Rock or Island? Disputes in the South China Sea

Whilst researching this subject, I couldn’t help thinking that here were the ingredients ripe for the design of a board game.  It could be something of a cross between “Diplomacy” and “Vendée Globe”?

Each player representing a country of choice could set its mission and collaborate with other players to achieve their desired outcomes.  Chance cards might include whether, say, an international tribunal has decided in their favour.  And tokens could be earned along the way to enable them to reclaim rocks and reefs, build air strips or even patrol the islands with clone submarines?

We are, of course, not speaking of a game but of what is happening in reality, and the countries involved in a potential war game include South East Asian countries (such as Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) and also greater powers such as China (Taiwan) and the US.  At stake are the rights to valuable resources such as oil and gas, fishing rights and the protection of vital sea routes.

Fortunately we have a panel of experts speaking at a forum on 13 March (at the National Liberal Club) to guide us through the quagmire, to understand the historical claims on sovereignty, as well as the international maritime law as affecting territory and maritime claims:

  • Bill Hayton, author of the book “The South China Sea”
  • Professor Steven Tsang from SOAS
  • Veerle Nouwens from RUSI (Royal United Services Institute)

Representatives from various Embassies may also be attending.

What we, the organisers (Liberal International British Group) are hoping to achieve from the forum discussion is firstly to raise awareness of the issues and conflicting claims.  The countries involved may be on the other side of the globe but any acts of aggression could nevertheless have a huge impact on global economy.  Secondly, and more importantly, we would like to facilitate a fruitful discussion so as to find our way towards a peaceful resolution, and a win for all parties concerned.

This may not be a game, but game theory may ultimately have a part to play.

The LIBG forum is free to attend. RSVP to [email protected]

* Merlene was co-founder of Chinese Liberal Democrats and on the executive of the LibDems Overseas. She co-edited “Rise of China – Fresh Insights and Observations” published by the Paddy Ashdown Forum (2021)

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  • Eddie Sammon 6th Mar '17 - 12:00pm

    A peaceful resolution would be most welcome. We cannot just accept the islands are China’s because China is big and powerful. The lack of scrutiny and interest in this topic deflates me.

  • nigel hunter 6th Mar '17 - 1:05pm

    People talk about free trade being World wide.This sounds like individual countries fighting for their OWN priorities and resources never mind globalisation. To me protectionism is showing a global head Those interested in world free trade should consider whether Brexit is a good idea. for those who hold the resources hold many cards.

  • I would like to know the historical claims, given China ceased to exist as an independent nation during WWII, having been overtaken by the Japanese, with the Maoists only gaining ‘sovereign’ control through the aid of the allies and subsequently set about destroying all history prior to the Communist takeover…

    I think the fundamental problem we have is that the post-Mao communist party see international treaties as something that have been imposed on them by western powers and thus to adhere to them would be a loss of face.

    Hence the problem we have is how to effectively challenge Chinese imperialism and expansionism in the South China seas, Tibet, Mongolia…

  • @Roland

    As far as I remember, China’s claim are based on maps from the Ming dynasty; which ceased to exist several hundred years ago. Very dubious by today’s standards I’d say.

    Also, China didn’t cease to exist as an independent nation in WW2. While Japan occupied large parts of the country they never came close to completely conquering it

  • The islands between China and Japan were first acquired by China as a result of the Yuan dynasty’s attempts in 1274 and 1279 to invade and occupy Japan. They remained Chinese until the Japanese invasion of China prior to the second world war. Despite China being on the allied side in the war against Japan the islands were not returned to China as part of the peace treaty but held initially by the US until transferred to Japan. Thus the Chinese hold that Japanese claims are not valid. There is of course a rival claim by Taiwan but China would also reject that claim on the basis of their “One China” policy. One might ask what would be the American position were Chinese warships patrolling the Carribbean.

  • Lester Holloway 6th Mar '17 - 5:15pm

    There are some small African islands still ‘owned’ by France, still trying to hold onto whatever little bits of their old empire they can. Paris has part-control over the national reserves of 14 former colonies in Africa, and they have been by far the most aggressive in military interventions to ensure victories for their favoured politicians, and continue to do so in countries like Central African Republic long after other ex-colonial powers like Britain stopped acting in this way, Sierra Leone aside. It matters that several islands off the coast of Africa are not under the juristiction of African states.

  • Roland
    China did not cease to exist during WW2.The capital was moved to Chongqing. Because of China’s vast size, the Japanese were unable to occupy large areas of it. Chinese Muslims forces became part of the Nationalist Army.
    The U.S. became the sole protector of the Ryukyus in 1945 and they reverted to Japan in 1972.

  • In January 2013, the Philippines formally initiated arbitration proceedings against China’s claim on the territories within the “nine-dash line” that include Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines said is unlawful under the UNCLOS convention. An arbitration tribunal was constituted under Annex VII of UNCLOS and it was decided in July 2013 that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) would function as registry and provide administrative duties in the proceedings.
    On July 12, 2016, the arbitral tribunal agreed unanimously with the Philippines. In its award, it concluded that there is no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources, hence there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the nine-dash line (the demarcation line used initially by the government of the Republic of China (ROC / Taiwan) and subsequently also by the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea). China rejected the tribunal’s findings.

  • Simon Horner 6th Mar '17 - 7:08pm

    Lester Holloway’s attempt to contrast France unfavourably with Britain regarding the “remaining little bits of their old empires” is somewhat ill-informed. In fact France has only two remaining island territories in the Indian Ocean: Reunion, which is a French department (and thus inside the EU) and Mayotte which refused to join the Comores when they became independent and opted instead to stay with France.

    Britain also still has some islands in the Indian Ocean. Unlike the French, we don’t have to worry about the welfare of their inhabitants though, as we expelled them to Mauritius and the Seychelles in the 1960s to make way for an American military base.

    Both Britain and France have remnants of Empire scattered around the world which are still legal dependencies for various reasons. The big difference is that France gives full citizenship to the people living in their overseas departments and territories, allowing them to vote in French elections and to settle in France. The inhabitants of Britain’s territories have no vote for Westminster and in most cases, no right to live in the UK (the exceptions are the Gibraltarians and Falkland Islanders since the war in 1982).

    I fear that in attempting to identify the mote in France’s eye, Mr Holloway’s vision is severely limited by the plank in his own.

  • @Lester Holloway

    I don’t quite see the relevance to Merlene’s article of your comment.

    Maybe it warrants a separate article from yourself. I would be genuinely interested to read a discussion about Mayotte from your perspective of Pan-Africanism, since Mayotte has consistently voted against independence from France. Indeed in the latest referendum in 2009, the vote was overwhelmingly for greater union with France and relinquishment of much of its residual sovereignty (and even if you take into account those who didn’t vote, the majority of people eligible to vote, voted for such a path).

    The subject of voluntary/democratic relinquishment/return of sovereignty is very relevant for Liberals in Britain because of the EU referendum/Brexit debate.

  • First, western nations like US, UK and Japan should stay out of the dispute in South China Sea. It is up to the claimants to settle their dispute peacefully. Western powers had invaded Asia for several centuries, and now they still want to decide about the boundary of nation states in Asia.

    Second, it is quite clear to many neutral people that US Navy is trying very hard to stir up troubles in order to stay relevant (and to get more funding).

    Third, regarding the arbitration, it is only an arbitration if both sides agreed to have it. Also, an arbitration result is NOT international law. And PCA does not have authority to decide on sovereignty issue.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Mar '17 - 11:12pm

    If political freedom is important then we probably all should be criticising China’s approach to democracy. Just because other countries like France aren’t perfect either doesn’t mean we can’t criticise China.

    We should debate the current state of overseas territories in western countries more fully in another article, but it doesn’t mean China gets a free pass.

    I’m pleased that some others are showing similar concerns here to me. I am not anti-China per se, I’m even learning a bit of Mandarin, I just want democracy rather than a kind of rule by might.

  • Thanks Tog and Manfarang for the corrections and John Pruce for the additional historical background, indicating the rich history of the area.

    dddd12, I find your comment laughable, given it is quit obvious that China is stirring up the trouble, by their unilateral military actions both in the South China Seas and around Japan.

  • Stephen Booth 7th Mar '17 - 9:12am

    Merlene, well done with this post. I’m not sure that many of the “usual suspects” who’ve commented add much to debate. I wonder if they’re aware that China has ratified UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) whereas the US has not. I recommend they keep their counsel until they’ve read Bill Hayton’s excellent book which you’ve referenced. I heard Bill lecture at the RGS a couple of years ago on this very topic and he’s outstanding. It is indeed a new version of the “Great Game” but with scary potential outcomes.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Mar '17 - 10:28am

    Stephen Booth, a tribunal constituted under the UN Convention on the Law Of the Sea has ruled that China has violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the South China Sea, so I’m not sure if ratifying a convention, breaking it and then refusing to recognise its verdict is much better than not ratifying it at all.

    The convention is a good point to bring up, but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss those concerned about China’s approach to democracy as “the usual suspects”. Surely being concerned about democracy is part of being a liberal.

  • Merlene Emerson 7th Mar '17 - 7:28pm

    Oddly enough France appears to have interests still in the S China Sea even today. Historically she had occupied some of the Spratley islands during the time of colonial rule over Vietnam. But as recently as June last year at the Shangri-la dialogues in Singapore, the French Defence Minister had mentioned the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) initiative in the S China Sea and the idea of holding joint EU patrols. I am looking to our speaker from RUSI to shed light on what intentions UK may have too, regardless of whether we stay in the EU. Singapore was named as one of 3 of UK’s regional defence hubs in December last year.

  • The Paracel and Spratly Islands are also claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan).
    The ROC has possessed the naturally-formed Taiping Island in the Spratlys since it sent troops there in 1956.

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