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China's Skewed View of South China Sea History
The dispute between China and the Philippines over ownership of the rocks and reefs variously known as Scarborough Shoal/Panatag Shoal/Huangyan Island is at one level very petty. But at another it demonstrates what can best be described blatantly racist bravado on the part of Beijing.
Manila would do well to learn up some of its own pre-Spanish history so as to better expose the arrogance of a nation which regards other, non-Han people and their histories as non-existent or irrelevant. Han chauvinism is writ large in this tale, which should be a reminder to the Malay peoples whose lands border more than half the South China Sea – itself a name created by westerners and does no more than describe a sea south of China – that they may yet go the way of the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols and find themselves oppressed minorities in a Han empire.
Beijing’s aggressive stance is doubly unfortunate given the positive role that individual Chinese migrants and their descendants have played in the Philippines for several centuries. When China was closed, its entrepreneurial coastal people found opportunity in the Malay world. Is that era of fruitful interaction to be ended as an open China becomes a threatening China?
The Chinese claim to Scarborough Shoal (to use a relatively neutral word derived from a ship which sank there) is ridiculous on a whole number of grounds yet it persists in trying to enforce it in the correct belief that the Philippines is poor and weak and that ASEAN solidarity is non-existent – for which Malaysia is particularly to blame.
China claims to have “discovered” the island, included it in its territory and exercised control over it. The basis for this claim is simply a map dating from the time when China was under the thumb of a foreign dynasty – that of the Mongol Kublai Khan whose capital was in modern Mongolia. The fact that it is on a map is anyway meaningless in terms of ownership rights – though China often claims that the mere presence of Chinese traders in a place or the payment of taxes to be allowed to trade with China amounted to “tribute” and acceptance of Beijing’s hegemony.
The fact that China stated a claim to Scarborough Shoal in 1932 and again in 1947 is neither here nor there. It is even more outrageous than the actions of British seafarers in the 19th century going around the world planting the British flag and claiming it as theirs. In the case of Scarborough there was not even a planting of a flag and setting up of a permanent settlement. The fact is that Scarborough is uninhabitable and thus fails qualify as an island which would support a claim to surrounding sea.
China also makes the extraordinary statement that its stated claims predate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea it is not bound by it. This must surely be one of the most self-serving pieces of nonsense that even Communist-ruled China has produced. It is in the old tradition of Imperial China that all other nations are inferior and thus it cannot submit to any outside or independent questioning of its claims.
Scarborough lies some 135 nautical miles from the coast of Luzon and thus well within the Philippines 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone within which only it has the right to fishing and to seabed resources. It is approximately 350 miles from the mainland of China and 300 miles from the tip of Taiwan.
China’s reference to a 13th century map merely shows up the ignorance that accompanies the Han version of history, which does not bother with the deeds of “lesser” peoples. China was actually a very late comer to overseas navigation. For more than a thousand years before its own ships were venturing beyond coastal waters, China’s trade with and travelers to the Malay lands, India, Arabia and the west were being carried on foreign ships – Malay, Indian, Arab. When the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien visited Sri Lanka in the 4th Century he travelled in Malay vessels from China to Sumatra and then on to Sri Lanka. The ancestors of today’s Filipinos were trading with the kingdom of Funan, based on the Mekong delta, around or before the year 300 of the present era. About the same time seafarers from Indonesia were crossing the Indian ocean to settle Madagascar – where the language and 50 percent of the gene pool is of Malay origin – and probably have settlements on the African coast.
China loves to regale its own people and gullible westerners of the achievements of Zheng He and his huge “treasure ships” which sailed around Asia and across to Africa in the 15th century. But the main distinguishing feature of Zheng He’s voyages was the size of the vessels and numbers of soldiers they carried, enabling China to impose its will on some lesser territories. It accomplished nothing in navigational terms that other Asians had not done centuries before.
Given the history of pre-Chinese trading and fishing it is simply absurd to claim that China discovered Scarborough Shoal, which lies so close to Luzon and close to sailing routes to southern Vietnam and beyond. The claim that only Chinese have traditionally fished in these waters is even more spurious. Until very recent times of rampant overfishing of the South China Sea there was no reason for Chinese to venture so far to find a good catch.
In another effort to back its claim Beijing has resorted to a treaty between two western colonial powers who at the time were dividing up Asia without regard to any interests but their own. China’s Foreign Ministry cites the Treaty of Paris in 1898 which brought an end to the Spanish-American war and ceded to the US the Philippines – and Cuba and Guam.
The treaty referred to the “Philippine archipelago” but did not mention specific islands with that vast collection. It described a series of straight lines on maps which were clearly done to keep it simple and without regard to the actual geography.
One of those lines ran northwards from 116E to 118E leaving the Scarborough Shoal, at 117.5E a few miles outside Philippine territory as defined by the treaty. But clearly the shoal is part of any normal definition of archipelago, not to mention its vast distance from any Chinese-inhabited island. That China has to cite a treaty in which Filipinos played no part is evidence of the bankruptcy of its claims which would be dismissed out of hand by any independent tribunal acting on the basis of the UN Law of the Sea Convention.
But while other countries in the region – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore – have been willing to submit to third party judgments of conflicting claims, China believes it is bound by no international rules and will deal only with individual countries. Most obviously it has picked on the Philippines as the weakest of the four Southeast Asian countries facing China’s imperial designs.
The Malay countries, meanwhile, seem hobbled in replying with details of their history to trump China. The Philippines has largely forgotten its pre-Spanish history, partly because the Spanish missionaries imposed use of Latin and Spanish in place of the old local scripts – scripts of whose existence most Filipinos are unaware.
Indonesia and Malaysian both have problems addressing their pre-Islamic past, which to most historians were rather more glorious than their post-Hindu/Buddhist records of art, kingship and navigation. Malaysia worries that a strong stand against China’s South China Sea push will be bad for business, and local Chinese votes.
But the Scarborough Shoal issue shows just how blatant China’s expansionism has become. It is time in particular for Malaysia and Indonesia to show some mettle and stand with the Philippines and Vietnam, the front line states in the Malay battle against Han hegemony.