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China's South Sea Claims: Fact or Fiction?

Archival image / CPA
China's Yung Lo emperor, Ch'eng Tsu.

During ongoing negotiations over the past several years, rival claimants to the Spratly Islands have agreed loosely to 'increase cooperation' in the South China Sea. Officially, however, Beijing, the most powerful and least flexible claimant nation, remains adamant in its assertion that the Spratlys are "an inalienable part of the Chinese motherland". Under these circumstances, perhaps it is time to consider the historical foundations of China's claim - indeed, whether Beijing has legitimate interests in the region at all.

In July, 1977, when Teng Hsiao-ping first emerged as China's leader following the death of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese foreign minister, Huang Hua, reconfirmed that China's claim to the South China Sea was "non-negotiable" in the strongest terms. At the same time he commented:

The territory of China reaches as far south as the James Shoals, near Malaysia's Borneo territory... I remember that while I was still a schoolboy, I read about those islands in the geography books. At that time, I never heard anyone say those islands were not China's... The Vietnamese claim that the islands belong to them. Let them talk that way. They have repeatedly asked us to negotiate with them on the issue; we have always declined to do so... As to the ownership of the islands, there are historical documents that can be verified. There is no need for negotiations since they originally belonged to China.

In this statement Huang was simply restating the standpoint advanced by the People's Republic of China since the time of its inception in 1949, and repeated many times since: that Chinese ownership of the South China Sea was "historically proven" and therefore non-negotiable. More recently, since the Chinese seizure of Panganiban, or Mischief Reef, in waters close by the Philippines' island of Palawan, China's propaganda machine has vigorously repeated that its claim to ownership is based on "unquestionable historical evidence".

This may be so. Yet, if such is indeed the case, why does China not produce the evidence? Former foreign minister Huang Hua's geography books, doubtless written by the Nationalist KMT government which ruled China during his schooldays, would not be deemed admissible by any independent judicial authority. The KMT claimed both the Paracels and the Spratlys when they ruled the mainland, and they maintain this claim from their base on Taiwan today. To quote, again, from Huang Hua: "In this respect Taiwan's attitude is all right. At least they have some patriotism and would not sell out the islands". Clearly, if China's claim is to be entertained, something more substantive than politically suspect school text books will have to be produced.

Fortunately, traditional Chinese society was both ordered and highly literate. Imperial court annals are a rich source of history, not only for China, but for surrounding territories including Nan Yang [the "Southern Ocean", a generic Chinese term for Southeast Asia] as well. Without seeking to prove or disprove the validity of Chinese claims on disputed territories such as Tibet, Eastern Turkistan and Mongolia, the annals do at least establish that such claims have existed for many centuries.

In spite of shrill Chinese affirmations of historical control, it is much harder to establish evidence of any national interest in either the Paracels (now controlled entirely by China) or the Spratlys (still in dispute) much before the start of the present century. One obvious reason is that these islands in the South China Sea are uninhabited--or were until recently, when the surrounding states began setting up military outposts throughout the region.

Comprised mainly of tiny islets surrounded by treacherous reefs, the Spratlys have traditionally been seen by seamen as a hazard to be avoided. Only pirates, seeking havens remote from authority, paid them much mind until the mid-1840s, when they were systematically charted by the British Admiralty. Again, it is instructive that the British made no attempt to claim either archipelago as their territory--the sole purpose of the survey was to improve navigation.

This, of course, begs the question "if the Paracels and the Spratlys have belonged to China for untold centuries, why were they not mapped and described until their mid-19th century survey by the British?" It is indeed strange--analogous, perhaps, to Chinese vessels being the first to chart the Faeroes or the Shetland Islands. In fact the explanation is simple. China, in contrast to Britain, has always been a continental power, rarely--if ever--venturing to sea.

To be sure, local Chinese merchants knew of the reefs and shoals of the Spratlys long before Western shipping entered Asian waters. So, too, did other regional traders--Vietnamese and Thai, Malay and Filipino--as well as a handful of long-distance sailing peoples like the Japanese and the Arabs. But all alike--just as the British in the 19th century--considered the reefs and shoals hazards to steer clear of. The idea of claiming such semi-submerged, rocky outcrops as a national asset remained absurd--at least until 20th century technology made the sea-bed accessible.

China's long tradition as a continental power not withstanding, the Middle Kingdom did put to sea now and then. Undoubtedly the most famous, successful and far-flung such maritime expeditions were those launched during the Ming Dynasty by the Yung Lo Emperor, Ch'eng Tsu, in the mid-15th century. Between 1405 and 1433 this remarkable ruler sent no fewer than seven separate expeditions not just to Southeast Asia, but to the Indian Ocean as well.

Archival image / CPA
Sketch of Cheng Ho's ship.

These expeditions were no small-scale affair. Under the great admiral Cheng Ho, a Chinese Muslim of Yunnan province, fleets of more than sixty ships holding upwards of twenty-eight thousand officers and men carried the imperial banner as far afield as Jiddah in Arabia and Mombasa in East Africa. The coasts of India and Indonesia were explored and described, and the intervening seas mapped. China's prestige throughout the region was paramount, and countries as diverse as Siam and Sri Lanka, Java and Bengal vied in sending tribute to the Dragon Throne.


When the Yung Lo Emperor died in 1424 the Ming Dynasty had reached the apex of its achievement, and China was the paramount sea power of the Orient. Yung Lo's remarkable navy at its maximum strength included four hundred warships based at coastal guard stations, four hundred armed transports, and--pride of the Ming navy--two hundred and fifty "treasure ships", each capable of carrying five hundred men.


Yet hardly had this remarkable flowering of Chinese maritime might begun, than it all came to an end. One of the first actions of Yung Lo's inward-looking successor, the emperor Jen-tsung, was to suspend all overseas expeditions. From the mid-15th century onwards China turned away from the sea, establishing a great land-based empire in Central Asia under the Ch'ing. In this way the Middle Kingdom survived in "splendid isolation" until being forced open by Western gunboats in the 19th century.

Fortunately for posterity, the Ming maritime voyages bequeathed a wealth of information in the form of maps, charts and travel records. Most have been published in Chinese, and many--including the most famous--in English. Probably the best-known example of the genre is The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores, compiled by the annalist Ma Huan in 1433. Using Ma Huan's study, in conjunction with contemporary works by Kung Chen (1434), Fei Hsin (1436); earlier studies by Chao Ju-kua (1226), Wang Ta-yüan (1350); and the Ming Shih, or Ming dynasty annals, the British scholar J.V.G. Mills in 1970 published a study entitled 'China in Southern Asia, 1433'.

In this magnum opus Mills lists and identifies no fewer than 715 place names in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean which were known to the Chinese by the mid-15th century. In a painstaking piece of scholarship, compiled before the present conflict for the South China Seas flared up in 1973, and without any thought of contemporary political purpose, Mills shows that not one reef or bank belonging to the Spratly Islands is anywhere recorded. Yet the same list includes the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, no fewer than 8 individual Maldive Islands, the Laccadive Islands, islands in the distant Persian Gulf and the Red Sea--not to mention a wealth of islands of all shapes and sizes in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

The Paracels, by contrast, receive two brief mentions, both derived from the archaic Mao K'un map held in the Library of Congress at Washington. This collection of folio charts, dated 1621 but thought to be based on information derived from the Yung Lo expeditions, identifies the Paracel Reefs [c. 15° 47' N, 111° 12'E] under the name Shih t'ang, or "Stone Reefs" as well as the nearby Macclesfield Bank [c. 19° 12' N, 113° 53'E], which is identified as Shih hsing shih t'ang, or "Stone Star Stone Reefs".

The Paracels are today under Chinese control--though this is still disputed by Vietnam. Whether the brief references to "stony reefs" in the Mao K'un map constitute any sort of evidence for China's territorial claim remains a moot point. Besides, it is entirely possible that these remote and uninhabited reefs, shunned by the sailors of the world until relatively recent times, may appear in Vietnamese historical records as well.

More importantly, a detailed analysis of all known Chinese knowledge relating to the South China Seas during the 15th century--that is, during the one period when Chinese shipping traversed the region on a regular basis and made systematic surveys of the seaways--reveals no mention whatsoever of the Spratly Islands. Thus the question must arise, just when did these far-flung islets become "an integral part of the Chinese motherland". What grounds are there for making such claims? Where are the proofs, the "incontrovertible historical evidence" on which China now bases its claims for hegemony in the South China Sea?

They may very well be there, locked in a museum cabinet or a university library somewhere on the Chinese mainland or, indeed, in Taiwan--which echoes China's claims.

One thing is clear. If such documents do exist, now would be an excellent time to produce them. The people of Southeast Asia, justifiably worried by the unfolding scenario in the disputed Spratly Islands, deserve no less.


Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2001.

This article was originally published in the Asian Wall Street Journal.