South China Sea's history of boundary changes must not be forgotten
Philip Bowring says that Southeast Asia's history of fluid boundaries, overlapping territorial claims and varied cultural influences must be understood, not least by China
It might have been comic were people not being killed, with the Malaysian government using excessive aerial and ground firepower against a ragtag bunch of "invaders". But the bizarre incursion into the east Malaysian state of Sabah by some 200 followers of the Philippine-based Sultan of Sulu was a reminder of how many issues left over from history can suddenly spring back to life to be exploited by contemporary politicians.
In this case, the politics seem to include an attempt by some Philippine Muslims to kill a tentative peace deal made last year by the main rebel group with Manila. In the Malaysian case, a federal election is due and loss of Sabah votes could see the governing coalition defeated.
For 30 years, from the late 1960s, it had been fondly supposed that Southeast Asia post-colonial and Qing-era China borders had been settled, with minor spats being resolved by the international court or bilateral compromises. Nations preferred a quiet, economy-centred life to nationalist grandstanding.
But now this band of would-be warriors for a powerless sultan has raised the question of the Philippine dormant claim to Sabah. Meanwhile, the rise in separatist violence in Thailand's predominantly Malay southern provinces suggests that this problem can only be finally settled by border adjustments that no Thai government could countenance. And China's claims to almost the whole South China Sea challenge the borders of other littoral states set at the time of independence and further delineated by the UN Law of the Sea.
Sabah matters for a variety of reasons, including the fact that most of Malaysia's South China Sea claim derives from Sabah's proximity to them. Sabah's own history is convoluted. It was only joined to Malaya to become Malaysia in 1963, against the opposition of Indonesia and the Philippines.
Previously, it had been the colony of British North Borneo, which had earlier been leased by a British company from the sultan of Sulu, a sultanate which had previously been part of the Sultanate of Brunei, which itself had earlier been subservient to the Java-based Majapahit empire and the Sumatra-based Srivijayan kingdom.
Clearly, it would be absurd to start unravelling all that history and various "unequal treaties", such as that by which the Sulu sultan lost Sabah. But Sabah's 1963 marriage of convenience with distant and very different peninsular Malaysia retains a hint of impermanence 50 years later. This is not because of any Philippine claim, but local interests which clash with federal ones, the history of lawlessness of the Sulu island chain, combined with its mix of large resources, relatively small population, complex ethnic and religious mixtures and proximity to Indonesia.
The continued existence on paper of the official Philippine claim is an irritant which opens the way for antics like those of the Sulu sultan - whose claims to rule in Sulu and Mindanao were long ago rejected when the US ruled the country.
It is ridiculous for Manila to sustain it, because if the sultan can lay claim to Sabah, he can also lay claim to a chunk of the Philippines. Manila is damaging its relationship with a Malaysia with which it needs to co-operate on South China Sea issues. The stupidity of Philippine politicians is stupefying.
But there is something that China needs to understand here, too. For a variety of reasons, but mainly geography, island Southeast Asia has a history of constant boundary changes, of the rise and fall of empires, sultanates and city states. Generally it has been marked by weak central government but a very long history of trade and seamanship. It also shares a common basic language and cultural traits that often override Islam and Christianity, both relatively recent arrivals. But the lack of political continuity compared with China in no way diminishes the rights of inhabitants or of the contemporary states.
Long underpopulated, its population will soon be half that of China. Nor, contrary to myths, has the region always been effectively under loose Chinese hegemony. This whole region came under strong Indian cultural influence for centuries before there was significant contact with China, with Hindu and Buddhist religions, Hindu kingship systems and scripts (still used in pre-Hispanic Philippines) derived from Indian ones. Their ships traded across the Indian Ocean for centuries before Chinese vessels ventured beyond coastal waters.
Thus, it is a pity that the recently re-opened Hong Kong Maritime Museum, while having excellent coverage of the colonial and modern periods of seafaring, almost completely ignores the roles of non-Chinese vessels and designs in earlier South China Sea trade and navigation.
The questions that arise over the post-colonial borders of Southeast Asian states are not unique. They have their counterparts, dormant temporarily, in the border areas of northeast Asia where Russian and Ching expansions met at the expense of other peoples. Likewise, the Middle East is still beset by the aftermath of the first world war and the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
In short, Sabah puts us on notice that we must understand history so we can be aware of its baggage.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator