Flimsy Island Claims Pose Risk to Asia Geopolitics

WsjIn wrangle to plant a flag on specks in South China Sea, protagonists include a fishing magnate looking for guano

A handout picture made available by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Affairs Office shows Chinese construction on a reef  in the disputed Spratly Islands in February.
A handout picture made available by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Public Affairs Office shows Chinese construction on a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in February. PHOTO: ARMED FORCES OF THE PHILIPPINES/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Except for the fact that the South China Sea is now on the front lines of U.S.-China strategic rivalry, the exploits of “Admiral” Tomas A. Cloma Sr., a Philippine fishing magnate, might be no more than a whimsical footnote to history.

As it is, the micronation he set up in 1956 among the Spratly Islands he claimed to have discovered—the “Free Territory of Freedomland”—is an important link in a chain of events that is now causing regular diplomatic fireworks over those far-flung reefs and rocks.

Even though no country recognized Mr. Cloma’s watery realm (he established “Freedomland” to mine birds’ droppings,) it is the basis for Manila’s present-day claims to the Spratlys. China disputes those claims, along with those from four other rivals, and is reinforcing its own claims by churning up the seabed and using the sand and rubble to balloon the bits of territory it controls there.

All this swashbuckling history would be amusing if it wasn’t so serious. The South China Sea is where Chinese naval and law enforcement armadas run up against the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Accidents can—and do—happen.

The cover of a book about “Admiral” Tomas Cloma Sr., and scanned by Mr. Cloma’s family. ENLARGE
The cover of a book about “Admiral” Tomas Cloma Sr., and scanned by Mr. Cloma’s family.PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF THE PHILIPPINES

Rhetoric is ratcheting higher all the time. President Obama accused China a few weeks ago of using “sheer size and muscle” to get its own way. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman retorted that Beijing’s actions are “beyond reproach.”

But here’s the reality: None of the chief protagonists in this wrangle over insignificant specks of territory—not China, not the Philippines, not Vietnam—are blameless for turning the South China Sea into a tinderbox. China’s behavior reverberates further because it’s the regional powerhouse, and lately it’s been making the most aggressive moves by constructing mid-sea redoubts above windswept reefs and lagoons.

However, even some respected Western legal scholars argue that China’s claims are at least as good as the others. Either way, for the U.S. and China to let these intractable territorial disputes get in the middle of their geopolitical contest is the worst possible outcome. Yet that’s precisely where we are today.

If ever there was a call for delicate diplomacy it’s in the Spratlys. Their ownership is lost in a web of claims that weaves through the complex history of a region forged from ancient empires, European colonialism and wars of national liberation—and, to no small degree, pure fantasy.

PRIVATE FLAGS

Some who have laid claim to reefs in the Spratlys

  • The “Free Territory of Freedomland” was set up in 1956 by Tomas A. Cloma Sr., who claimed to have discovered some islands in the Spratlys. This is the basis for Manila’s present-day claims.
  • The “Kingdom of Humanity” was established in 1914 by Franklin N. Meads, the son of a British ship captain who claimed to have discovered the Spratlys, according to a legal affidavit.
  • The breakaway “Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads” was founded in 1959 by Christopher Schneider, according to a legal affidavit. (The Kingdom of Humanity and the Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads were merged in 1963.)

Mr. Cloma, known affectionately as “admiral” to his buddies, was thrown in jail by the former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos who forced him to hand over the islands for one peso in 1974. In later life he was granted top military honors partly in recognition of his contribution to the country’s territorial acquisitions. His image now adorns a postage stamp.

Over the years, other private claimants have sought to plant flags over the monsoon-whipped archipelago. In 1914, Franklin N. Meads, the son of a British ship captain who also purported to have discovered the Spratlys, established the “Kingdom of Humanity,” according to a legal affidavit. A breakaway “Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads” was founded in 1959 by one Christopher Schneider. The two entities merged in 1963.

Bizarre as all this may appear, it’s arguably no more far-fetched than China claiming the Spratlys partly on the strength of sovereignty established by Ming Dynasty seafarers. Historians point out that the concept of sovereignty didn’t even exist then: Countries with fixed borders were a 17th-century European invention.

Besides, Arab and Southeast Asian traders were plying the South China Sea long before the Chinese arrived.

The Vietnamese approach in the South China Sea, meanwhile, also smacks of opportunism. Hanoi appeared to recognize Chinese sovereignty over the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands in 1958, but later changed its mind and claimed them back

In fact, both archipelagoes were handed to China after World War II as part of the Japanese surrender.

For decades, the Spratlys were regarded as little more than navigational hazards until the discovery of oil and gas suddenly enhanced their value. That triggered a free-for-all in the 1980s as rival claimants built fortifications on minuscule outcrops. China is now following that playbook.

Contrary to popular belief, China controls fewer features than Vietnam or the Philippines. In forcefully asserting its claims recently, Beijing sees itself as just trying to get back into a territorial game it’s been losing.

There’s no easy way out of this mess. It’s questionable whether the U.S. can ever act as an honest broker, even though it claims to be neutral. The disputes are now mixed up in America’s broader fears that China seeks to push its forces out of the Western Pacific. In China, the issue is too deeply enmeshed in the politics of nationalism. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is silent on the question of who owns what; it concerns itself solely with maritime rights.

What’s urgently required, as former Australian Prime MinisterKevin Rudd argued last week in a Harvard study, is a regional security organization that can mediate such disputes. China, however, has ruled out multilateral solutions. Frightened neighbors have joined an arms race.

In the absence of alternatives, violent nationalism rooted in rickety claims leads us closer to the next world war.

Write to Andrew Browne at andrew.browne@wsj.com

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