Despite all the other things in the news (U.S. race riots, Brexit, Donald versus Hillary versus Gary, new Prime Minister of England), China has also managed to squeeze its way onto the headlines. What have our friends in the Orient been up to lately? They have been creating several new islands in the South China Sea, and, pretty much claiming that this entitles them to almost complete control of that large patch of the Pacific. The present paper is dedicated to an attempt to shed libertarian light on these occurrences.
What, exactly has the People’s Republic been doing? They land on tiny atolls and reefs in the Spratly Archipelago. They dredge for sand and coral on the close-by ocean floor, build up these outcroppings, and, viola! we have a new artificial island perched in the sea. At the time of this writing, they have done this in some half dozen places off their coast, but, in many cases, far closer to its neighbors, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. They have also come into conflict in this regard with South Korea and Japan. As a result of these constructions, they claim, first, they are part of China, proper, and, second, control over vast reaches of ocean is now theirs, given that the reach of a nation extends some 200 miles in terms of influence and 12 nautical miles as far as territorial jurisdiction is concerned. With more and more such islands, each giving their owner claims to 22.2 kilometers, or 13.8 (land)miles on all four sides of them, this country has come into conflict with its neighbors in terms of not only the land itself but also oil reserves, fishing rights, and safe passage.
As a result of these expansions, the Philippine government has sued its Chinese counterpart in the Permanent Court of Arbitration located in The Hague, Netherlands. This court lacks physical power to impose its findings on anyone but has found in favor of the plaintiff. As a result, China now sees itself on the defensive, and has lashed out at this finding, calling it irrelevant, and worse. It has pledged to simply ignore it
What perspective on these goings-on might a libertarian offer? If we take the anarcho-capitalist version of this philosophy, the answer is very straight-forward. Yes, land and sea ownership for that matter is properly based on homesteading. That is, mixing labor with the virgin land, and, in this case, water too, is the only legitimate path toward valid ownership rights. But, the government is not a licit organization in the first place. Therefore, its ownership of anything whatsoever – land, buildings, rivers, oceans, roads, etc., is invalid. Hence, the ruling from the “libertarian court” would be that all the states involved, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, South Korea and Japan, should simply disband. The United States, although located far away from these contested islands and waters, has also poked its nose into this controversy; it, too, would be invited to break apart. This analysis is simple, direct, and, most important, correct from a philosophical point of view. The conclusion: none of these governments is the legitimate owner of anything. Period.
But let us not stop here, lest we be accused of being irrelevant to real world concerns. If we do cease and desist at this point, we cannot voice an opinion as to the correctness of the stances of the Chinese, nor the Philippine, nor The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration. So let us “get our hands dirty” and consider this matter not from the purest libertarian position, the anarcho-capitalist one, but rather from a lesser, but still important perspective of the minarchists. Here, governments are legitimate organizations, at least when they are limited to very small budgets limited to the defense of person and legitimately owned property. Or, alternatively, we can assume these disputes are not between governments, but amongst private citizens, living in these contending countries. How can we apply libertarian principles under such assumptions?
Again, we must hark back to homesteading, one side of the coin of libertarianism (the other is, of course, the non-aggression principle). The Chinese, whether in their role as a “legitimate government” (hey, I have to use scare quotes here or Murray Rothbard, who is now up there somewhere looking down upon all of us, will be disappointed) or as private citizens, is the proper owner of all those islands. This goes for all the ones they built up by dredging the ocean floor for sand and coral, and all the ones they may choose to create in this manner in future. They were there first. They were the ones who first landed on those rock outcroppings in the sea, and built them up into actual islands. Let us offer our congratulations to the Chinese; you are the rightful owners. You deserve property rights in these new islands.
However, when it comes to control or ownership of the surrounding waters, matters are very different. Here, the Chinese will have to be a bit disappointed with our libertarian analysis. Remember, property rights in the South China Sea supposedly stems from that “natural law” finding that a nation owns 12 nautical miles from its shores into the ocean. But from whence does this stem? It is based upon the length of cannon shot. Earlier on, when such military devices could only shoot a distance of two miles, that was the accepted degree to which a county’s “ownership” of the ocean extended. When this weaponry became more powerful, we moved up to 12 miles. Nowadays, in an era of ICBMs, this clearly would not work. But even in its heyday, still, this criterion has nothing whatsoever to do with libertarian homesteading theory, certainly not as laid out by stalwarts of our philosophy such as John Locke, Murray Rothbard, and Hans Hoppe. No. If we are to put this on a libertarian footing, then only those who homestead the actual water get to own that resource, and China has done no more of that than anyone else.
For a more detailed notion of how this process might function, the interested reading may wish to refer to this book of mine:
Block, Walter E. and Peter Lothian Nelson. 2015. Water Capitalism: The Case for Privatizing Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers. New York City, N.Y.: Lexington Books; Rowman and Littlefield. It will be coming out soon in paperback, at a fraction of its present price.
To conclude: The Chinese are the legitimate owner of their islands, but only of those small specks of land. Of nothing else.