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PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 March, 2013, 3:16am

Battle of the South China Sea charts

Greg Torode maps out the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which came to a head with China's controversial nine-dash line

BIO

Chief Asia correspondent Greg Torode is one of the most experienced reporters in the region. In his 20 years at the SCMP, Torode has spent 15 years as a correspondent, travelling extensively to report political, strategic and security developments. The way the region is adapting to China’s rise has formed a key part of his work. His exclusive stories and analyses are widely followed by regional and international media.
 

Welcome to the great South China Sea battle of maps. While fears mount over the risk of conflict or miscalculation in an increasingly militarised expanse, this particular skirmish has already been under way for years.

A very public front opened in the fight late last year when China, in a sly piece of cartographic manoeuvring, included its controversial "nine-dash line" claim to virtually the entire sea in its new passports along with other disputed borders. India, Vietnam and the Philippines were swift to protest - and forced to launch bureaucratic countermeasures.

Less visibly, the battle of maps has been a long-running war of attrition as various claimants desperately attempt to create evidence of sovereignty.

Back in 2009, it was a map of the nine-dash line affixed to a formal Chinese protest note to the UN against Vietnam and Malaysia that, in part, inspired mounting regional concern at Beijing's diplomatic and military assertiveness.

China's nine dashes can be found in all manner of official and private contexts, from state-published national maps and airline magazines to route maps and corporate reports.

Three years ago, I noticed an inflatable beach-ball globe for sale in a Sydney airport bookstore. As it was made in China, it naturally featured a tiny nine-dash line - not that Australia officially dignifies it.

Vietnam is no slouch on the cartographic front, either. For years, its maps have included detailed insets of the disputed Paracels and the Spratly archipelagos - without spelling out the eastern extent of its claims.

One recent national tourism map - produced by a state publishing house - included both island groupings in considerable detail, right down to individual reef structures. The typeface was larger than even that used for the capital Hanoi.

There is considerable irony here, of course - no tourists are yet allowed to visit the heavily fortified Spratlys, neither to Vietnam's 20-odd bases nor the significant number manned by the militaries of rival claimants, including China. The Paracels, meanwhile, remain firmly in the hands of China after its defeat of the then-South Vietnamese navy in 1974 completed its occupation.

Intriguingly, though, Hong Kong seems like some kind of virgin territory as the fight rumbles on, judging by the SAR government's own maps.

While the government doesn't produce maps or nautical charts of the wider region, some Hong Kong maps include an inset that includes at least part of the South China Sea. But, strikingly, unlike the Beijing-produced versions, the insets don't even show part of the nine-dash line.

The popular map "Hong Kong in its regional setting", for example, neglects the line even though it sources mainland references.

It is conspicuous by its absence, too, on the Observatory's website, which includes a regional map as part of its typhoon tracking feature. Conspicuous, at least, to the Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen who increasingly turn to the website as they attempt to dodge typhoons in their quest for disputed catches.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. greg.torode@scmp.com

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