The South China Sea in Southeast Asia is bordered by 7 countries: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The name of that water, like others such as Gulf of Mexico, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Thailand, Philippines Sea, East China Sea and Sea of Japan, do not imply any notion of sovereignty because they were invented for convenience by European explorers.
In the South China Sea, there are three islands groups – Paracel islands, Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal – which are not permanently inhabited because the islands are small and do not have dependable fresh water. Some man-made objects have been found on some of them, indicating transient human presence, because since prehistory, fishermen, merchants and pirates from various countries built temporary shelter on them. Because those islands cannot support permanent human habitation, various national governments in the area recently had to build superstructures on them, as on Okinotori (a Japanese islet in the Pacific Ocean), to support human habitation.
China claimed sovereignty over 90% of the water and all the islands in the South China Sea by drawing a nine-dash line covering 90% of that sea, prompting her neighbors to protest that her claim contradicts international law, specifically the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
UNCLOS gave a coastal nation or an inhabited island an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 miles from the baseline (shoreline at low tide) in which the coastal nation or the inhabited island has the exclusive right to exploit natural resources. China’s nine-dash claim extends beyond her EEZ, biting into the EEZs of her neighbors. Also, UNCLOS said that rocks on the sea that cannot support human habitation and do not have economic life of their own cannot have EEZ. By UNCLOS definition, the South China Sea islands cannot have EEZ because they cannot support permanent human habitation on their own. Only China argued that they have EEZs, a hypocritical argument because in the dispute about Okinotori, China had argued that Okinotori cannot have EEZ because Okinotori cannot support human habitation on its own. As the Paracel islands lie halfway between China and Vietnam while Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal lie within the EEZs of China’s neighbors, China argued that those islands have EEZs simultaneously with claiming sovereignty over all the islands in order to maximize China’s EEZ at the expense of her neighbors.
China justified her exaggerated claim on the South China Sea by arguing that ancient Chinese texts mentioned certain islands in the South China Sea, proving that Chinese people were the first to navigate that sea and the first to discover the islands in the area, that China was the first country to exercise jurisdiction over the islands and that the South China Sea was China’s historic water. China further argued that in 1947, when China published a map of that sea with an eleven-dash line (predecessor of the nine-dash line), nobody protested, proving that the world had accepted China’s claim. However, close examination shows that China’s arguments are baseless.
First, in 1947, the world did not react to the map of the South China Sea with the eleven-dash line because the world ignored that map. That map carried as much legal weight as the traditional Chinese political thought which said that the world (All-under-heaven) is under the authority of Chinese emperors. Can China argue that the world had accept China’s sovereignty over the world because nobody protested when the Chinese emperors declared that the world is under their authority ? .
Second, countries that had historical border with the Arctic Ocean formed the Arctic Council to divide the Arctic natural resources according to the rules of UNCLOS. China never had any historical border with the Arctic Ocean, yet China asked to join the Arctic Council in order to have a share of Arctic natural rersources, arguing that the Arctic Ocean is a “common heritage for all of humankind”. If the Arctic Ocean is a “common heritage for all of humankind”, then the South China Sea is a common heritage for all the peoples who live on its shores, not only for China.
Third, peoples of the Austronesian language family, more specifically the Malayo-Polynesian branch, were the first to navigate the South China Sea. Their original homelands were Southern China or Taiwan. Between 5000-2500 BC, they crossed the South China Sea to populate the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. From Southeast Asia, they crossed the Pacific Ocean to populate Melanesia and Micronesia by 1200 BC, Polynesia by 1000 BC, Easter Island by 300 AD, Hawaii by 400 AD and New Zealand by 800 AD. They also crossed the Indian Ocean to populate Madagascar by 0-500 AD. The Indo-Pacific maritime space, including the South China Sea, was their historic water. Since the Austronesian peoples (ancestors of the Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians) were the first to navigate the South China Sea, they were the first to discover the islands in the area and to fish in the associated waters. Though they did not invent writing to record their discovery, it would be ludicrous to deny their discovery of the islands so close to the Philippines and Indonesia in light of the fact that they were able to discover the various islands in the vast Pacific Ocean. By the way, they have been displaced or reduced to aboriginal minority status in their original homelands.
Fourth, the South China Sea has always been an international waterway since prehistory. Indian traders navigated that sea early in prehistory, introducing Indian philosophies to Southeast Asia, leading to the formation of many Indianised states on Islands Southeast Asia in ancient time. One of those states was Srivijaya, located on Indonesia in the 7th century and exercised prominent maritime activities in the South China Sea. During ancient time, the influence of Chinese civilization on Southeast Asia was limited to Vietnam whereas the influence of Indian civilization was dominant throughout Islands Southeast Asia, indicating Indian traders were very active in the South China Sea. Persian and Arab traders also navigated that sea, introducing Islam to Indonesia and the Philippines. The Arabs even settled in Guangzhou during the 7th century. A 7th-century Chinese monk, I-Tsing, went pilgrimage to India by embarking at Guangzhou on a Persian ship, stopped over at Srivijaya before continued onto India.
Fifth, even if Chinese people were the first to navigate the South China Sea (not true), China cannot claim sovereignty over the water that is used by many other countries. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia do not claim sovereignty over the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean even though their Austronesian ancestors were the first to navigate those waters. Norway does not claim sovereignty over the Norwegian Sea even though the Norsemen (Vikings) were the first to navigate that water to populate Iceland and Greenland in the 9th century. Portugal does not claim sovereignty over the water off the West African coast, the water around the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean even though Portuguese under Bartolomeu Diaz and Vasco da Gama were the first to navigate those waters in 1488 and 1498. Spain does not claim sovereignty over the Atlantic Ocean, the Magellan Strait and the Pacific Ocean even though Spaniards under Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan were the first to navigate those waters in 1492 and 1521. Russia does not claim sovereignty over the Bering Sea even though Russians under Vitus Bering were the first to navigate that water in 1741.
Sixth, ancient Chinese texts which mention the South China Sea islands do not describe discovery of the islands but only describe general knowledge about the islands, knowledge shared among the fishermen, merchants and pirates from various countries who navigated that sea since prehistory. Chinese writers were the first to write about the South China Sea islands because China invented writing earlier, not because Chinese people were the first to navigate that sea or the first to discover the islands. This principle is illustrated by the Sea of Japan and the Black Sea.
Japan first appeared in written records in 57 AD in China’s Book of the Later Han as followed: “Across the sea from Lelang were the people of Wa”. Lelang was a Han Empire’s military outpost in Korea and Wa referred to Japan. The sea between Lelang and Wa is now known as Sea of Japan. Chinese writers were the first to write about Japan and Sea of Japan because China invented writing early, not because Chinese people were the first to navigate the Sea of Japan or the first to discover Japan. Korean and Japanese peoples lived by the Sea of Japan since prehistory and sailed into that sea to fish and to trade with each other, and knew about the existence of each others since prehistory, long before Chinese writers wrote about Japan and Sea of Japan.
The Black Sea first appeared in written records in 5th century BC in the writing of the Greek poet Pindar as “Pontos Axeinos”. By the 5th century BC, the Greeks had established many colonies by the Black Sea. Greek writers were the first to write about the Black Sea because Greece invented writing early, not because Greeks were the first to discover or the first to navigate the Black Sea. There were other peoples who lived by the Black Sea alongside with the Greeks and had sailed into that water to fish and to trade since prehistory, even though they did not invent writing to write about that. The Black Sea, like the South China Sea, is a common heritage for all the peoples who live on its shores.
Seventh, ancient Chinese texts which mention the South China Sea islands mention those islands as foreign lands, not as China’s territories, and do not describe which activities the authority of ancient China exercised on the islands. Therefore, there is no proof of China’s jurisdiction over the islands. In the case of Scarborough shoal, China argued that Kublai Khan’s officials were the first to map out and to establish jurisdiction over those islands in 1279. However, Kublai Khan was the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire who conquered China. If any country can inherit Scarborough shoal from Kublai Khan, it is Mongolia, not China.
In 1279, Kublai Khan’s officials neither “discovered” nor “established jurisdiction” over Scarborough shoal because that place was already the historic water and traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen, descendants of the Austronesian sailors who navigated the South China Sea and populated the Philippines in 5000-2500 BC. Scarborough shoal was known as “bajio de Masinloc”, meaning shoal of Masinloc, in a Spanish-made map of the Philippines in 1734. Masinloc is not a Spanish word and is the name of a municipality on the Philippines’ main island, confirming that Filipino fishermen had been to and had named the islands after their own tongue for centuries.
Eighth, official maps of the Yuan Dynasty and Ching Dynasty, including but not limited to Da Qing Zhi Sheng Quan Tu (published in 1862) and Huang Chao Yi Tong Yu Di Zen Du (published in 1894), show that the southernmost extent of China ends at Hainan islands (see below).
Finally, the Chinese empire originated on the Yellow river basin and eventually conquered many lands and peoples, including Tibet and Sinkiang, which is why China is a multiethnic, multi-languages country. At the time when China allegedly discovered the South China Sea islands, China’s border on the mainland was not what it is today, Tibet and Sinkiang were independent countries of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, respectively. The Tibetans and the Uyghurs are demanding self-determination. Three dozens Tibetan monks have burned themselves to death to draw attention of humanity to the sufferings of their people under China’s rule. If China is serious about its historical claim, it should return to its historical border on the mainland, return Tibet and Sinkiang to the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, respectively.
China knows that her arguments for claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea and all the islands in that water are baseless, which is why China refused the Philippines’ invitation to submit the dispute to an international court.