Of the many myths that surround the history of the South China Sea/West Philippines Sea, one of the hardest to dispel is the idea that during the Second World War, the Western allies promised the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands to China. This myth keeps appearing in public discussions despite the lack of evidence to support it. Even the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, has been misled into repeating it.
In July 2020, Ambassador Huang told the Manila Times that, “China recovered and resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Nansha Islands after war according to the Cairo Declaration, Potsdam Proclamation and other post-war instruments.” The ambassador was using the word ‘Nansha’ as the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands, known in the Philippines as the Kalayaan Island Group. Perhaps unknowingly, he was talking nonsense.
The Cairo Declaration was a short text published on 1 December 1943 following a series of meetings between the US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China. The three leaders declared that, once the war was over, “Japan shall be stripped of all the islands in the Pacific which she has seized or occupied since the beginning of the first World War in 1914, and that all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and The Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China. Japan will also be expelled from all other territories which she has taken by violence and greed.”
The first thing to notice about the Cairo Declaration is that it makes no mention of the ‘Nansha’ or Spratly Islands, or the Paracels or Scarborough Shoal or any of the present-day disputed features. The only islands that are specifically named are Formosa (Taiwan) and the Pescadores (known in Chinese as the Penghu) which lie just west of Taiwan. Only these two sets of islands are promised to China, no others.
The following sentence of the Cairo Declaration says that Japanese forces will be expelled from all the other territories they have invaded but says nothing about which countries they will be returned to. This sentence covered the territories of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, from Burma to Papua New Guinea, that had been part of the British, French and Dutch empires before they were invaded by Japan. Those governments wanted to recover their colonies once Japan was defeated, but the United States disagreed. As a result, the text of the Cairo Declaration was vague. The leaders could agree that Japan should be expelled from them, but their future fate was left undecided.
There is more. The Nansha/Spratly Islands could not be counted as “territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese” because China had simply not claimed them in 1943. The historical evidence is clear. In 1943, the Republic of China’s (RoC) Ministry of Information published what it called the ‘China Handbook 1937–43’, a comprehensive guide to the country’s geography, history, politics, and economics. On its opening page it stated that “the territory of the Republic of China extends from [the Sajan Mountains in the north] . . . to Triton Island of the Paracel Group.”
In other words, in 1943 China only claimed the Paracel Islands in the northern part of the South China Sea, not the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal. Two editions of the China Handbook were published that year; the first in Calcutta in July and the second in New York in November. Both carried the same text.
It was not until June 1947, well after the Second World War was finished, that the Chinese government agreed that it would claim the Spratly/Nansha/Kalayaan islands. Even then, the 1947 edition of the same China Handbook was cautious. It stated that “the southernmost . . . boundaries [of China] remain to be settled . . . and the sovereignty of the Tuansha Islands on the south are contested among China, the Commonwealth of Philippines and Indochina”.
At this time, Chinese sources referred to the Spratlys as “Tuansha.” The name Nansha – southern sands – was it this time used to refer to the Macclesfield Bank, further north, because that was previously the southernmost area known to China. It was only in 1947 that the name ‘Nansha’ was moved further south.
In short, it is clear that none of the delegations at the Cairo Conference could have intended the phrase “territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese” to include the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal. They were simply not regarded as Chinese at that time by anyone. The situation is slightly more complex when it comes to the Paracel Islands. France had made a formal claim to the Paracels in 1931 as the colonial power in Indochina (based on much older claims by its colony Annam). As a result, it was not clear whether Japan had stolen these islands from the Chinese or the French, so their status was left vague.
The 1945 Potsdam Declaration makes no mention of the islands of the South China Sea at all. The text agreed by Roosevelt’s successor President Harry Truman, along with Churchill and Chiang, merely states that “The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” It says nothing about which territories shall be returned to Chinese control.
The same is true of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty. Article 2 merely says that “Japan renounces all right, title and claim to the Spratly Islands and to the Paracel Islands”. A similar phrase appears in the 1952 Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China. Neither says anything about which country the islands rightfully belong to. The question was simply left open.
The historical evidence is clear. There is nothing in any of these documents that promise the islands of the South China Sea – other than Taiwan and the Pescadores – to China. It is a great shame that so many people who claim to be knowledgeable about the subject continue to perpetuate the myths that they do./.
Dr. Bill Hayton
The author of “The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia”