At the conclusion of the recent Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Malaysia, the Chairman’s statement read: “We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” The stock response from China is that it has an “indisputable right” to be there and to do whatever it likes. And while ASEAN treads on eggshells, China demands that Vietnam, the Philippines, and other occupiers immediately stop their infringements on Chinese sovereignty.
All claimants are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect in 1994. Before then, China had as much right as anybody else to occupy previously unoccupied territory in the Spratlys. Since then, China has occupied or blockaded reefs within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China’s nine-dash-line claim severely encroaches on the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia. Vietnam and the Philippines have loudly proclaimed that under international law, China’s rights are disputable.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that the nation’s rights are historical, with the earliest proof of hegemony over the Nanhai (the South Sea) spelled out in Han and Tang texts. The Han dynasty ruled from 206 BC until AD 220 and the Tang from AD 618 to 906, implying that China deployed an assertive fleet of sea-going junks throughout the first millennium.
Chinese products such as ceramics, ironware and silk were in high demand. But paradoxically, the South-east Asians, and to some extent the Arabs and Indians, initially provided all the shipping. To quote from Singaporean history professor Derek Heng’s book on Sino-Malay trade: “Information on Chinese participation in maritime shipping to the Malay region (present day Malaysia and Indonesia) is not forthcoming until the 11th century”.
Maritime archaeology confirms this. Hundreds of shipwrecks have been discovered in China and throughout South-east Asia over the past few decades. Sadly, for shipwrecks from the 17th century or earlier, only 35 have been sufficiently well documented to provide a date and origin.
This is still sufficient to indicate trends. Seven South-east Asian ships of the lashed-lug shipbuilding tradition span the thousand years from the fourth century AD until the 13th century. Two stitched Arab dhows appear in the ninth century, when large Arab communities are known to have resided in principal Chinese ports. No fewer than 15 shipwrecks of vessels of the South China Sea tradition — a hybrid South-east Asian/Chinese construction centred in Siam — occurred from the 14th to 16th century. There are 11 Chinese junks, but the oldest is dated to the late 12th or early 13th century.
Clearly, China could not claim maritime sovereignty before the advent of Chinese sea-going shipping.
TAKING THE HISTORY CARD OFF THE TABLE
From the late 13th century, China has periodically demonstrated maritime prowess. Maritime archaeology can again be called upon to investigate more recent historical claims, and not only those made by China.
When plotting the positions of shipwrecks from the 13th century and beyond, it becomes abundantly clear that there were two primary routes through the South China Sea. The Western route hugged the coast of Vietnam, while the Eastern route hugged the Philippine coasts of Luzon and Palawan.
The dangerous reefs of the Spratlys were studiously avoided. Even modern charts label the area Dangerous Ground.
James Horsburgh, the hydrographer of the British East India Company, had this to say about the Spratlys in his Sailing Directions of 1836: “The Archipelago of sandbanks, rocks or reefs, above and under water, … is so extensive, and the dangers that form it so numerous, that there can be little utility in entering into a minute description of them, for they ought to be avoided by all navigators.”
In 1993, I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to survey several reefs in the Spratlys, under a licence issued by the occupant, Vietnam. Ladd Reef, and West and East London Reefs are the western-most in the archipelago, and, therefore, the most dangerous.
Plenty of shipwrecks were discovered. There was the famous tea clipper, Taeping, which was lost in 1871 en route from Amoy (now known as Xiamen) to New York. There was the Liverpool barque, Titania, which sank in 1852 while sailing from Macau with “a valuable cargo for Sydney”, unfortunately none of which remained.
There was the British barque, Christina, which left Macau “with a large quantity of treasure bound for Bombay”, the payment for her inward cargo of opium. She wrecked in 1842, but the cargo of silver was salvaged by a Portuguese adventurer, Captain Cuarteron, some years later. The nearby Chinese occupied reef has mistakenly assumed his name.
There was an unidentified mid-19th century sailing ship, an early 20th century German four-masted barque, a 20th century riveted steamer, a World War II submarine, and several steel fishing boats and barges. Careful visual searches around all of these reefs only led to disappointment. There were no ceramics or ballast stones. Nothing predated the 19th century.
In hindsight, these findings are consistent with Horsburgh’s warning, and all earlier sailing directions. It was only in the 19th century that rig design advanced to the point where ships could consistently sail into monsoon winds, rather than delaying voyages to sail with the monsoon.
The drawback was that they had to make long tacks, by sailing at an angle to the wind and, in doing so, sometimes took themselves too far off the established route. The consequences proved fatal.
No country has demonstrated that they have historical rights to the Spratlys, simply because it is, and always has been, Dangerous Ground, a place to avoid at all costs. China’s claim to a large chunk of the South China Sea on historical grounds does not seem to be indisputable.
But perhaps this is just as evident to China as it is to me. Perhaps, it is only a game that will have served its purpose once the islands have been created and the military facilities have been built and manned. Perhaps then China will happily participate in bilateral or even multilateral discussions, with the history card taken off the table.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr Michael Flecker is a visiting fellow at the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.