Who Will Fire the First Shot in the South China Sea?
Photo Credit: South China Morning Post
By Peter Kien-hong Yu

Who Will Fire the First Shot in the South China Sea?

Jun. 02, 2017  |     |  0 comments

On sensitive issues, we human beings are always curious about who first pulls the trigger or who is responsible for firing the first shot. On May 19, 2017, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech that Chinese President Xi Jinping had told him that their countries are friends but: “We do not want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain a warm relationship but if you force the issue we will go to war.”

History does not completely repeat itself, due to the fact that the psychology, mood, and behavior of each of us differ all the time. However, in terms of the act or action itself, the answer is crystal clear regarding some cases. The consensus is that gunpowder was invented at the end of the Iron Age in ancient China. Song Lizong was the fifth emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty. It was he who fired the first shot in the world. 

What about modern examples? One good example is the first shot which was fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, where the American civil war erupted in April 1861. This was fired by the south, also known as the Confederate States of America. Another example was the first shot fired by Imperial Japan at Lu Gou Qiao (Marco Polo Bridge) in the vicinity of Beijing on July 7, 1937, which ignited the eight-year war against the Japanese empire.

As to other historic cases, some ongoing confusion or mystery over who fired the first shot lingers on. For example, who in April 1775 fired the first shot at Lexington Town, Massachusetts in the American Revolution: the British or the Provincials?1 Orders were given at that time not to fire unless fired upon. However, a shot rang out from an unknown source. 

Another example from Europe is that Corporal Ernest Edward Thomas of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards fired the first of millions of shots that claimed 16 million lives in the First World War. Some analysts would challenge that by posing the following questions: Did the World War I start with a British bullet speeding across a Sarajevo street in Bosnia proper on June 28, 1914? Or was it five weeks later, when Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops marched into the Kingdom of Belgium? 

We can also make the following observations: The first (warning) shot of World War I was fired on August 5, 1914 by the British Empire at Australia’s Portsea on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula across the bow of the German cargo steamer SS Pfalz. “The [Australian] pilot was adamant that they must stop because the next shot was going to be into the ship” and “[s]o for a second or two there was a physical tussle on the bridge [of the ship] between the German captain and the … pilot.” The steamer surrendered.

Let’s return to the South China Sea (SCS). The Declaration on the Code of Conduct (COC) on the SCS was signed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November 2002. Activities such as combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms are permitted. From May 17-18, 2017, the 14th Senior Officials’ Meeting and 21st Joint Working Group Meeting adopted the COC framework. Wang Yi, who is the incumbent PRC foreign minister, in June 2013 emphasized that the two documents are linked to each other or one must do without the other.

After May 18, 2017, would China fire the first shot in the SCS? Several scenarios can be discussed. 

If there is no exchange of fire, peace and tranquility can perhaps be maintained for the sake of all and for a long period of time. 

In May 1949, after 16 days of fighting, Shanghai was occupied by the Third Field Army of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which chose to land on Baoshan District, a place of strategic importance and a militarily contested area since ancient times.2 Shanghai Archives reported that the PLA fired the first shot on the 12th,3 which is referred to in Chinese Communist historiography as part of the War of Liberation. In terms of logic, what this implies is that should a foreign power occupy a new geographic feature in the SCS, which is supposedly under Beijing and/or Taipei’s administration, the PLA may recover it by firing the first shot, because it belongs to the Chinese nation in the first place. 

In June 1946, Zhong Yuan (the Central Plains) became a battleground between the then ruling Nationalist Party of China and the Communist Party of China.4 It is well-known that it was the former, armed with 217,000 troops, which fired the first shot at the latter’s 50-60,000 troops. The latter, acknowledging their disadvantages in manpower and equipment, executed a passive defense strategy by not confronting the strong points of the then ruling party’s army, and was willing to tactically abandon a territory under its control. We can infer that, in the SCS, the PLA may at any time for the sake of preserving their strength to the last minute repeat what they had done more than seven decades ago.

In January 1974, the PLA Navy confronted and, for the first time since the creation of the PRC, defeated foreign naval vessels in the Paracel Archipelago of the SCS. It complied with the policy of “ziwei fanji zhan” (counterattack in self-defense) against the Republic of Vietnam (ROV). In other words, it was Saigon, which claimed the Paracels in May 1956, which fired the first shot in early 1974. In other words, the same policy may be used again in the SCS in the future. 

On March 14, 1988, it is not completely clear which side fired the first shot at Chi Gua Jiao (Johnson South Reef) in the Spratly Archipelago of the SCS. (According to commander Chen Weiwen, it was a Vietnamese soldier who fired the first shot.) To be sure, it was the very first naval skirmish between the PRC and a foreign power after the PRC had formulated its open-to-the-outside-world policy in the late 1970s. Arguably, we cannot rule out the possibility that this scenario may happen again after May 18, 2017. 

Inductively speaking, the first shot could be any of the following possibilities or due to any of the following reasons: a shot rings out from an unknown source; had to be fired for the sake of maintaining justice; is decisive, settling a dispute once and for all; is a malfunction; is merely a warning shot; is a misfire; is mistaken to be a non-friendly shot; or is unintentional. We can also pose questions like: Can we equate a staged first shot as the very first one, as in the case of former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on March 19, 2004? Should roboticists and programmers in the armed forces be held responsible for (automatically) activating and/or piloting a machine, whose sole purpose is to kill (unarmed) civilians and non-civilians? 

Hopefully, after the adoption of the COC framework, none of the claimants or concerned sea-powers in the SCS would need to fire the first shot. If there is no exchange of fire, peace and tranquility can perhaps be maintained in that body of water for the sake of all and for a long period of time. 
In sum, none of us wish to see a battle or war taking place again the SCS. A plaque commemorating the first shot of World War I by Corporal Thomas was unveiled in 1939. It was six months after his death in February in the Belgium village of Casteau, which was just 400 yards from the plaque. After May 18, 2017, when would we be able to see the last shot in the SCS, if the first shot was fired or had to be fired by a (dormant) claimant or (hostile) sea-power? 


1. This is the birthplace of American liberty. The Battle of Lexington took place in April 1775.

2. The PLA did not want battles to take place inside Shanghai, and so it chose Baoshan. The city was able to continuously provide electricity and water.

3. No. 5 (2016), p. 49.

4. Specifically, the place is Dawu County in Xiaogang City of Hubei Province.

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