Why Specks of Land in the South China Sea Are Fueling Tensions Between Beijing and Its Neighbors

New book reveals that Beijing's claims to the South China Sea are a recent invention.

They have names like Pigeon Reef, West Sand, Taisho-To, and Scarborough Shoal. Most are no more than outcrops of rock poking out of the sea. Most have never been inhabited. Few have any direct economic value. If not for the perceived fish and oil wealth in the waters around them, the spat over these specks in the South China Sea would read like the bizarre disputes between Lilliput and Blefuscu in Gulliver's Travels.

But for Beijing, the battle for these remote islands is part of a wider geopolitical aim: control over the entire South China Sea and its potential resource wealth. Tensions are rising. In August a Chinese Navy fighter plane buzzed a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon, narrowly missing it. Two months earlier, an armed Chinese vessel chased and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. China is also at loggerheads with Japan and the Philippines, which the U.S. is obligated under treaty to defend.

Speaking from his home in London, Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, explains how China is a victim of its own propaganda, why the South China Sea is also crucial to American interests, and how "peace parks" could save collapsing fish stocks and defuse military tensions.

The Nanhai, as the South China Sea is known, has always had a deep meaning to the Chinese. Explain its significance.

Its meaning has been projected backwards. One of the things I learned researching the book was how the southern part of China related to Southeast Asia in a way that other parts of China didn't.

For a long time it was seen as a frontier place, from which only bad things came. For the first few thousand years of the South China Sea trade, it was Malays and Indians and Arabs who did most of the trading. It was only relatively late, roughly after the tenth century, that the Chinese got in on the act.

But it was always seen with ambivalence by the imperial court. The idea that the South China Sea belongs to China only emerges as a nationalist idea in the 20th century and has been projected backwards in history.

You write about the Arab dhow found off Belitung Island in Indonesia, which National Geographic covered in 2009. How did it change our understanding of historical trade along the Maritime Silk Route?

It shows how specialized and sophisticated the trade between China and the Middle East already was by then. You have pottery with Islamic motifs being custom made for markets separated by thousands of miles of dangerous sea. It's not just the province of explorers. This is a maritime trade. And we can tell from the different products and where they were distributed in the boat that this ship must have visited several ports, picking up different cargoes along the way. So we get a sense of how these places were connected in a thriving trade more than a thousand years ago.

The focus of your book is the disputes over a number of islands, many of them barely more than outcrops of rock. Give us a brief tour of the hot spots.

There are three main areas. There are the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China and Vietnam. China now occupies all of them. Then there are the Spratly Islands in the south, which are disputed between China and Vietnam, but also Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and to a degree Indonesia. The third layer is the Scarborough Shoal, which is disputed between China and the Philippines.

The problem is that no one is actually willing to clarify their claims and say, We were the first ones to stick our flag on this island—because they don't have the evidence. The first time a Chinese official set foot on the Paracel Islands was probably June 6, 1909, the first time on the Spratly Islands was December 12, 1946. The Vietnamese probably stuck their flag in the Spratly Islands as an independent country in 1956, although the French had been there before them. The Philippines came much later, in the 1970s. (Learn more about a local Vietnamese ethnic group known as the Cham, whose members remain wary of taking sides in the South China Sea dispute.)

But it's not so much the islands that are valuable. It's the spaces in between them. That's where the fish and possible oil reserves might lie. So there's no incentive for the countries to try to limit their claims. They're at the stage where they want to make their claims as expansive as possible.

Deng Xiaoping famously said that the islands of the South China Sea "have belonged to China since ancient times." Is there any merit to that claim?

As late as the 1890s Chinese officials in Guangdong Province were denying responsibility for the islands. There was a case in 1898 where two British ships got wrecked on the Paracel Islands, and pirates looted the wreck. The British complained. But the governor of Guangdong Province denied all knowledge of the islands. Maps of that period don't mention the islands either.

Everything changes in 1909, when a Japanese merchant is discovered digging up guano on Pratas Island, between Hong Kong and Taiwan. Because of the negative feeling toward foreign exploitation in China in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, this provoked a huge nationalist backlash, leading to boycotts of Japanese products and the decision to make the Japanese merchants leave.

And it's only in 1909 that the Chinese authorities start taking an interest in the South China Sea. If one looks at the names of the islands in Chinese, it's clear many of them are simply translations of the British names. So, for example, Jinyin Dao in the Paracels is the Chinese for "Money Island." The word "Money" actually comes from William Taylor Money, chief superintendent to the Bombay Marine, the navy of the English East India Company.

China has recently embarked on a major underwater archaeology program aimed at identifying the 2,000 or so shipwrecks off its coasts. How is maritime history being exploited to bolster territorial claims?

The director of the Underwater Archaeological Research Centre has been pretty open that what he's doing is intended primarily to bolster China's claims to the islands. This is not disinterested scholarship. He sees his purpose as a nationalistic one. So there's an unfortunate but mutually beneficial arrangement between the government, which wants to bolster its claims to islands, and the archaeologists, who are looking to increase their ability to do underwater excavations. But if the archaeology becomes subject to a political agenda, then the scholarship won't be reliable.

Tell us about the Selden Map—and how cartography has shaped the present conflicts.

The Selden Map is fascinating because its history tells us an awful lot about the links between Southeast Asia and Europe at the time. It's a Chinese-made map, although where it was actually made is still not settled. It was called the Selden Map because it was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford by John Selden, who was also one of the founders of international maritime law.

Quite how it came into his possession is not yet known. Selden was connected to the English East India Tea Company, and he may well have known the person who stole the map—we assume it was stolen or raided from the Chinese owners. The map itself is richly decorated in the Chinese style, with images of landscapes and trees and plants. But what's also clear is that it contains navigational instructions.

Is this the origin of the so-called U-shaped line?

The U-shaped line, or Nine-Dotted Line, as it is also known, emerges much later, out of the nationalist anxiety of the early 20th century, when the old empire is overthrown by the modern Chinese republic. Up to then, China's borders had never been clearly delineated.

Then in the early decades of the 20th century, Chinese cartographers attempted to show where the rightful boundaries of China should lie, which were, incidentally, well beyond its current boundaries. You can see this in a whole series of maps produced by the Shanghai Cartographic Society. And this is the origin of the U-shaped line.

You say that the battle for these islands represents "psychology and perception trumping any practical benefits." Can you expand on that?

The islands themselves are not worth exploiting. Once upon a time merchants mined guano as agricultural fertilizer. But those deposits have long since gone. What is at stake is the fisheries and perceived oil wealth. There are some oil prospects in part of the disputed areas. But the idea that this is some vast new Saudi Arabia waiting to be tapped is not borne out by the evidence.

So it's all about nationalism?

China has convinced itself that it's the rightful owner of the South China Sea and that anybody else's claim is invented, and secondary. From that basic belief, we get a whole series of actions, which have alarmed the region. Like installing oil rigs off the coast of Vietnam. These actions are all predicated on the idea that the South China Sea belongs to China.

What I try to show in the book is how this sentiment only emerged in the first part of the 20th century. Nonetheless, it's clear that it's deeply held. Chinese school textbooks tell children that China has three million square nautical miles of maritime territory. The official map of the country has also been changed to show the U-shaped line in its entirety. Basically, the Chinese government is believing its own propaganda.

The U.S. has recently beefed up its presence in the South China Sea, and there have been repeated near collisions with Chinese fighter planes. How close are we to a regional war?

I think we're a long way away from that. But it's clear the Chinese don't want the Americans as close to their coast as they are. The American position is that the Law of the Sea gives them a perfect right to sail up to within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese coast and do whatever they like. That includes listening to submarines or flying surveillance missions along the coast. The Chinese are trying to stop this, which is why we've had confrontations in the air as recently as August.

The South China Sea is vital to the U.S. as a military power and also in terms of commercial shipping. It's vital that the seaways are open for energy shipments and all the products of world trade that go backwards and forwards. The U.S. Navy can't just abandon them and trust that the Chinese are going to look after them. And this is where America's desire to be a world power bumps up against China's desire to be a regional power and control what it sees as its maritime backyard.

You end the book with an alternative vision of mutual cooperation in the South China Sea. Imagine it for us.

If the islands weren't there, everybody could agree to draw up zones where, according to the Law of the Sea, they were beneficiaries of the oil and fishing rights. The Philippines could get access to much needed energy sources. And the different countries could talk about managing fish stocks. Fish stocks face a potential catastrophic decline from overfishing. But since no country is willing to recognize the other countries' authority to regulate fishing, there's no overall body taking control.

John McManus, who works for the American Coral Reef Center, has suggested the idea of a peace park, which could both demilitarize the area and be a place where fish stocks could recover. But it's not getting anywhere, because that would mean everybody would have to take a step back from their nationalist positions.

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