Beijing’s claim about its ownership of the South China Sea needs to be rebutted
Philip Bowring says Beijing’s assertions of sovereignty over the South China Sea are just ahistorical cant, and are being used to justify an unwarranted sense of superiority
Thuggery with a racist tinge? It is worse than that. Tell a lie often enough, and people come to believe a justification for aggression.
In China’s case, this is summed up by the oft-repeated (most recently by Foreign Ministry commissioner Song Zhe in this paper) words, “China has had indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and surrounding waters since ancient times”.
If the likes of Song were to read history rather than the song sheets of the Communist Party, they would know that the Chinese were latecomers to trade and navigation in these waters. Most of the evidence for that comes from written Chinese sources, such as 4th-century monks travelling to Buddhist centres in Sumatra, India and Sri Lanka. Later Arab and Indian sources confirm it, as do Chinese travellers such as Wang Dayuan in the 14th century. It was natural that the non-Chinese maritime people, famous for their seagoing exploits, who occupy about 70 per cent of the sea’s coast – and more if one includes Taiwan – were the primary presence.
Chinese were never the main traders on the now much touted, via the “One Belt, One Road” mantra, Maritime Silk Road. Indeed, for long they were not involved. China was the market but not the principal conductor of trade. Zheng He’s voyages were demonstrations of power more than of commerce. Chinese only became the biggest of the regional players in the 18th century, but the Western ships dominated.
It can be hard for Chinese to accept that they were not the leading sea traders. In the traditional Chinese canon, these southern people are barbarians lacking Chinese “civilisation” and darker skinned, a sure sign of lower status in society. Today, such attitudes are reflected not just in how domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines are treated but in the inability of a self-absorbed China to see history other than through its sense of superiority.
Forever we are reminded of China’s “hundred years of humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan. The self-pitying chant has become a cover for a xenophobia which stems not so much from the people but from a ruling party which needs to justify its power monopoly. The “humiliation” narrative conveniently forgets that China’s southern neighbours also suffered humiliation. While China merely had to accept “treaty ports” and trade, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam were all subject to direct foreign rule.
Now the 500 million people of nations bordering the South China and adjacent seas are expected to suffer further humiliation, this time at the hands of China. Worse, China has used these nations’ loss of independence as justification for its own claims.
China had never protested the 1877 British claim – though one never pursued – to Spratly Island itself on behalf of its Borneo territories. Chinese official ignorance of the islands was indicated by their use of translations from English and other names. But now China asserts its line takes precedence over the claims of countries which, unlike China, were under foreign rule at the time and could only speak for themselves after independence following the second world war. China’s Spratly claims of the 1930s were further developed by the U-shaped line, now known as the nine-dash line, published in 1947.
Another convenient lie is that today’s situation is the result of US attempts to surround China. For sure, the US and most of the rest of the world reject China’s claims to much of the sea. But this is first and foremost a dispute with neighbours claiming their own exclusive economic zone rights as well as some of the islands. The nine-dash line predates US-China strategic rivalry. Harassment of Vietnam and the Philippines in their economic economic zones goes back three decades.
Also misleading is the claim that the 1943 Cairo conference and San Francisco peace treaty themselves required the return to China of the Japanese-occupied Spratlys. The islands, still claimed by France, were never mentioned in either document as to be Chinese occupied territory. Is China to claim all former Japanese-occupied territory – Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines? Well, why not? Are they not states which once sent trade tribute to China? So they must surely be part of China like non-Han Tibet (西藏) and Xinjiang (新疆), or like the parts of Mongolia, Xinjiang and Manchuria lost to the Russians and Kazakhs in the 19th century! The list of places over which China once had at least nominal sway is big. But those of Britain, Rome, Persia, the Mongols, and so on are bigger.
Revanchism – revenge recovery of territory lost in war – is one thing. But China never lost the so-called (by the English) South China Sea because it never, ever owned it. Its one serious military expedition across that sea – a 30,000-strong force sent against Java in 1293 – ended in humiliation. Sometimes humiliation is deserved, as in the case of the arbitration ruling showing the nation as a bully and an environmental despoiler of the very sea which it claims by inventing history and drawing lines on maps.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator