The Naming of Seas is a Practical Matter

Two centuries or more of western domination of much of the world has not only redrawn the global political maps but in many cases determined place names. If that seems arcane, it is not.

It was western powers that named the South China Sea, for instance. It is a name that China is now using to seek to demonstrate its hegemony over an ocean, parts of which are being claimed by five littoral nations, many of which have their own names for the ocean.

Besides the South China Sea, across the world some of these western names have naturally become bones of contention between competing nations and cultures. Thus the Falkland Islands are the Malvinas depending on your point of view.

Or, an even more contentious issue, is the body of water between Iran and the Arab states known as the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf? Use of the wrong name on the other side of the Gulf can create serious problems for unwary foreigners.

In the case of the Persian Gulf, there is actually a United Nations ruling that came down in Persian favor by reference to maps dating to well before western ones invariably used Persian. Although the Arabs produced Ottoman and other references to alternatives including the Gulf of Basra, the Iraqi city at the head of the gulf, and the Gulf of Musandam, the Omani peninsula at the southwest entrance to the gulf, the UN experts determined that the overwhelming evidence was for use of Persian.

Indeed, one of the UN’s lesser-known offshoots is its Group of Experts on Geographical Names which is supposed to determine official and internationally recognized names and their equivalents in different languages and scripts. The Group has a full meeting every five years, with the next due in August 2017. In between these meetings, regional committees ponder naming issues.

So there is now every likelihood the agenda will include the Philippines contention to rename part of the so-called South China Sea as the West Philippine sea and Indonesia’s recent declaration of its waters in the southern part of the South China Sea as the Natuna sea. This is so named after the island group whose waters lie within the China’s nine-dash line – a claim which also comprises most of the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones of the other littoral states.

Neither of these two new names is claimed to encompass the whole South China Sea, a body of water which is normally understood to be bounded by the southern entrances of the Luzon, Taiwan and Melaka Straits and northern ones of the Karimata and Sunda Straits. The two new identities could be regarded as subsets of the bigger sea as are the Gulf of Tonkin and Gulf of Thailand. However, any nation that cares to question the use of the name South China Sea would be on very strong ground if the UN experts took note of any history earlier than 1930.

It is only since the 1930s that western maps, which were then copied by all others except China and Vietnam, used this term, which became international usage. For western mapmakers it was a refinement of the term China Sea that had been in general usage since about 1800. “South” was added when the same mapmakers added “China” to what they (following Chinese practice) had previously termed the East Sea. Hence it was necessary to make a clear distinction between the two seas.

Before 1800, western maps dating to 16th century gave no specific name to the sea, which was simply part of the “Indian seas” stretching to the western boundary of the Pacific. There were references to the Cham Sea after the Cham maritime state conquered by Vietnam and to the Luzon Sea, But like “Malay Sea” used in some Arab reference to the area south of the Melaka Strait, these names referred only to a part of the bigger sea.

In no way does the western inclusion of China it its definition of the sea reflect either regional usage, history or geography. Firstly, mainland China plus Hainan and Taiwan occupy at most about 30 percent of its coastline. Secondly the Chinese themselves only referred to it as the Nan Hai or South Sea. It was, like Nan Yang or southern ocean a geographical expression. Depending on context it could also refer to a much bigger area encompassing the Java and other southern seas with which Chinese traders were familiar. For the same reason the Chinese called it the South Sea the Vietnamese called it the East Sea – it lay to the east.

In spite of their own use of Nan Hai, China is finding the western term South China Sea very useful. The vast majority of the world, which has no reason to know either the history or the geography of the region, assume that it is primarily a Chinese sea, just as the Java Sea relates to Indonesia. When addressing foreign audiences, the Chinese themselves have come to see the propaganda value of this misnaming.For instance Chinese Vice-Admiral Yuan Yubai has recently been quoted as saying “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area which belongs to China.”

This may seem a minor matter compared with the historical nonsense that China spews to gullible foreign audiences – and its own public – about the sea having been a Chinese domain since the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago. But having embarked on renaming their adjacent seas, the other nations need seriously consider challenging the use of a modern, western derived term for whole sea which is highly misleading.

What they lack is a common alternative. The “Nusantarian sea” after the Majapahit era name used to describe the Javanese maritime realm, which extended to the coasts of modern Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia might be acceptable to the Malay world of Indonesia, Brunei, Philippines and Malaysia, but not to Vietnam or China.

So this writer proposes borrowing a name from a very similar sea, the Mediterranean, meaning in Latin “between the lands.” This is a sea bounded by several states and civilizations but linked together by trade and history. The name Middle Sea approximates to this. It is neutral, readily translatable into any language, and geographically accurate given that the littoral states lie north, south, east and west of it.

There can be sub-sets to this Middle Sea that can identify with littoral states – maybe Natuna sea, Luzon sea, Guangdong sea, etc. But a neutral name for the whole sea in place of its western imperialist remnant is badly needed.