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  • Dec 26, 2014
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CommentInsight & Opinion

How a non-existent island became China's southernmost territory

Bill Hayton says records show that a translation error some 80 years ago may be to blame

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 6:37am

Where is the "southernmost point of Chinese territory"? It's a controversial question and the least controversial answer might be Hainan Island . More controversial options would be the Paracel (Xisha) islands or the Spratlys (Nansha). But officially the southernmost point is even further south - as far south as the James Shoal, about 100 kilometres from the coast of Borneo. What's more surprising is that this piece of the motherland is actually invisible. There's nothing there to see, unless you have diving equipment.

The James Shoal lies 22 metres below sea. Yet this inconvenience doesn't prevent PLA Navy ships visiting the shoal from time to time to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty over it. This ritual involves heaving a large piece of engraved stone over the side of the ship. There is now a small collection of Chinese stelae gathering organic encrustations on the sea floor, more than 1,000 kilometres from Hainan.

How did the Chinese state come to regard this obscure feature, so far from home, as its southernmost point? I've been researching the question for some time while writing a book on the South China Sea. The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.

In the 1930s, China was engulfed in waves of nationalist anxiety. The predation of the Western powers and imperial Japan, and the inability of the Republic of China to do anything meaningful to stop them, caused anger both in the streets and the corridors of power. In 1933, the republic created the "Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps" to formally list, describe and map every part of Chinese territory. It was an attempt to assert sovereignty over the republic's vast territory.

The major problem facing the committee, at least in the South China Sea, was that it had no means of actually surveying any of the features it wanted to claim. Instead, the committee simply copied the existing British charts and changed the names of the islands to make them sound Chinese. We know they did this because the committee's map included about 20 mistakes that appeared on the British map - features that in later, better surveys were found not to actually exist.

The committee gave some of the Spratly islands Chinese names. North Danger Reef became Beixian (the Chinese translation of "north danger"), Antelope Reef became Lingyang (the Chinese word for antelope). Other names were just transliterated so, for example, Spratly Island became Sipulateli and James Shoal became Zengmu. And this seems to be where the mistakes crept in.

But how to translate "shoal"? It's a nautical word meaning an area of shallow sea where waves "shoal" up. Sailors would see a strange area of choppy water in the middle of the ocean and know the area was shallow and therefore dangerous. James Shoal is one of many similar features in the Spratlys.

But the committee didn't seem to understand this obscure English term because they translated "shoal" as " tan" - the Chinese word for beach or sandbank - a feature which is usually above water. The committee, never having visited the area, seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a piece of land and therefore a piece of China.

In 1947, the republic's cartographers revisited the question of China's ocean frontier, drawing up what would become known as the "U-shaped line". It seems that they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within the line. A non-existent island became the country's southernmost territory.

But in a parallel process around the same time, the republic government gave new names to many of the sea features. Spratly Islands became Nanwei (the noble south), for example, and James Shoal was changed from a sandbank ( tan) into a reef ( ansha). Perhaps, by this time, the authorities had realised their mistake. Nonetheless Zengmu Ansha retained its official southernmost status.

By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.

This is more than a piece of historical trivia; James Shoal is a test of whether Beijing really is committed to the rule of international law in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land. James Shoal is over 1,000 kilometres from undisputed Chinese territory.

Last month, the Philippines government announced it would seek a ruling from an international tribunal about whether China's claims in the sea were compatible with the UN convention. James Shoal would be a clear example of a claim that is not compatible. Perhaps this might be a good moment for Beijing to review how it came to claim this obscure piece of submarine territory in the first place.

Bill Hayton is writing a book on the South China Sea for publication later this year


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This article is now closed to comments

"Hard to be friends with a country that feels it has the right to emulate every selfish wrong deed ever done over the course of world history. " Is this another knee jerk hate China comment?
Perhaps you can provide us some examples of China engaging in slave trade, selling opium, militarily occupying a country and colonizing it?
"Perhaps you can provide us some examples of China...militarily occupying a country and colonizing it?"
Is that not what China did with/to Tibet? I'm not even being snarky; if you think otherwise please enlighten me.
A Hong Konger
whymak: Since you asked, I can give you an example of China carrying out the largest mass murder in the history of the 20th century, with 30 million of its own people murdered or deliberately starved between 1953-1976. More than the USSR under Stalin (20m), Nazi Germany (11.4m) or Imperial Japan (10m). The difference being the government that did it is still in power, unlike the other three examples.
Regardless, China's absurd 'U shaped' claim that carves out practically the entire S. China Sea is utterly beyond reason. The question is will China seize it by force or 'creep' in the 'realist International Relation' tradition? If so China would reasonably expect the SE Asian nations involved to react with force and seek allies who have their own 'realist' interests (I.e., US, Australia, India) to contain China. This, in turn, will isolate China that is still developing. This is at odds with China's pragmatism. China will seek to push the boundaries as far as they can go without risking a permanent change in the structure of Asia, but not having a clear strategy, the CCP becoming increasingly factionalised and uncertainty on all sides makes this a very dangerous game with unforeseeable circumstances and, like the Senkaku / Diaoyutai islands, risks spiralling out of control very quickly. Only China can stop it.
You have been hopelessly brainwashed. Mao saved China. Then he became a tyrant and a village idiot in economics. Great Leap Forward and the food shortage are what killed many Chinese. Here is my personal mail the other day for some self-hate Hong Konger like you:
"we shouldn’t arouse past enmity toward them (Japan). We can never forget what they did but we must forgive, not to mention that we are peoples sharing many cultural traits. Most Japanese that I have come to know are wonderfully civilized people and friends.

For self-hate Chinese among us, we should hate their hatred but not them, whom we must forgive and treat kindly as adversaries but not deadly enemies. Ironically, bananas have been brainwashed to believe that Chinese lack the “universal values” of a civil society. Little do they realize that we have all been raised in Hong Kong with 恕 and 惻忍之心 as indispensible parts of Confucian social values. A good Muslim friend who passed away untimely told me that he could not understand how godless people could be moral, yet the nicest and most intelligent people he met are Chinese. What a compliment! Yes, I am like an uncle to his daughter.

For the bananas among us, my advice is debate all they want about our ethnic defects to their hearts’ desire, but don’t help inflame foreigners’ fears and hate passions toward China and the Chinese. Enough said. I have now preached enough about harmonious society for the rest of the year."
I find this comment irrelevant to whymak's question
It assigns blames based on prejudice
and misleads with misguided assertions
Is the US claim on Guam or the British claim on Malvinas/Falkland
utterly within reason"?
You're right about the irrelevance. Question: "Have you eaten breakfast?" Answer: "I have just crapped on my bed."
My topic was not about Chinese tyrannies through the ages. Admittedly, they are innumerable. Yet they are part of the human condition.
We are talking about unique brutalities, i.e., slave trade, colonization wars, etc., perpetrated by the West in the name of God of Abraham on people not of their own kind.
That's when bananas with only half-baked knowledge of the great Western civilization and with their fawning sycophancy toward white men's Democracy faith and universal values are fully mobilized into a frontal assault on China and her culture.
China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is a member on the jury panel of International Tribunal. However, China has been consistently refusing to take the maritime disputes to international arbitrage as the Philippines has recently notified to take the matter to international instances. The repeated refusals speak louder about the bellicose nature and character of China’s leaders. They prefer to conquer the world through force rather than through civilization and ideas.
Why can’t people just live in peace in this small planet called Earth?
China's leaders seem belligerent to you because when these "small" Asian nations perpetrated pogroms on Chinese people, the rest of world nodded silently in agreement. Where were you and the US dominated UN when tens of thousands of Chinese were slaughtered in Indonesia in 1965? Where was the UN tribunal when Indonesia did it again in 1995? When Thailand, Philippines persecuted Chinese and stole their properties, where were these hypocrites?
I like the idea of arbitration. But let us clear the deck first. Like you, I am not convinced China has a strong case. But at least you have to produce maps, documents -- did some of these countries have their own written languages? -- and historical administrative records as the Chinese.
Keep in mind the US doesn't ask anyone's permission to invade Dominican Republic, Panama, or Grenada. If there is a dispute, it sends in the Marines.
Did UN prosecute Bush and Cheney for crimes against humanity in Iraq? Did the Iron Lady ask UN's permission to start a war in God forsaken Malvinas 8000 miles away from home just to vindicate the honor of a dead empire?
To the best of my knowledge, no Thai, Filippino or Indonesian has been incarcerated in China without cause, let alone being massacred wholesale.
I am talking about justice, but you are engaging in a hate China fest with a spitting contest on James Shoal.
Would the UK internationalize the Malvinas / Falklands dispute
Or the US, its various territorial disputes with neighbors?
To salvage the comics he is fabricating on South China Sea from becoming a ridiculous lingo-ethnic joke,
B Hayton should
(1) consult Wiki on Zheng Ho’s treasure ships;
(2) compare them with the unsalvageable USS Guardian (MCM-5) that has run around in Sulu Sea; and
(3) ask himself who could be as stupid as not knowing the marine feature shoal and not having a word for it.
He might conclude his comics proposing British annexation of “Beting Serupai” for which there "isn’t" a proper Chinese name and “James Shoal” being the place’s “universal” reference.
Put up antennae there to broadcast BBC news on Jimmy Savile
BH may also wish to learn Japanese and consult
日本中國研究所,中國年鑒,日本石崎書店: 1955; 3, 114, 193, … etc
I’d just wonder how James Webb, the Nippon lover with a new Vietnamese wife, may feel about BH.



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