Island mentality ignores history

The tendency of the Communist Party government in China, as elsewhere, to rewrite history to reflect changes in personnel or ideology is well known. Less noticed, however, is the tendency to rewrite national history to justify expansionist foreign policies. The recent stand-off between Chinese and Philippine ships is a case in point.

The confrontation resulted from Philippine attempts to arrest Chinese vessels fishing in the area of what is known in English as the Scarborough Shoal, to China as Huangyan Island, and to the Philippines as Panatag Shoal. This is a collection of rocks, reefs and lagoons in the South China Sea about 200 kilometres west of Subic Bay, the former US naval base. It is approximately three times that distance to the mainland of China and more than twice that to Taiwan. Thus, it lies clearly within the Philippines's exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres). Chinese vessels would have a right to fish in its waters if the shoal could be shown to be genuinely Chinese.

China's case as expounded by the Foreign Ministry is one where the only history that matters is Han Chinese. Its claim reads: 'It is China who first discovered Huangyan Island' and 'drew into China's map in China's Yuan dynasty (1271-1368AD)'. This is like Europeans claiming that they got to Australia before the Aboriginals or the Americas before Native Americans.

As China in particular should be well aware, 700 years is not very long. Chinese were actually latecomers to navigation beyond coastal waters. For centuries, the masters of the oceans were the Malayo-Polynesian peoples who colonised much of the world, from Taiwan to New Zealand and Hawaii to the south and east, and to Madagascar in the west. Bronze vessels were being traded with Palawan, just south of Scarborough, at the time of Confucius.

When Chinese Buddhist pilgrims like Faxian went to Sri Lanka in the 5th century, they went in ships owned and operated by Malay peoples. Ships from what is now the Philippines traded with Funan, a state in what is now southern Vietnam, 1,000 years before the Yuan dynasty. China makes much of the early 15th century expeditions of Zheng He to the Indian Ocean and Africa. But Indonesians had been crossing that ocean at least 1,000 years earlier, settling in Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world. Their twin-outrigger ships enabled quite swift passage across the ocean, and the Indonesians also left their mark on the coast of Africa before being supplanted by Indian and then Arab traders.

It is absurd to imply that the ancestors of today's Filipinos were unaware of the Scarborough Shoal, which lay relatively close to their shores and on the route to Vietnam. No one settled there because the rocks are, for practical purposes, uninhabitable. The fact that it was put on a map in 1279 does not make it Chinese any more than Taiwan was Chinese until occupation by and settlement from the mainland some 300 years ago. For the preceding 4,000 years, Taiwan had been the domain of Malay peoples related to today's Filipinos.

China also justifies its claims to Scarborough Shoal by reference to the Treaty of Washington (1900) and the Treaty of Paris (1898) between the old colonial power, Spain, and the new one, the US. It is bizarre to find China, which is so keen to deem colonial-era treaties as 'unequal', resorting to them to make its case. Beijing argues that because there is no mention of Scarborough/Panatag/Huangyan in either treaty, it was not included in Philippine territory.

Given the number of islands comprising the Philippines, this is irrelevant. The treaties both refer to the 'Philippine archipelago' and by any normal definition of archipelago, Scarborough falls within that, even if it is marginally to the west of longitude 118 degrees east mentioned in the treaties.

The weakness of China's case explains why it is not prepared to discuss overlapping claims with its regional neighbours as a group, and why it will not submit South China Sea issues to international arbitration under the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the case of the (never inhabited) Scarborough Shoal, its claims would almost certainly be rejected.

The fact that China has a long record of written history does not invalidate other nations' histories as illustrated by artefacts, language and genetic affinities, the evidence of trade and travel. Indeed, advances in science are uncovering huge areas of unwritten history of people who either had no writing or, as in the case of the Indian-derived scripts found in pre-colonial Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, were written on palm leaves and other materials which decayed long ago.

China's current power may make such issues of actual history irrelevant. But if it wishes to be respected by its Southeast Asian neighbours, and in particular the 400million Malays of the island states (Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and east Malaysia), it had better develop some respect for their history. Han sense of superiority may seem justified by the role of overseas Chinese commerce - much helped by Western colonialism - in modern times. But it cannot be assumed to be permanent and is a poor basis for regional peace.

In Hong Kong, this sense of superiority is even proclaimed by the government in attitudes to brown Asians, be they Afghanistan's cricket team or the warning against travel to the Philippines. 'Asia's world city' should feel ashamed.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator