One of the joys of studying history is that you come across old friends in unfamiliar guises. I have never been able to take functional constituencies seriously since I discovered their important role in the politics of an unlikely democratic model: the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Arguments over Hong Kong's future constitution resound to eerie echoes of the 1640s. I once discovered a government document on the dangers of elections, which appeared to have been lifted wholesale from one of the Duke of Wellington's speeches against the 1830 Reform Bill. As Sir Ti Liang Yang gears up for his bid for the big one, I hope he will not overlook a rather splendid speech from Charles James Fox on the usefulness of judges in political office, to be found in the second volume of Costin and Watson's Documents On The Law And Working Of The Constitution. All the same, there are limits to the usefulness of history, and I wonder if they have not been exceeded by the repeated assertion that Those Islands were recorded as part of the Chinese empire in the 16th century. This is not because there are doubts about the accuracy of the records, although after such a lapse of time one does wonder. In those days, any sailor who was out of sight of land was considered more or less lost, so the identity of isolated islands might well have been a matter of some confusion. After all, at the dawn of that century Christopher Columbus confused Cuba with Japan. Navigation was not yet an exact science. But a more serious worry is the way in which Chinese foreign policy operated in those days. If you read the records of the time, there is a whole geographical category missing. There is no such thing as a territory which we know about but which belongs to someone else. If your foreign relations included a visit to Beijing, then you arrived as a vassal - possibly a prestigious and cherished vassal, but a vassal nevertheless. If a country or island is listed, then it is listed as a Chinese possession. There is no other category. This approach led to problems much later, when Western envoys started arriving. But there is no need to drag up those unhappy memories. The point which bothers me is that the empire of the day covered everything. The phrase is usually translated with hyphens as ' all-under-heaven'. This was not by any means a uniquely Chinese delusion. This was after all about the time when the Pope divided the entire world between the Spanish and Portuguese empires by drawing a vertical line on the globe. This brings me to another point, which is that perhaps the political map of the 16th century should be left where it belongs - in the past. Arbitrary reassignment of Those Islands is possible because they are empty. I do not think, though, that the inhabitants of Calais, France, would wish to be returned to English sovereignty and I imagine the Dutch would be horrified if expected to resume the responsibility of running New York. Yugoslavia has enough problems without reintroducing the Turks. The Middle East is already a mess. And as for Ireland . . . Talking of which we must also recognise that some of these things do linger down the centuries in defiance of reason and common sense. Many of those tricky nationality questions have a 400-year-old history. Catalan and Serbian historians find high points in the past; the boundaries of modern German provinces record the course of the Protestant reformation and the 30 Years War. Did you know there was once a Greater Armenia? For that matter, a few years before World War I there was a Big Bulgaria. You may have forgotten it; I imagine its people have not. So strong feelings are nothing to be ashamed of. They are, however, something to be surmounted rather than wallowed in. Both China and Japan are signatories to the International Law of the Sea, which has turgid and complex provisions for sorting out the ownership of uninhabited islands. We need not go into the specific details. Suffice to say that approached properly, the whole matter is admirably boring and completely non-violent. Neither side's claims are materially affected either by the presence of lighthouses and other erections, or by politically-motivated demolition visits. And that is all I have to say about Those Islands, except to note sadly another example of an old law: whenever the number of passengers on a ship is exceeded by the number of journalists, someone will do something foolhardy.