Territorial and maritime disputes among China, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries are roiling the South China Sea region, with little prospect of resolution any time soon. But the current uneasy status quo may be tenable, so long as the parties embrace serious confidence-building measures through multilateral forums while maintaining effective deterrence vis-à-vis China and a commitment not to use offensive force.
Naturally, China is eager to exclude interference by extra-regional great powers, particularly the United States, preferring bilateral negotiations with weaker regional claimants that it can more easily dominate. Extra-regional powers, however, cite the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea—specifically, the freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage—to justify their involvement.
Given that the South China Sea disputes stem from overlapping claims to “exclusive economic zones,” not open ocean, the UN convention is not entirely relevant. But another international agreement does provide some guidance for settling these disputes: the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which entered into force in 1952 and officially ended World War II in the Asia-Pacific region.
Under the treaty, Japan renounced its sovereignty claims over the Spratly and the Paracel Islands, but did not reassign them to any single country. As a result, these islands remain legally under the collective custody of the treaty’s 48 other parties—including two claimants to the islands, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China—then in the third year of Mao Zedong’s rule—was not even invited to participate in the peace conference. Although Mao’s communists had clearly won the civil war and secured control of mainland China, the conference organisers disagreed about which government—Mao’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, or Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) in Taipei—truly represented China. As a result, the PRC denies that it is legally bound by the treaty.
But the treaty applies to the PRC indirectly through the ROC-Japan bilateral peace treaty of 1952, which was signed just hours before the San Francisco Treaty entered into effect and reaffirmed its terms—especially Japan’s renunciation of Taiwan. Indeed, the San Francisco Treaty required that the ROC-Japan treaty be consistent with it, thereby preventing Japan from assigning in its treaty