Home » Foreign Forces » China » Geographer: China’s Claim to South China Sea Not Rooted in History

Geographer: China’s Claim to South China Sea Not Rooted in History

A map of China's shifting definition of the so-called Nine-Dash Line. US State Dept. Image

A map of China’s shifting definition of the so-called Nine-Dash Line. US State Dept. Image

A British geographer and journalist described China’s claims to large swaths of seas and land formations off its coast are based on 20th-century events — from the Boxer Rebellion to the defeat of Japan in World War II — and not deeply rooted in its history.

This assertion brought several heated questions from the audience.

Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House and the author of South China Sea, The Struggle for Power in Asia, said in response to a question that Beijing’s claims are valid “because [these territories] are ours” historically, said “a hundred years ago you [Chinese citizens] wouldn’t feel” the same way. For much of China’s past, most of the South China Sea was viewed as “a place where pirates roam.”

Speaking Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank, he added, now, “every Chinese child is taught James Shoal is the southernmost part of Chinese territory.” The shoal is under water and claimed by China, Taiwan and Malaysia. It is more than 1,000 miles from the Chinese mainland and 50 miles from the Malaysia coast.

In answering a question about whether the media are increasing tensions over the disputes in the East and South China Seas, Hayton said, “The story has shifted” from one of China’s claims in the early 20th century in disputes with Japan and France over pieces of territory to one of who has the most influence in the region — Beijing or Washington.

He said the international arbitration panel’s recent ruling against China in a dispute with the Philippines over its so-called “9-Dash Line” territorial claims fell within the rules laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that the Spratlys were not islands. “There are no records of settled families” by the Chinese on them. The treaty calls for “human habitation, so they [aren’t] islands in that sense.”

Hayton added that Beijing was an early and strong supporter of the treaty “to stop countries from” making territorial claims like the ones it made in the case over the Scarborough Shoal brought by Philippine case.

The first time the “9-Dash Line” appears in an official document is 1946″ and includes the Spratlys in a 1947 map, he said. The timing was part of an agreement among the Allies that “all the territory stolen from China [by Japan] will be returned.” The question was, “Where do China’s borders lay?”

People's Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo

People’s Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo

Although China did not do much surveying work in the South China Sea and its fishermen did not continually inhabit the reefs and shoals, Beijing began producing in the early decades of the 20th century “maps of national humiliation.” They indicated certain land features also claimed by Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines were under its control. The “line,” which has shifted several times, was to make the territory appear to be contiguous.

Hayton said what moved Chinese imperial officials in the early 20th century to make these first claims was to “show it is standing up to foreigners.” The imperial government was trying to regain control of its own affairs and territory, usually close to the mainland, and solidify support with its people.

Later Chinese Republic officials continued these moves by “sticking in flags” on the Paracel Islands and sticking “one in the eye for the Japanese or anyone else,” who didn’t respect its sovereignty and claims.

At the beginning of his presentation, Hayton said China’s claims in the disputed waters “are just as incoherent as others” to these islands, reefs, barriers and shoals. He said Beijing is making these claims out of a “sense of entitlement,” which shows no signs of going away.

  • sferrin

    As long as nobody is willing to actually DO anything about it, it doesn’t matter what their claim is based on. If they want it, they’ll get it.

    • Curtis Conway

      Fait Accompli!

  • Curtis Conway

    Strangely enough, I agree with that.

  • ELINT-6

    I suspect the root of historical Chinese claims, though specious, are based on Zheng He’s voyages as well as the post-war arguments. Any thoughts on that?

  • World Peace Initiative

    The Glaciers melted away, from most part of the world about 10,000 years ago.

    The sea level is rising gradually, especially in the last few decades. Satellite imagery shows that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking steadily, it is also seen around the Antarctic, ignoring the seasonal variations, because of the global warming. That is why climate change / carbon emission control is a hot topic, now frequently discussed at various summits.

    Don’t try to deny anything that is obvious and confirmed.

  • Tenant1234

    Crap !

  • Tenant1234

    Gross ignorance of history !

  • Simon Lam

    I offer him my assistant PA, $ 32 an hour.

  • Simon Lam

    A person like you should be the next president of the USA. Exceptionally learnt , prudence and fair…Why there are not many Americans like you ?
    Good on you.


    Nice work, but not nice enough.

  • Secundius

    aka, “Squatters Rights”…

  • Jay

    HAHAHA!! Love that!

  • Secundius

    Most likely SLAVES! The Roman Republic were aware of the Chinese Existence, as Early as 300 BCE. And Had Diplomatic Relations with the Han Dynasty by 100 CE…

    • TomD

      What about the Mamikonian dynasty in Armenia, which may well have been of Chinese origin?
      Actually, the Chinese had better be careful, or their (and our) African Pygmy ancestors will make the same claims against them.

      • Secundius

        I Knew ONLY about the Roman Connection with China. Didn’t Know about the Armenian One. I knew A Little of the African Connection with China, but Only in Southern Africa. And As Far As I Knew, the Romans Did Have Dealing Extending down to Modern Day Nigeria. But Not Any Further South, Unless through Arabic Trading Mercantile…

        • TomD

          Well, I wasn’t (really) referring to anybody having connections to Africa, except in the sense that we all are African expats if we go back far enough. If we look at genetic and linguistic branchings, as best as we can tell the oldest traceable group are the Pygmies. So, with a lot of stretching we could argue that the Pygmies have a claim on China – and everywhere else.

          Moving on to Roman times, we know from records that there were Buddhist missionaries in Egypt in the First Century. The mercantile fleet that operated between Egypt and India was rather large. Don’t forget about the Roman coins excavated in Vietnam. There was a lot of travel in the ancient world.

          • Secundius

            And Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma, India, Australia, Fiji, New Guinea too.

            The OLDEST Known Shipwreck is off of Hayling Island just off Portsmouth, England. Which was “Carbon Dated” to be ~6,431-years Old and Originated in Egypt.

            The Oldest Known Shipwreck to the Americas. Was dated to have SUNK ~800 CE. By a Cordora-Moor named Khashkhash ibn Saeed ibn Aswad, just off the Venezuelan Coast. Roman Coinage dated from 44 BCE to 400 CE were found in the Wreckage, along with some 8th Century CE Moorish Coinage. While “Aswad” never Lived Long Enough to be Rescued, a Descendent Did named al-Masudi in 889 CE…

  • Secundius

    Philippine LST “Wasn’t” Abandoned, But Deliberately Beached. And Serves as a Forward Observation Post…

    • John B. Morgen

      It looks like a rusted hulk….

      • Secundius

        Because That’s What It Is. They (the Philippines) Deliberately Beached a Former LST. Salvaged to Cargo, Directly Under the Noses of the Chinese PLAN. And Quietly Came Back at Night and Used the Rusted Out Hulk as a Forward Observation Post. The Philippine “Trojan Horse”! Cleaver Ploy…

        • John B. Morgen

          Indeed, a very good idea; maybe the other nation-states should carryout the same ploy before the PLAN does anything to them. I know Vietnam has some old ex-American LSTs or LCMs floating around.

          • Secundius

            The New Philippine President might actually abandon the Outpost, In Favor to Stronger Ties with the PRC…

          • John B. Morgen

            I think that you’re right because this Philippine president has been quite nasty towards President Obama. If this president wants to side-up with the Devil, then we should stopped giving him military aid. Cut our losses now!

          • Secundius

            Or, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you will away’s be victorious”, by Sun Tze “Art of War”, ~471 BCE. or “Et circumdabunt et inimci tui custodite propius accedit” (‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’), by Niccolo Machiavelli “De Principatibus” (About Principalities or The Prince), ~1513 CE. “Either We’re the Friends or the Enemy”?/! Toss Up You’re Choice…

          • John B. Morgen

            Sometimes I think we are the enemy to those nation-states who are displaying “false faces” at our expense.

  • Stephen

    The great Admiral traveled extensively in the Pacific & Indian Oceans; will that become Chinese territorial by default? 200 miles has been the International accepted boundary. Common borders need to be negotiated.

  • Secundius

    Most Likely Reason “Accessibility”. Very Few Assault/Cargo Aircraft were Able to Fly OVER the “Hump” (Himalaya Mountains). To Get to Tibet…

  • R’ Yitzchak M

    The way of putting the balance and foremost the price – consequence
    to aggressive posturing would be to EMBRACE Taiwan as an self determined sovereign country decided by the referendum (as was the case in the Yugoslavia and Ex-Russian states) it was doable there.. Yugoslavia was not the threat to any of its neighbors. China IS the threat as well it still have “some” territorial aspirations from EVERY neighboring country on its borders.. India, Vietnam, Russia, Philippines, Japan, Tibet, Hong Kong ( which is moral equivalent of Chinese Sudetenland..) Even the Chamberlain would eventually draw the line somewhere.. So why not to acknowledge elementary human right to the Taiwanese people to DECIDE on THEIR OWN FATE and not to be delivered to the growing monstrosity with ever growing appetite. If we are threatened with the war.. and we back out at this point.. then WE ALLREADY LOST – gave up.. When I think of it actually we did just gave up. So all other lala “drama” is just a common rationalization it is perhaps just a spin for us to “save the face” of a de facto given defeat. Embracing the Taiwan as our VITAL ALLY will turn that page 180 degrees.. Today China is on the crossroads on the one side they utilized brightest China and the GLOBE can offer.. the best business minds on the globe. China in a 2 decades would not need any armies it will rule the world – economically there is another part in China and that is old party-appointed cronies that are loosing their grip on power.. because they are not educated enough nor smart enough to rule such a huge social force our planet never experienced ever before.. Challenging the Chinas militaristic expansionism now is to help the smart economically wise Chinese leadership to grow out of communist revolutionary dogmas and to embrace market as a much more potent tool with given capitalist meritocracy and ever growing economy of scale.. They are already building the internal infrastructure to engage domestic market, at that point all economies of the world would be totally inconsequential. China is becoming the true global winner that is a fact given in just a decade or two. Chinese military is the last bastion from the era that murdered more Chinese than any recent global plague.. 54 million of people were exterminated by one SICK “idea” of the one truly sick man. Challenging the Chinese militarism now will help the smart Chinese to consolidate the SANITY that will be good for China and perhaps for the globe as well..

  • Jim Valle

    The proper model for establishing claims to the South China Sea would be the way the North Sea has been partitioned to the adjacent countries so they could equitably share the oil deposits under the seabed. A line was established down the middle from Norway to the English Channel and national boundaries extended to that line giving all interested parties a fair special purpose zone to develop.
    This solution is compatible with UN conventions, modern international law and treats all parties like equals. Either this solution or something similar is what the interested nations should insist on. Chinese bullying, blustering and opposition would only serve to expose them for what they are.

    • TomD

      One would think that the countries which border the North Sea would make the best arbitrators for a South China Sea partition.

  • John B. Morgen

    China’s claims are only good if the PLAN can enforced such claims by force. Therefore, I agree with the article’s author because of the recent actions by China are the result from PLAN’s modernization of its warships, or the construction of modern warships.