During his address at the Defense Conference in London on 14 September 2015, Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai, the Commander of the PLA Navy‟s North Sea Fleet, stated that “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.” He further stressed that the waterway has belonged to China from the time of the Han dynasty,  which  had  ruled  from  206  BC  to  AD  220.  The  above  assertions  merit scrutiny  to  examine  the  veracity  of  the  Chinese  historical  and  taxonomical  claims over the South China Sea.

The Chinese historical claim to South China Sea date back to the Han dynasty (206   BC   to   AD   220),a   period    considered   as   the   golden    age   in    Chinese history.Theseislands were referred to in some of the Chinese texts in the 4th century BC,  but  only  implicitly,  as  part  of  the  “Southern  Territories”  or  “South  Sea”.  The Islands were referred to as the “Three Mysterious Groups of Islands” during the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC). During the Eastern Han dynasty period (AD 23 to 220), the South China Sea was renamed “Rising Sea”, so the islands were called the “Rising Sea Islands”. Even if one were to concede that the Sea or the Islands were christened by the  Chinese dynasties  two  millennia  ago,  would  that  suffice  to  stake  a  historical claim? The maximum area over which the Han dynasty exercised suzerainty is less than half of what constitutes China today. Would the historical claim over the Sea not inevitably  apply  mutatis  mutandis  for  land  boundaries,  as  they  existed  under  that era?  It  is  indeed  ironical  that  Beijing  advocates  different  claims  over  different regions, based on historical claims from different time-frames!

Even  though  Beijing  asserts  strong  maritime  traditions  whilst  furthering  its maritime  claims,  Chinese  were  actually  latecomers  to  navigation  beyond  coastal waters  in  the  region.  The  accomplished  seafarers  of  the  region  were  the  Malayo-Polynesian peoples who had explored the seas from Taiwan to New Zealand and even up  to  Madagascar  in  the  west.  Even  the  Chinese  Buddhist  pilgrims  like  Faxian(AD399-412)used Malay ships during his visits to India and Sri Lanka.

Further,  Beijing‟s  claim  to  the  South  China  Sea  as  “historic  waters”  do  not hold much water as the Asian empires of pre-modern era did not exercise sovereignty and   were   rather   characterised   by   undefined,   unprotected,   and   often   changing frontiers.  On  the  contrary  to  the  rationale  justifying  its  claims  in  South  China  Sea, Beijing,  whilst  dealing  with  its  territorial  disputes  with  neighboring  India,  Burma, and   Vietnam,   takes   a   position   that   its   land   boundaries   were   never   defined, demarcated, and delimited. China, therefore, gives reverse justifications for its claims over land and sea. Whilst furthering its claims over land boundaries, Beijing argues that historically, its land boundaries were never defined and are a legacy of colonial era;  and  therefore,  cannot  be  accepted.  On  the  other  hand,  to  expand  its  maritime zone,  it  takes  a  contrasting  stance  that  China‟s  maritime  boundaries  were  always clearly defined.

If  at  all,  the  Chinese  historical  claims  have  any  cogency,  so  would  be  the historical claims of Vietnam and the Philippines over Taiwan; Taiwan was originally settled by people of Malay-Polynesian descent. Similarly, Mongolia could claim all of Asia (parts of Genghis Khan Empire) and India could stake claims for Afghanistan, Bangladesh,  Burma,  Malaysia  (Srivijaya),  Nepal,  Pakistan,  and  Sri  Lanka  (parts  of Maurya/Chola/  Moghul/  British  Indian  empires)!  Accordingly,  the  Chinese  claims over the South China Sea based on historical grounds is not tenable.

China‟s  claim  to  South China  Sea  is  not  actually  historical,  and  it  dates  back only  to  1947,  when  Chiang  Kai-shek‟s  nationalist  government  propounded  the  so- called  “eleven-dash  line”  on  Chinese  maps  of  the  South  China  Sea.  Following  the ouster of the Nationalist Government in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party adopted this  „cartographic  mis  adventure  after  erasing  two  dashes  in  the  Gulf  of  Tonkin  in 1953.

The  other  justification  on  part  of  Admiral  Yuan  Yubai‟s  assertion,  that  the South China Sea‟s name implied that its waters belonged to China, is wishful, to say the least. To dispel such notions, the Philippines has already re-christened the South China Sea as West  Philippines Sea and Vietnam calls it  East  Seas.  If the taxonomy could be the relevant ground for claiming a Sea, it would be interesting to know the Admiral‟s  response  on  the  names  of  Gulf  of  Mexico,  Bay  of  Bengal,  Arabian  Sea  or the Indian Ocean!

Whilst  the  idea  of  national  sovereignty  dates  back  to  seventeenth-century Europe  (the  Treaty  of  Westphalia),  the  idea  of  maritime  sovereignty  is  relatively  a modern   construct,   having   gained   prominence   only   from   mid-twentieth-century onwards. As a responsible power of the 21st  century, Beijing should appreciate that any attempt to redraw the land and maritime boundaries based on historical claims would  be  a  never  ending  process  and  would  take  the  world  back  into  the  pre- Westphalia era.


About the author

Commander   Dinesh   Yadav   is   a   Research   Fellow   at   the   National   Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the  official  policy  or  position  of  the  NMF,  the  Indian  Navy  or  the  Government  of India. He can be reached at dinesh8y@yahoo.com


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