China and The Territorial Claims in The South China Sea

The unresolved maritime border disputes between China and some of its neighbouring countries is one of the hardest issues to resolve in current global affairs. This is not just an issue about the natural resources that these areas might have, nor solely about their strategic importance, but touches on deep emotions of national identity, and competing sovereignties in the region. The issue of the ownership of the Sankaku/Diaoyu islands, which has been particularly contentious in 2012, distils all of these thorny problems. These islands are in a region with strong geopolitical importance, because it involves the interface between the second and third largest economies not just in the region, but in the world. In addition, China and Japan’s increasingly intense behaviour over the status of these islands has pulled in highly emotive issues from the joint histories between the two countries, and its impact has been seen in the steeply falling trade and investment figures between both as the problem has intensified.

Understanding the maritime border issues involves getting to grips with complex competing historical claims, some of them dating back many centuries, involving issues of predecessor states and the commitments they signed, and highly technical matters from international law, much of which is still evolving. Add to this the volatile political relations between some of the states involved, their competing senses of economic and strategic interests, and the very different ways in which they express their national identity and link it with strands of nationalism in their polities, and you have potentially a highly volatile situation.

Loh Su Hsing is well placed to help outsiders navigate this complex terrain. She is a government official, with rich experience in Singapore, one of the key observers of this issue. She is fluent in Mandarin and English, and can deal with source materials in both languages. And she has completed a Ph D in international relations in Fudan University. This gives her a hard won neutrality over the issue, supplemented by a keen eye for details. Her paper, part of the University of Sydney China Studies Centre new Policy Papers series is a timely and highly topical addition to a debate that is all too often riddled with confusing claims and baffling technicalities. For those who want to really get to grips with the reason why China’s maritime border issues are so contentious and possibly dangerous, then reading this paper would be a good start.

Professor Kerry Brown
Executive Director, China Studies Centre, and Professor of Chinese Politics, University of Sydney