Jamil Maidan Flores: China Creates New Flashpoint in S. China Sea

MARCH 08, 2015

Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio is in Jakarta this week to speak before an audience put together by the Indonesian Council on World Affairs (Icwa). Expect him to dismantle China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea based on those controversial nine-dashed lines.

Justice Carpio has been lecturing before various audiences on how China is palming off “the gigantic historical fraud” that the South China Sea is its inheritance from seafaring ancestors.

My own readings confirm what Justice Carpio says: that if there are any genuine inheritors to the seafaring feats of their ancestors in the South China Sea, these are the Malay nations, the Okinawans, the Polynesians, and the Maoris of New Zealand.

Intrepid Austronesian sailors, Carpio says, crisscrossed the Indian and Pacific Oceans, including the South China Sea as early as 4000 BCE.  In contrast Chinese Admiral Zheng-he made his famous sea-treks no earlier than the 15th century. So much for China’s claim to the South China Sea on the basis of “historical facts.”

Carpio holds that you can’t draw a map and then unilaterally lay claim to whatever is indicated in the map as yours. But if the issue is going to be resolved by a battle of maps, then Carpio has plenty of ammunition.

His arsenal of ancient maps includes those of Chinese cartographers showing that China’s southernmost territory is Hainan Island. The oldest in this group is a photograph of a map etched on stone dated 1136 CE. The most recent ones are respectively dated 1893, 1929 and 1933.

Another pack of 33 maps, the oldest printed in 1636 and the most recent in 1940, show that Scarborough Shoal, claimed by China on the basis of the nine-dashed lines, has always been part of the Philippines. Carpio also presents Chinese documents and statements attesting to Hainan as its southernmost territory.

Yet maps and historical facts about discovery and exploration don’t really matter. It’s what the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) says that’s decisive.

So in 2009, the Philippines passed a law redefining the archipelagic baselines of the country to conform to the Unclos, thereby giving up 15,000 nautical square miles of territory.

Their hackles raised, Filipino nationalists petitioned that the law be struck down as unconstitutional. Justice Carpio penned the unanimous Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Philippine Archipelagic Baselines Law.

This redefinition of the country’s archipelagic baselines made possible the historic treaty of 2014 between the Philippines and Indonesia delimiting their shared EEZ boundary. But while the Philippines, Indonesia and some other Asean countries are upholding the Unclos, China is engaged in an entirely different kind of argument: changing maritime reality in the South China Sea.

Not long ago China had only clusters of concrete blockhouses on coral atolls in the Spratlys. Today it’s constructing heavily on five new islands on five different reefs, islands reclaimed with rocks and soil from the sea bottom. On at least one of them, China is building an airbase on which fighter jets can take off and land.

This radically changes reality in the South China Sea, threatens the strategic balance in the West Pacific, and creates a stark new flash-point of armed conflict. It also challenges Indonesia’s global maritime fulcrum.

It will take more than the force of Justice Carpio’s jurisprudence to dismantle the fixed aircraft carriers that China is building. Asean must now scramble to carry out preventive diplomacy — so that, at least, negotiations toward a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea don’t lapse into a meaningless exercise.

Failing that, one of two scenarios can eventuate: China looms over the region as hegemon, or a conflagration engulfs all stakeholders in the South China Sea.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.