Dissatisfied with claims over nearly every rock and sand in the South China Sea, China has taken an unusual step in trademarking hundreds of land sites scattered across the seas. That dispute, an investigation by BenarNews, an affiliate of RFA online news service, has found.
That action was met with objections from other South China Sea claimants. Taiwan and Vietnam have rejected the legitimacy of trademarks described by experts as a possible attempt by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to control how domestic firms and even even foreign countries use the East Sea trademark.
Unlike most assertive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, trademark registrations were largely eliminated when they were started seven years ago. But now, a review of the Chinese government’s filing from 2014 by BenarNews has revealed that the city of Sanya – which is responsible for managing China’s claims in the South China Sea – has submitted the goods. thousand of domestic trademark applications included 281 rocky beaches, coral reefs, shoals and other disputed sites as well as all areas of the South China Sea.
Each of these trademarks includes the name of the feature in Chinese stylized calligraphy and is classified under one of the 45 assorted international brandsThis includes everything from musical instruments to legal services. Many apps also include English transcription of the name of a feature, and illustrative logos provide a colorful view of the feature when viewed from the top. The depiction of features appears to predate China’s massive land reclamation campaign in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos which began in 2014.
Names and registered logos of trademarks of Meiji Reef, Red Cross (Yongshu Reef), Subi Reef (Zhubi Reef) and all of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands). Image: Trademark held by Tam Sa Yongxing City Affairs Department; Analysis: BenarNews.
Claims of sovereignty
These marks have the potential to help the Chinese government sue lawsuits to control how Chinese and foreign companies use them, says Julian Ku, a professor at the Maurice A. Deane Law School at Hofstra University. East Sea brand.
He said that this would be a form of “circumvention” – the use of international and domestic law by China to enhance its position in disputes.
China claims that it holds sovereignty over hundreds of geographical features over the entire South China Sea as well as extensive rights to its waters, a stance not supported by international law. Its claims are being disputed by a number of neighboring countries, although it appears that those countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have registered equivalent trademarks.
In response to a request for comment on Chinese trademarks, an official at the Vietnam Embassy in Washington, DC told BenarNews that “all ways of spreading information are contrary to international law and historical facts are. worthless and illegal, and will not be able to change the truth about Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa [Paracels] and Truong Sa [Spratlys]. “
The commercial use of South China Sea images – especially maps – has long been a source of tension among the claimants. The controversial nine-dashed Chinese inclusion on the map in DreamWorks’ 2019 film Endearing, for example, caused authorities in the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia to ban the film.
And just last week, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said that “companies operating in Vietnam must respect and strictly abide by Vietnamese laws”, criticizing foreign brands that have China’s nine-dash line in the map on their product.
It is clear from the official comments on the issue that China sees intrinsic value in asserting commercial rights over what is disputed territory. A quote from an official of Tam Sa city, run by the state China Industry and Trade News reported in 2016 that “filing a trademark application for the names of the islands and reefs of Sanya City under China’s ‘Trademark Law’ is the most direct embodiment of the sovereignty claim.”
The city of Tam Sa has also registered these trademarks to “protect the ownership of the geographical name of each island, coral reefs, shoals and islands” and “prevent trademark acquisition”. China Industry and Trade News said, refers to when an entity register in advance trademark of another entity, effectively stealing that mark.
Claim each last rock and reef
281 trademarked geographical features of Sanya City largely match the list of 287 features that China named and claimed in 1983, that is extend in April 2020.
For example, the city has trademarked the Paracel Islands, an archipelago also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan; The Crescent Group and the Amphitrite Group, which form the two main halves of the Paracel Islands; Qilian Island, which is a subregion of the Amphitrite Group; and Tree Island, which is part of Qilian Island.
It has also trademarked many of the reefs and reefs in the Spratly archipelago, including features controlled by other disputed states such as Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba, and Philippine-owned Thitu Island. occupation and Sin Cowe Island was occupied by Vietnam.
The name and trademark are registered trademarks of Itu Aba (Taiping Island), Thitu Island (Zhongye Island) and Sin Cowe Island (Jinghong Island). Image: Trademark held by Tam Sa Yongxing City Affairs Department; Analysis: BenarNews.
Taiwan’s Council for Mainland Affairs this week said it had undisputed sovereignty over Itu Aba as well as effective long-term management over the island. The Council argued that Chinese trademarks were inconsistent with international standards and criticized them as a deliberate attempt to create a false image of China’s jurisdiction over Itu Aba.
Tensions between Taiwan and the PRC over their South China Sea claims have been heightened in recent weeks as China operate Drones and military aircraft near the Taiwan-occupied Pratas island.
Tam Sa City has in fact not trademarked Pratas, but it has trademarked other disputed entities recently reported. Among them are Scarborough Shoal and Whitsun Reef – each of which is a border site between China and the Philippines, the first at Scarborough in 2012 and the second at Whitsun in March 2021.
The presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats or militia boats at Whitsun Reef created significant diplomatic obstruction from Manila in late March and on Tuesday prompted Manila to summon the Chinese ambassador at Philippines. It has also attracted statements of interest and condemnation from Washington, Hanoi, Canberra, London, and other capitals.
Authorities in the Philippines last week said they knew about Chinese brands but declined to comment. Malaysian officials also declined to comment.
Suspicious legal power
Chinese government filings show the city of Sanya has applied for at least 2,675 trademarks, with all but a few filed in 2014. Most but not all of these applications appear to be the case. has been successfully approved.
In 82 cases, the city of Tam Sa has registered trademarks for a geographical feature many times, sometimes registering trademarks according to each of the 45 types of international trademarks for a geographical feature. It also trademarked Scarborough Shoal under two separate names, filing 45 trademark applications for “Huangyan Island” and 45 applications for “Minzhu Reef.”
Although China registered trademarks seven years ago, they do not appear to be in widespread use – with one exception. The “Sansha” logo the city has trademarked can be seen on the city’s supply vessels, its website and podiums used by the city government. “Tam Sa” refers to Xisha Islands, Nansha Islands and Zhongsha Islands, is the Chinese name for the archipelagos of Paracel, Spratly, Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Shoal.
The city’s trademark “Sansha” is visible on its two main supply vessels, the Sansha 1 (top) and the Sansha 2 (bottom). Photos: Tam Sa City People’s Government, Xinhua Commune, Trademark held by Tam Sa City Affairs Department; Analysis: BenarNews.
The legal meanings of these marks are not entirely clear, Ku said.
“Trademarks are legal protections for commercial use of names or symbols, meaning” trademarks are often not understood to reinforce the sovereignty claims of a country, “he said. according to international law.
Furthermore, Ku says that “trademarks are usually recognized first under domestic law and you must register a trademark by country” and that “each country still has the right to refuse trademark registration for legal reasons. domestic.”
Ku also questioned whether such geographic locations could be trademarked.
The name and trademark are registered trademarks of Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands), Crescent Group (Yongle Islands) and Amphitrite Group (Xuande Islands). Image: Trademark held by Tam Sa Yongxing City Affairs Department; Analysis: BenarNews.
“There are protections in US and international law for geographical indications when combined with (typically) food products such as ‘Champagne’ but the transaction of a feature of the land without Having any particular product is new to me and I think it’s a bit uncertain under the trademark laws of most countries, ”he said.
Despite these restrictions, these trademarks could still be useful to the Chinese government.
These marks may, for example, have allowed the Chinese government to prevent the unapproved commercial use of the South China Sea trademarks by Chinese companies.
These trademarks may also be intended to discourage foreign companies from using the East Sea trademark, Ku said.
“If any company tries to market a product with a land feature name, in theory, the owner of the Chinese trademark would be able to sue,” he said.
“But since I think it is unlikely that other countries will recognize these Chinese trademark claims, I am not very concerned,” said Ku.
He also noted that the Chinese government only trademarked the Chinese names of these features – as well as English transliteration – rather than names that are widely recognized in other languages, possibly. the ability to further limit the international impact of these marks.
“However, even the possibility of litigation can be a meaningful deterrent,” said Ku.
Imran Vittachi in Washington, DC, Jason Gutierrez in Manila, and Hwang Chun-Mei in Taipei contributed to this report.