in preparation for the inevitable clash with the Vladivostok fleet. It was at this time that Dokdo became highly valued for military and strategic reasons.
In the same vein, the Scarborough Shoal was insignificant to China, even during its exploration by the Yuan. Its importance is an extremely new phenomenon.
Alas, Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who coined the term politika, or politics, would undoubtedly have reacted with a decisive face-palm upon hearing of such infantile political brawls. The “I saw it first” mentality is not only foolish and untenable, but also potentially catastrophic if adopted by superpowers such as China.
One may ask, why is China's argument of past glories untenable?
It would tantamount to Rome reclaiming Northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, the Balkans, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and, while we’re at it, the lower half of Great Britain based on Imperial Rome's conquests of yore. Not only is this presently unfeasible; it also makes little logical sense.
As for China, it just so happens that the Mongol Empire was the world’s second largest empire, after Great Britain’s. In other words, if China lays claim on territories charted during the Yuan Dynasty and acknowledges them to still be under its jurisdiction, it would end up fighting for countries it neither wants nor could even remotely handle: Putin’s Russia, Mongolia, the Caucasus and half of the Middle East. By extension, it would inherit all their problems.
In recent months, China has already had to face Tibetan protests and self-immolations, the Jasmine revolutionaries, an uprising in Wukan fishing village, a political scandal concerning Bo Xilai and the escape to the U.S. embassy of a blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng. At a time when China must maintain its stability for the impending 18th National Congress, where China’s new leaders will be elected, this is something the country cannot afford.
As an article on Al Jazeera notes, for Filipinos, “it's a no-brainer: Scarborough Shoal, the triangle-shaped 150 square kilometer grouping of reefs and rocky islets less than 200 nautical miles from their eastern coastline, belongs to the Philippines.”
Who of the two, then, is right? Must we rely on historical records and maps to settle such matters? To answer this, let us observe the three biggest differences between the Scarborough Shoal maritime dispute and the Dokdo dispute.
First, the Dokdo/Takeshima conundrum has not yet been resolved on international terms. After World War II, the Allies forced Japan to leave Korean territory. However, during the Tokyo trials, many Asian countries had no representatives of their own. Korea was one of them. As John W. Dower explains in his book, Embracing Defeat, “Korea was not a bona fide sovereign nation at the time, nor was it clear when it would be. For the duration of the Tokyo trial, Japan’s former colonial subjects remained under alien occupation in a land divided between United States and the Soviet Union. They were not allowed to judge their former overlords and oppressors or to participate in preparing the case against them.”
During these trials, the Dokdo/Takeshima incident was not settled because its importance was deemed to be minor. This held true until Japan became a more lucrative ally than Korea during the Cold War, when the UN (in particular the United States) agreed to Japan's claims over Dokdo in return for support against the Soviet Union and the Communist Block.
The “illegal fishing” conundrum near the Scarborough Shoal, has also not been resolved on international terms, but for very different reasons: China is unwilling to take the matter to international arbitration. Both China and the Philippines have signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that Exclusive Economic Zones extend from the edge of a territory out to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the baseline. The only exception to this rule is when an overlap occurs, in which case territoriality defaults to the closest nation. Scarborough Shoal is 472 nautical miles from China and 200 from the Philippines. China knows that it has lost the argument a priori.
Second, the waters surrounding Dokdo are rich in marine life, and the seabed may contain large gas deposits, oil resources, and coal. Similarly, the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal are also rich in marine life; in fact, fishing rights are the pretext for China’s tussle. However, the biggest difference between the two groups of islets–Scarborough and Dokdo–lies in the amount of gas and oil resources in their proximity.
According to a May 11 article in the Italian daily, La Repubblica, the estimated amount of oil near the Philippines is equivalent to 80% of the reserves in Saudi Arabia – the world’s top petrol exporter. Chinese access to such a resource could be vital to a speedy ascent towards becoming the world’s first economy. What’s more, during a joint exploratory mission in these waters by the American multinational corporation Exxon and PetroVietnam, a gargantuan gas reserve was found. These mirages appear as miracles to Vietnam and the Philippines, but as potential nightmares to China: A facile takeover of the disputed seas will not be possible if the U.S. backs Vietnam or the Philippines.
Simply put, the “illegal fishing” dispute is everything but an “illegal fishing” dispute, as the ChinaDaily and other government mouthpieces profess. Historical claims of sovereignty are a mere strategy for blind patriotism, an illusion cast upon the Chinese people to encourage chauvinism.
Rather, as Henry Kissinger explains in his book entitled, On China, China is currently adopting PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s ideology, which he published in 2010. He argued that to become the greatest nation, their country must displace the United States while nurturing a “martial spirit.” He writes,
Due to the competitive and amoral nature of great power politics, China’s rise–and a peaceful world–can be safeguarded only if China nurtures a ‘martial spirit’ and amasses military force sufficient to deter or, if necessary, defeat its adversaries. … It must be prepared, both militarily and psychologically, to struggle and prevail in a contest for strategic preeminence.
As Kissinger writes, the publication of this text in 2010 coincided with tensions in the South China Sea–which is precisely where the Scarborough Shoal is located, and which reflects the situation today.
To conclude, let us reflect on the third biggest difference – in my opinion the most perverse – between Scarborough and Dokdo: hypocrisy. The hypocrisy framing the Dokdo/Takehima issue cannot remotely compare to that currently taking place in China.
China has been eager to cite its history as the reason for its sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. What the central authorities in Beijing neglect, is that the stories they allude to include the tales of emperors, heroes, concubines, temples and religions; they refer to that “feudal” history which they so thoroughly tried to obliterate during the Cultural Revolution.
The preamble to the Chinese Constitution reads, “China is one of the countries with the longest histories in the world.” It makes one wonder if they are referring to the history the CCP so meticulously destroyed. It continues, “After waging hard, protracted and tortuous struggles, armed and otherwise, the Chinese people of all nationalities led by the Communist Party of China with Chairman Mao Zedong as its leader ultimately, in 1949, overthrew the rule of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism, won the great victory of the new-democratic revolution and founded the People's Republic of China.”
An entire generation of Chinese grew up unaware of its emperors, heroes, legends and gods, unaware of the Tiananmen massacre, of the names of its country’s temples, of its classical texts or of its ancient dynasties. And now, an entire generation of Chinese is being duped into believing that disputes in the South China Sea do not spring from its greed for “imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.”
This article was also featured on Tea Leaf Nation