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Taiwan is the key to understanding China’s claims to the South China Sea

If you think China’s claims in the South China Sea are irrational, think again: the problem for Britain and the US is that the wrong side won the Chinese civil war. KEITH LAMB examines the historical contradictions at play

BRITAIN: do we never learn? We always have a righteous cause to defend, a reason for sending our ships to far-flung corners of the Earth.

The slave trade was justified as a benevolent venture to save Africans from their own savagery — and besides, they would be looked after. They would, so it was rationalised, enjoy a better quality of life than the British proletariat stuck in factories and mines.

China, of course, was not spared by the British navy, suffering two opium wars and the seizure of Hong Kong in the name of free trade.

These consequences of empire we still suffer today. but while the history cannot be changed, we can at least learn the lessons from history and so avoid future calamities.

As Britain sends the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the South China Sea (SCS) to join the US navy at a time of heightened tensions, it is pertinent that we understand what is at play in this region — otherwise we are set to repeat our errors.

There are many overlapping claims in the SCS. While we in the West do not have to agree with China’s specific claims, we must at least be cognisant that their claims are legitimate and rational. By recognising this simple fact, China’s actions in the SCS must be re-evaluated and discussed in a level-headed manner beyond the moral pretences in which the Western business media and right-wing political elites frame China’s claims.

In Britain and the US, I rarely, if ever, meet anyone that does not characterise China’s territorial claims in the SCS as being anything other than a blatant land-grab from neighbouring states. At best, China’s actions are characterised as imperial revanchism. At worst, their claims, spread widely in the Western media, are crudely compared to fascist Germany.

This results in the desired Pavlovian reaction from audiences who, instilled with a mixture of fear and loathing, are often only too ready to tacitly sanction the use of force and antagonistic measures by their elites.

Taiwan, in regard to China’s claims in the SCS, besides being a footnote in the conversation, is rarely raised in the West — and for good reason. By raising Taiwan, it becomes impossible to use the common knee-jerk narratives of an “unreasonable China making up senseless claims to land they know does not belong to them.” In addition, the Taiwanese independence movement is weakened.

China’s claim over the SCS is historically based on its claim that the islands in the SCS were first developed by China. This includes the (relatively close to China) Xisha (Paracel) Islands and the Nansha (Spratly) Islands, which are further away and closer to Malaysia.

Having islands and territory closer to another major landmass than the sovereign state is not unprecedented. Britain claims sovereignty of the disputed Falkland Islands close to Argentina and the Channel Islands are close to France. Likewise, the US has the far-flung territory of Guam close to Asia and various other dependencies not linked to the continental US.

Importantly, in regard to the SCS, the ROC (Republic of China), commonly known as Taiwan, has the same claim as the PRC (People’s Republic of China). Both decorate their maps of the SCS with a similar U-shaped dash line to mark their territory.

Unsurprisingly, when the ROC, allied with the US, was recognised as the legitimate government of the whole of China, the US had no qualms about upholding China’s sovereign rights in the SCS. After WWII, both the Nansha and Xisha Islands occupied by Japan were returned to the ROC and China set up a garrison in the Nansha Islands in 1946.

Recognising the land in the SCS as territory belonging to China, the International Aviation Organisation in 1955 tasked the ROC with setting up meteorological aviation stations in the SCS. This decision was sanctioned by the powerful Western powers of the day.

Taiwan’s claim comes under that of the ROC being the legitimate inheritor of the Chinese state. However, Taiwan’s head of state Sai Ing-wen, the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, pushes for independent Taiwan statehood.

As such, one would think this would weaken an independent Taiwan’s claims to islands in the SCS — especially as the Xisha and Nansha islands are significantly further away from Taiwan than mainland China.

However, the SCS claims have been firmly upheld by Sai, who also rejected the the Court of Final Arbitration in the Hague’s 2016 SCS dispute ruling in favour of the Philippines. Immediately after the ruling, Sai, after inspecting naval units, promptly sent vessels to patrol the ROC’s claims in the SCS.

Taiwan does not just claim the islands in the SCS, it also administers some of the best islands there. This means that the ROC still controls territory in three to four Chinese provinces: it controls the whole of Taiwan province; it still administers parts of Fujian province on the other side of the Taiwan Strait, while the Xisha and Nansha islands today are administered under Hainan province in the PRC, but under the KMT rule they were part of Guangdong province.

Clearly highlighting such a messy fact makes it hard to untangle the PRC from the ROC.

Besides the thorny cross-straits issue, there is another good reason why Taiwan’s claims remain silent. Firstly, it becomes obvious that at one point the US did support China’s claims to the SCS.

This then prompts the question as to why the claims of the ROC — which had a one-party system up to 1997 — were considered legitimate while the PRC’s one-party system’s claims are somehow invalid now.

It would appear the remaining factor is a Cold War dogmatic resistance to communist states, even those that play by market rules.

Secondly, mentioning Taiwan in the same sentence as China and the SCS negates the alarmist propaganda disseminated in the West. China’s one-party state, as aforementioned, is lambasted as a rogue one, one whose SCS territorial claims are portrayed as highly irrational and illegitimate. Thus the rational actions of the PRC are used to portray a bellicose one-party communist state that is set on threatening the world order and liberal democracies.

However, the fact that Taiwan, a liberal democracy, has the same claims does not fit into the neat script drawn up in the Western media and its think tanks. Taiwan or the ROC’s near-identical claims, as well as its determination to defend these claims, are enough to prove that the PRC’s historical claims to the SCS are not invalidated by its political-economic system.

Nor are they unreasonable ones uniquely produced by a communist state. As such, Taiwan’s claims are an inconvenient truth that must be ignored to keep up the pretence of a Chinese state that acts unreasonably.

Recognising Taiwan’s claims leads to a can of worms that the West would rather not open. It leads to too many questions regarding Taiwan’s independence and lends legitimacy to China’s claims.

If China is a rational actor with legitimate claims, then it no longer is reasonable for the Western elites to terrorise thier own populations into supporting irrational, hot-headed partisan solutions when neutrality and even-handedness are required.

Importantly, for the PRC the unequal treatment it receives in comparison to the ROC will not go without note. The righteous narratives being pushed out will sound as hollow to them now as those that justified the slave trade and the opium trade then.

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