China's dashed lying lines

my Trade Tripper column in the 27-28 issue of BusinessWorld:

Amid all the news regarding arresting senators and the expected ruling on the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) by the Supreme Court, China’s attempts at territorial grab goes on. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that “in recent months, vessels belonging to the People’s Republic have been spotted ferrying construction materials to build new islands in the sea. Pasi Abdulpata, a Filipino fishing contractor who in October was plying the waters near Parola Island in the northern Spratlys, says he came across this huge Chinese ship sucking sand and rocks from one end of the ocean and blasting it to the other using a tube.”

The report goes on to say that “land reclamation work at Johnson South Reef started in February. There have been reports of Chinese activity at two other reefs in the Spratlys. ‘They are creating artificial islands that never existed since the creation of the world,’ says Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of a sparsely populated stretch of the archipelago called Kalayaan. ‘The construction is massive and nonstop,’ he says, and could pave the way for China’s ‘total control of the South China Sea.’”

Providentially, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio made a frank assessment of the Chinese claims during a lecture given at one of Manila’s universities: “Clearly, there is nothing ‘historical’ or ‘right’ about China’s nine-dashed line claim. The nine-dashed line claim is based not on historical facts but on historical lies.”

In fact, continues Justice Carpio, “neither the Spratlys nor Scarborough Shoal appeared in any Chinese dynasty maps, as obviously the Spratlys and Scarborough are several hundred miles farther south to Hainan Island.” Furthermore, “numerous ancient maps made by Westerners, and later by Philippine authorities, from 1636 to 1940, consistently showed that Scarborough Shoal, a.k.a. Panacot and Bajo de Masinloc, has always been part of Philippine territory. Scarborough Shoal has never appeared in a single ancient Chinese map throughout the long history of China. Neither is there any historical records of any Chinese expedition to Scarborough Shoal.”

Justice Carpio concludes: “China’s so-called historical facts to justify its nine-dashed lines are glaringly inconsistent with actual historical facts, based on China’s own historical maps, Constitutions, and official pronouncements. China has no historical link whatsoever to Scarborough Shoal. The rocks of Scarborough Shoal were never bequeathed to the present generation of Chinese by their ancestors because their ancestors never owned those rocks in the first place.”

This “nine-dashed line” has been a real nuisance not only for the Philippines but for all other countries wanting stability in the region. The problem with it is, not only is it based on historical inventions, not even the Chinese themselves in all likelihood know what it actually is. There has been no actual legal document specifically laying down in precise terms what the boundaries of the “lines” are.

And, as James Holmes writes (“The Nine-Dashed Line Isn’t China’s Monroe Doctrine,” The Diplomat), for the Chinese to claim that their “nine-dashed line” is merely the Chinese version of the Monroe doctrine is rubbish:

“... let’s beware of taking history lessons from representatives of a regime that managed to airbrush such misdeeds as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square out of official and popular memory while casting itself as the heir to the Confucian traditions it once sought to eradicate. These are folks set on convincing you the lightning-bug is the same thing as the lightning.”

Mr. Holmes continues: “The difference between the American and Chinese visions of maritime law is the difference between the 17th-century Dutch international-law theorist Hugo Grotius and his English foil, jurist John Selden. Grotius insisted the seas weren’t subject to national sovereignty -- to ownership, in effect -- while Selden proclaimed English sovereignty over the waters lapping against the British Isles. A century ago, as now, Grotius is the face of US policy in the commons. Selden may as well be China’s prophet of maritime law.”

Finally, one point I’d like to make came to me while reading Mu Chunshan’s The Diplomat article (“Why Doesn’t Russia Support China in the South China Sea?”) and this is Russia’s silence despite the worsening conditions between China and the Philippines: “Russia also enjoys a good relationship with the Philippines. For example, two years ago, three Russian navy vessels (including the anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Panteleyev) arrived in Manila for a three-day port visit. According to Russia, this visit helped improve Russia-Philippine ties.”

I just find it ironic (and also amusing) that President Aquino has the benefit of Russia’s (for now) policy of non-interference. For that, it can thank Ferdinand Marcos (working with his Executive Secretary Alex Melchor and Aide-de-camp Jose Almonte), who decided to initiate diplomatic ties with the then Soviet Union in 1970. This at a time when US support was crucial for Marcos. A huge gamble if there ever was one, now paying off.