All At Sea

Now that the embarrassing Philippine hostage saga has finally been put to rest, perhaps we could take a look at another foreign policy issue that may affect Hong Kong.

The situation with respect to the Diaoyu Islands is pretty well understood locally. In broad terms, they have been widely regarded as Chinese territory since the 14th century. They came under Japanese administration only after the First Sino-Japanese war and the subsequent Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.

After the Second World War, they were overseen by the United States and treated as part of the Ryukyu Islands. In 1972, the entire group of islands covered by this administration were handed back to Japan, though the PRC lodged an objection with respect to the Diaoyus themselves.

The Chinese case for ownership of the islands seems strong in moral terms given this history. Many ordinary citizens in Hong Kong have demonstrated accordingly and some have even sailed to the islands and landed as an expression of Chinese sovereignty.

However, there is not the same degree of understanding locally about the disputes with other countries concerning various reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

For example, the Paracel Islands are roughly equidistant from China and Vietnam. At various times over several centuries, officials and ordinary citizens of both countries visited the islands and fished the adjacent waters.

After establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, China came to control the eastern Paracels, and Vietnam the western ones. Following the defeat of French forces in Vietnam, the 1954 Geneva Agreements left the Vietnamese Paracels in the hands of the South. In 1974, China defeated the South Vietnamese forces in the Battle of the Paracel Islands since when our country has maintained exclusive control over all of them.

In a sense then, the dispute has been resolved, but only by force of arms, and Vietnam maintains its claim.

The Spratlys are further south from the Paracels and geographically speaking are closer to Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam than mainland China.

The Central Government’s position at present seems to be that all the specks of land within the so-called "Nine Dash Line" are China’s sovereign soil.

All the countries in close proximity to the Spratlys dispute the relevance or validity of the Line and have a claim to one or more of the islands/reefs. Even Indonesia, which has no claim for itself, has objected to China’s position.

The Nine Dash Line itself apparently began as an Eleven Dash Line promulgated by the Kuomintang Government before the establishment of the People’s Republic.

There seems to be considerable uncertainty about the moral strength of China’s position even among patriots and friends. For example unlike the case with the Diaoyu Islands there have been no public demonstrations outside the consulates of the rival claimants, nor have there been any high profile expeditions by concerned citizens.

Why are so many countries, many of which we would consider to be our friends, so adamantly opposed to China’s claim?

We are all proud that our country is now recognised as a world power. It is entirely reasonable in this context for us to strengthen our military capabilities in order to protect our legitimate interests in the world in general and the region in particular.

But the question needs to be asked: Is it really our intention to enforce our claims to all the islands by military force as we did previously with the Paracels?

We may have the hardware to do so, but would it make us right? Do the claims by other countries – our friends and neighbours – have zero validity? Are there no peaceful ways to resolve differences of this kind? Have we genuinely tried them all?

Hong Kong of course has no say in foreign affairs as quite properly this is a matter reserved for the Central People’s Government. But Hong Kong people do have an interest in how the present impasse is resolved and a strong desire for a peaceful outcome.