Unlocking the Mystery of South China Sea Dispute

Updated: Mar 4

By Dr Tan Kee Wee

Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin at Potsdam on 17 Jul 1945


Seventy five years ago this weekend, the three dominant leaders of World War II came together to decide how to administer the defeated German nation. This was the Potsdam Conference (17 July to 2 August 1945).

Besides the main German issue, the agenda included many other post-war issues. One of these issues was the sovereignty over the group of South China Sea islands that Japanese forces captured from the Chinese and occupied in WWII.

At the end of the Potsdam Conference, it was agreed, in signed documents, and in front of witnesses, including Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek, that the group of islands, including the Paracel Islands, the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands, would all be handed over to China.

US warships transported Chinese soldiers in 1946 to claim the Spratly Islands


In 1946, China was too poor to even have a large enough ship to transport her soldiers. In the spirit of friendship, US warships transported Chinese soldiers to the Spratly Islands, as the above photo shows, to claim territories that the Potsdam Conference agreed upon.

In 1947, China drew up a map (below) with 11-dashed lines around the island territories to mark its sovereignty.

The 1947 Chinese map with the 11-dashed lines bordering its claim

The 11-dashed lines were then reduced to 9-dashed lines. What happened was in 1957, when China and Vietnam were communist buddies, China gave the island of Bailongwei to Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was China’s contribution to North Vietnam’s war against the United States. China has never claimed Bailongwei ever since.

With that move, only the famous 9-dashed lines, bordering China’s claims, remain. In recent years, disputes have arisen over who owns what and where. The following map shows the competing claims.

The different entities claiming the different bits. Map: Forbes


Wait a minute. We scratch our heads and ask: if the 11 or 9-dashed lines bordering China’s territories had been agreed at Potsdam in 1945, why is everyone still arguing over the ownership?

It depends on how far back we want to go back in history. It’s very similar to a messy divorce when we have to decide how child custody should be managed, how alimony should work, and how assets should be divided. As new characters enter the scene, complications worsen.

The South China Sea issue is no different. In 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to Taiwan and the new leadership of Mao Zedong flew the communist flag in mainland China. The US didn’t like that.

In September 1951, there was a multi-nation conference named the Treaty of San Francisco to re-establish peaceful relations between Japan and the world. China was not invited to the conference because people couldn’t agree whether Taiwan represented China.

The 1951 Conference didn’t really address the South China Sea issue. Worse, some of these islands were handed over to other parties. China’s ownership of the South China Sea islands was denied because the US took over their administration until 1971.

Of course, China protested. But China’s protests fell on deaf ears. The world we live in tend to ignore the cries of those who are weak economically and militarily. Like Mao Zedong said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun ( 枪杆子里面出政权 )”.

Fast forward another 70 years to today, and the issues over the South China Seas continue. The stakes have gone up because in recent years, significant natural resources have been discovered in the region.

A few days ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it even messier by stating that China’s claims were unlawful. He was referring to a controversial United Nation Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) statement in 2016.

There are three weird responses to this reference. In the first place, UNCLOS has no right to rule on sovereignty. It is up to another global court to decide (Court of Justice). The second weird response is that the US government has not officially approved the United Nation Convention of Law of the Sea yet.

The third weird response is that UNCLOS was formed in 1994, 47 years after China first drew the 11-dashed lines. Normally, international laws do not apply retroactively. In other words, we cannot apply a new law to a past event.


If we did, then the peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Diego Garcia and the native Indians of North America could ask for their lands back and seek compensation.

What Mike Pompeo was doing last week was what he does best. He was trying to push through his alternate view through repetition. A lot of times, repetition of a statement does lead people to believe that the statement is the truth.

John