China's flawed South China Sea sovereignty claims exposed by US

US rejection of sovereignty claims an opportunity for Taiwan, but it must tread carefully

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(Wikimedia Commons photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) – Placing your trust in U.S. President Donald Trump is rather like entrusting your big life decisions to the roll of a dice. No matter what has come before, you can never be entirely sure that it won’t be different next time.

This is especially true when it comes to the U.S.' relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

On the one hand, this is the U.S. president who accepted a call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), placed sanctions and tariffs on China, and condemned it for spreading Wuhan coronavirus across the globe.

On the other hand, this is also the president who welcomed CCP leader Xi Jinping (習近平) to his Mar-a-Lago resort, praised his strong leadership, and was, according to his former National Security Advisor John Bolton, willing to abandon Taiwan to its fate at the hands of the CCP.

Even so, the generally tough stance the Trump administration has taken on China so far has been encouraging and the announcement this week it was rejecting the CCP’s spurious sovereignty claims in the South China Seas was another hugely positive step.

China's South China Sea sovereignty claims date back to an early map produced by the CCP in 1947. This map was astonishingly vague and loosely based on territory that had at one time or another been controlled by one Chinese dynasty or another.

Like Taiwan, none of these South China Seas territories has ever been part of China and most have self-governed quite happily for hundreds of years. Even the U.N., which so often kowtows to the CCP, has ruled against it on this issue, when in 2016 a tribunal added an annex to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that dismissed any legal basis for its claims.

Dynastic claims

There is no legal or justifiable basis for the CCP's claims and the US government is absolutely right to recognize this fact. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of the CCP’s territorial claims are built on an equally unjustifiable basis.

Its claim to Taiwan is based on the fact the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912) controlled Taiwan for a couple of hundred years but overlooks the fact that it ceded sovereignty to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki, in 1895. Japan subsequently gave up its claim in 1951's Treaty of San Francisco but specifically didn’t give Taiwan back to China, meaning that Taiwan has legally been independent for almost 70 years.

The CCP's claims to other occupied regions it currently controls, such as Tibet, East Turkestan, South Mongolia, and Manchuria, are equally flimsy. The basis for much of these claims is that they were controlled by the Yuan Dynasty.

The Yuan Dynasty was, of course, the empire of Genghis Khan, the famous Mongol warlord who conquered all of China, as well as most of Asia, and whose troops reached as far as Vienna and Budapest.

On such a basis, perhaps the CCP should be claiming sovereignty over all the former Mongol Empire lands? There is as much basis for this as there is for some of its claims to territories it presently occupies.

Or given the Yuan Dynasty was actually Mongolian, perhaps the government in Ulaanbaatar should lay claim to sovereignty over China instead?

Widening rift

It is a hugely positive step the U.S. government is willing to call out the CCP and its ludicrous territorial claims. The question is whether it can convince the rest of the world.

The U.K. government’s belated decision to deny Huawei access to its 5G network is a sign that it is on board with international efforts to curb CCP expansionism and hold Beijing accountable for its actions overseas.

It remains to be seen whether the U.K. will also formally dismiss the CCP’s South China Seas claims too but rumored plans to base a new British aircraft carrier in the region from next year suggests it will.

As the rift between the CCP and the free world continues to grow apace, Taiwan needs to tread extremely cautiously. John Bolton’s warnings about a willingness to drop Taiwan should be a timely reminder of Trump’s changeable approach to foreign policy.

Taiwan itself has claims to a number of islands in the South China Sea. It is not pushing these claims too hard at the moment and is wise not to do so, since the legal basis is also somewhat shaky.

The priority for Taiwan right now must be to work with free and democratic governments around the world to build a consensus against CCP expansionism and, most importantly, establish a willingness to step in should the CCP go too far.