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China Adds Specious Claims to Its Ownership of the South China Sea
Two Ming vessels at the bottom of the sea don’t establish legal title
Southeast Asia’s maritime nations badly need to get a grip of their own history. Ignorance and lethargy are enabling China to continue its rewrite of history to back its claims to the South China Sea and almost any other piece of sea or real estate which takes its fancy and has been visited by Chinese fishermen or merchants over the past thousand years.
Of those trying to defend their sea rights as the South China Sea’s littoral states, only Vietnam seems to have the sense of history need to confront the Chinese with facts based on findings of independent research, texts and archaeology. And even Vietnam has its weaknesses when it comes to history, given that its historical sea claims are mostly owed to the Hindu, Austronesian Cham state which once flourished for 1,000 years approximately, from Dong Hoi to Phan Rang till conquered by Vietnamese in the 15th century.
The pre-Hispanic Philippines gets scant attention in that country and for many Indonesians the focus on Islamic identity has overshowed the much greater pre-Islamic achievements, whether the great buildings of Java or the sea and merchant-based kingdoms that traded across the Indian Ocean as well as the adjacent seas. Likewise Malaysia’s focus on Islam, and particularly on the narrow-minded version imported from Arabia over the past 40 years, neglects the role of Malay as a regional mercantile language which was common to all traders, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, etc and with religious ways which accommodated traditional customs and social mores.
China’s tactic is not so much to make up facts but to ignore the role of the non-Chinese and hence distorts history to reflect Chinese ethnic and political assumptions of singularity and leadership. Thus the latest news from China on this front is of the discovery of large Ming dynasty Chinese vessels at the bottom of the northwestern part of the South China Sea. One was laden with ceramics for export, the other of timber being imported. These are interesting but not surprising finds. What is outrageous is the commentary which goes with them that the discoveries have “proved historic facts about how Chinese people developed and used the South China Sea.” The ships date to the late 15th and early 16th centuries – in other words, to the period when the Portuguese had already learned how to get from western Europe to east Asia, capturing Melaka in 511. These supposedly ground-breaking Chinese achievements came roughly a thousand years after sea routes between South and Southeast Asia and China were established not by Chinese sailors, but by Malays from Srivijaya, by Tamils and others, and were then followed by the Arab and Persian merchants who formed a huge community in Guangzhou during the Tang dynasty.
There are much earlier wrecks of large ships of Southeast Asian and Indian design and timber found in the South China Sea. Their cargoes regularly included Chinese ceramics which were sought everywhere, but even their importance has probably been exaggerated by the fact that ceramics last longer at the bottom of the sea than almost any other products.
Earlier still is the written evidence of Chinese monks traveling on foreign ships between India, Sri Lanka, Java, and Sumatra. The first Roman to reach China – in 166 CE – did so by sea from India at a time when Chinese vessels do not appear to have ventured beyond Champa.
People from Indonesian islands were the first settlers of Madagascar and also traded along the African coast and across the Indian Ocean a millennium before China’s Zheng He made his travels there, travels which make little impact on non-Chinese sources of history and whose claimed ship size – 140 meters or more in length – are pure fantasy but repeated so often as to have become “fact.” In the same way, unless the nations of maritime Southeast Asia, a region of trading and seafaring, wake up to their own peoples’ history, Chinese pretentions, bolstered by finds such as Ming Dynasty ships from a mere 500-600 years ago, will become “facts” used to rob them of their heritage and their claim to their own exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea which have been rightfully theirs for centuries.