Tim Beal


K.J. Noh‘s excellent article ‘Making a Mockery of International Law: The Arbitral Tribunal on the South China Sea Prepares the Way for War’ gives rise to numerous thoughts and questions, but here I will just discuss three of them.

The South China Sea as a Chokepoint

Noh is quite right to describe the South China Sea (SCS) as a ‘chokepoint.’ Although the United States loudly proclaims that it is concerned about preserving ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea from aggressive Chinese militarisation of the area, evidence suggests otherwise.

China has a basic geographical liability. Its coast (unlike the US, it only has one) is fringed by two ‘island chains.’ Trade access is also constrained by two choke points – the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.  The Straits of Malacca is a problem common to many nations, but the South China Sea is of major importance to only three – Vietnam, Taiwan and China. The US is not affected, and shipping  to/from Japan and South Korea can avoid the SCS.



China is different; most of the shipping through the South China Sea goes to or from China, and China’s trade accounts for most of the shipping through the SCS. Being able to block, interdict or merely harass China-bound shipping gives the US considerable leverage. The ability to interdict Chinese shipping further west is a prime reason for the development of the American base in Darwin. Singapore, India and others are on the list for more U.S. bases.

Because of this geographic vulnerability, China has been taking various countermeasures – for example, the construction of port facilities at Gwadar and the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).  Construction of railways and pipelines through Southeast Asia, especially through Myanmar to the Andaman Sea, also skirt the chokepoint although to a lesser degree. Then there is the development of rail and road links across Eurasia and the grand New Silk Road which, economic considerations aside, provides protection against US naval supremacy.

There is a definite and direct military component to the South China Sea issue.  Chinese submarines, including those equipped with SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles – China’s Tridents) need to go through the shallows of the South China Sea to reach the relative safety of the deep waters of the Pacific.  This is why China is building bases on “its islands” in the SCS, as well as why the US continues to exercise a naval presence there and build bases on the periphery, especially in the Philippines.

The economic resources of the South China Sea are important to the claimant states but are of little importance to the US. No doubt US corporations would prefer to have more of the economic rights lodged with less powerful and more pliable states, such as the Philippines rather than with China, but the primary objective of the US government is geo-strategic. American policy is not really aimed at protecting ‘freedom of (commercial) navigation’ – which the Chinese can scarcely want to impede since most of it is theirs and little of it is America’s.  Quite the opposite, as Noh points out.

Taiwan as a Key to Understanding

If you thought that American action in the South China Sea and, in particular, persuading the Philippines to abandon bilateral negotiations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was driven by a disinterested desire to elevate impartial international law for the benefit of all, the role of Taiwan should give second thoughts. Taiwan –in its historical manifestation as the Republic of China (ROC) – is hugely important for understanding what is going on.

It is not commonly known – nor something to which American officials or mainstream media draw our attention – that the territorial claims of ‘China,’ meaning the People’s Republic of China (PRC),  are inherited from the ROC, or Taiwan, as it is usually called.  These legacy claims include Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea.  There is a fascinating map in Wikipedia, which shows the claims of the two regimes. They are, apart from the PRC’s recognition of the independence of Outer Mongolia, essentially the same.  

The only area in which the ROC did have some control was the South China Sea, and it still does.

After its defeat in 1945, Japan was forced to return to China what it had seized. Principally that was the island of Taiwan, which it had acquired in 1895, but it also included the main islands in the South China Sea, and in particular the Paracels (Xisha) and the Spratlys (Nansha). This was formalised in an agreement signed in 1952-

It is recognised that under Article 2 of the Treaty of Peace which Japan signed at the city of San Francisco on 8 September 1951 (hereinafter referred to as the San Francisco Treaty), Japan has renounced all right, title, and claim to Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores) as well as the Spratley (sic)  Islands and the Paracel Islands.

The key point was that this all happened under US supervision. The US was the conquering power, and unlike in Europe, where it had to share territory and authority with its allies – the Soviet Union, Britain and France – it had pretty much free reign in East Asia.

The United States could conceivably have put the South China Sea islands into UN trusteeship if it considered their ownership uncertain. Or it could, for instance, have decided that the Philippines had a better claim to the Spratlys, which are much closer to the Philippines than to the Chinese mainland. However in the postwar period the Philippines had, from the American perspective, a problem – ‘a well organized, popularly supported, communist insurgency known as the Hukbalahap’ in the words of a US army historian– and it appears that the US decided that the South China Sea needs a safe pair of hands and that those hands should be Chinese.

However in 1949, the United States ‘lost China’ as they put it at the time, and the ROC retreated to Taiwan though still claiming sovereignty over the whole of China. Claims of sovereignty and actual exercise of it can be quite different matters, of course. The ROC might have been defeated on the mainland, but it did have a certain naval capability and US protection. One upshot was that the ROC established a presence on Taiping Island (Itu Aba), the largest ‘naturally occurring island’ in the Spratlys.

Fast forward to 2016, and we find that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague decides that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has no legal claims in the South China Sea. ‘China’ in this context means not only the PRC but by implication, the ROC, which has also rejected the ruling and sent a patrol ship to reinforce the point. This might be rather embarrassing for the US if the US were the sort of country to suffer from embarrassment.

In an added twist all this is happening at a time when the Taiwan-focused Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has just regained the presidency from the Kuomintang (KMT), which is the party that ran the ROC from the 1920s. Despite this change in government, there appears to have been no change in Taiwan’s position on the South China Sea; it is a bipartisan issue. So the South China Sea islands, which were handed back to ‘China’ by Japan after the war, are still claimed by Taiwan.

Taiwan has rejected the PCA ruling and has been particularly angry at three points in– it was not involved in the deliberations (though neither was the PRC which had boycotted the proceedings); it was called ‘‘Taiwan Authority of China’; and Taiping was called a rock not an island, thereby forfeiting its 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  Taiping is 1.5 kms long, has a population of 200 (mainly military by accounts) and a runway on which two ‘Presidents of the Republic of China’ – Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou have landed. Quite a rock.

In other words, the narrative that this is all about ‘Beijing’s claims to South China Sea rejected by international tribunal,’ as the Washington Post gleefully put it, is not quite rock-solid either.

Nothing is likely to change soon in reality. Taiwan will continue to control what it controls, and the PRC and the other littoral countries will continue theirs. All will engage in island-building where, as with many film stars, natural endowments are much enhanced. Rocks will become islands with runways and inhabitants, most in uniform. Nothing unique to the South China Sea in this; there are also, for instance, the disputed Liancourt Rocks – or Dokdo- and Socotra Rock–  Ieodo – off the coast of Korea. The Philippines, under the new president Rodrigo Duterte will probably return to negotiations with the PRC, which will offer substantial infrastructural investment in the Philippines.

And the US Navy will continue to sail through the South China Sea as if it still owned it just as it did in the late 1940s. Indeed one of the reasons given for its concern over ‘freedom of navigation’ through the South China Sea is that it uses it for transit to its wars in the Middle East.  

Whether the US scuffle with China over the South China Sea will lead to war, as Noh suggests, is uncertain, but it is likely that Sino-US relations will continue to deteriorate, and this deterioration will probably accelerate under the next administration – whoever wins the White House.

Implications for Korea

The US has formidable military power. As Vice-President Joe Biden put it recently in a visit to Australia to thank them for past sacrifices for America and to encourage them to offer more in the future:

Anyone who questions America’s dedication and staying power in the Asia-Pacific simply is not paying attention. Our commitment to our military strength is unparalleled. We continue to outpace our competitors spending more on our overall defence than the next eight nations in the world combined. We have the most capable ground forces in the world and unmatched ability to project naval and air power to any and every corner of the globe, and simultaneously.

The US also has awesome soft power in many aspects. An impartial observer – say, a visiting Martian – would be amazed in the way that so many august tribunals around the world find in favour of America’s interests against all expectations of evidence, natural justice, prevailing legal norms and so forth. From the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA ), World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to the PCA, the United States or its friends and surrogates usually prevail.  Not always of course. This is not merely a matter of the best judges that money can buy, though as the injunction of David Petraeus (“Employ money as a weapons system. Money can be ‘ammunition.’”) reminds us, the disbursement of greenbacks or arms or whatever is an important weapon in the US armory. America’s soft power usually works in more mysterious and insidious ways.

America’s ability to manipulate the international legal framework has consequences. The victories, such as with the PCA, have a whiff of the Pyrrhic about them. In particular, US victories against China or Russia do not go unremarked.  For one thing it forces China and Russia into an ever closer relationship.

Both China and Russia have been very conciliatory towards the US and anxious not to provoke or give a pretext for American action. China’s ‘peaceful rise’ is only peaceful if the US does not take military or other forceful action to prevent it.

However, America’s apparent victory in the South China Sea along with the construction of the military base in Jeju and most flagrantly the deployment of THAAD in South Korea means that the arguments of the conciliators and appeasers are becoming less persuasive. If appeasement doesn’t appease, what then?

We can expect to see a hardening of the Chinese position on Korea issues. It is one thing to abandon North Korea diplomatically if that produces concessions from Washington. But if it just encourages America’s multifaceted offensive against China, that may be, in China’s view, entirely another matter.

Guarding the Choke Point

The shift in China’s Korea policy became readily apparent at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Laos in late July. The concern in Seoul, and presumably relief in Pyongyang, is conveyed by some headlines in the South Korean English language press:

Korea Times: China moves toward closer ties with NK

Hankyoreh: At ASEAN forum, are China and North Korea embracing again?

Korea Times: N. Korea, Chinese diplomats use same flight, hotel

As the Hankyoreh put it:

The escalation continues. The Chinese government is using the ASEAN Regional Forum in Laos and a series of foreign ministers’ meetings to openly voice unhappiness over the South Korean and US government’s decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system with US Forces Korea. It’s a dangerous moment, where failure to resolve the THAAD conflict quickly could result in a typhoon that engulfs South Korea-China relations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held bilateral talks lasting a little over hour on July 25 with his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho.

The South China Sea ruling came at much the same time as the announcement of the deployment of THAAD, and the South Korean press naturally focused on the latter. From China’s point of view, THAAD and the South China Sea issue are merely two aspects of the same thing – America’s policy of containment and perhaps eventual destruction of China, the competitor whose rise threatens its global hegemony. Of the two, the South China Sea is probably the more important in China’s view.

This was brought out in a recent study by RAND, the security think tank originally established by the US Air Force and an important influence on Washington’s thinking. The report War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable was released on July 28. The general thrust was how to have a limited war with China, avoiding a nuclear conflagration but inflicting sufficient damage to halt its ‘peaceful rise.’ The military commentator Peter Apps hit on the main message in his discussion of the report:

The real battle of attrition, however, would be economic – as it almost always is when great powers confront each other. On that front, the consequences for China could be devastating.

Washington and Beijing are each other’s most significant trading partners. The report estimates that 90 percent of that bilateral trade would cease if the two were in direct military confrontation for a year. That would hurt both sides, but the United States could likely continue trade with much of the rest of the world while almost all imports and exports to China would have to pass by sea through a war zone.  Perhaps most importantly, China might find itself cut off from vital external energy sources while Washington’s energy supply chain would be far less affected.

That ‘war zone’ through which most of China’s trade and all its sea-borne imports would have to pass is the South China Sea. It is, as K J Noh put it, the chokepoint. If you want to strangle someone or some country, either to death or surrender, it is the chokepoint you go for.



Tim Beal is the author of North Korea: The Struggle against American Power (2005) and Crisis in Korea: America, China and the Risk of War (2011). He is an invited occasional columnist for the Washington-based website NK News.  His personal website is at http://www.timbeal.net.nz/

Featured News & Articles

Korea News Roundup (March 22, 2019)

South Korean parliamentarians and peace advocates in DC call for diplomacy and end to Korean War | After Hanoi, US re-thinks “sequencing” while North Korea considers suspending talks | CIA may be linked to attack on North Korean embassy in Madrid | US-South Korea continue annual war games under changed name.

read more

A Stumble at Hanoi, but Negotiations Remain on the Agenda

President Trump’s hasty decision to pull the plug on the Hanoi Summit ahead of schedule came as a stunning surprise. The feeling of disappointment in those who were hoping for success contrasted with the sense of relief in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which remains steadfastly opposed to any improvement in relations.

read more

Weekly News Roundup

Korea News Update (August 17, 2018)

NORTH-SOUTH RELATIONS   Moon and Kim to Meet again in September; U.S. Ambassador says “Too early” to End the Korean War The leaders of North and South Korea will meet for the third time, this time in Pyongyang in September, announced Ri Son Gwon, chairman...

read more
Please follow us:

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)