More Than a Rock

China's territorial dispute with the Philippines highlights a resource competition and diverging views of history.
A commentary by Philip Bowring
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A Chinese protester backing Beijing's sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal prepares to burn paper Philippine and U.S. flags at a protest in Hong Kong, May 10, 2012.
Photo: RFA

The quarrel between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea is about a lot more than a rock surrounded by shallow, fish-rich waters. It is about history and indeed the whole history of that sea which China now claims as its own. 

China’s current version of that history is naturally the one promulgated by Beijing, but is also often accepted by outsiders who know little or nothing of  this region and its sea.

For a start, the use of the name South China Sea in English accords a link to China which is perverse, given that two-thirds of the littoral states are not Chinese. China itself uses the words South Sea, Vietnam calls it the East Sea, and the Philippines now calls it the West Philippine Sea, to distinguish it from the Philippines Sea on the west of that archipelago.

Indeed, long before Chinese ships began to regularly sail it, the sea was known to the 10th-century Arab traveler and geographer al-Masudi as the Cham Sea. This was in recognition of the fact that at the time, and for another 400 years, the principal seafarers and merchants in the region were from Champa, the Malay (in its broadest sense)-speaking, Hindu-worshipping nation based on the central Vietnam coast.

China cannot base its claim on geography, as the rock lies only 135 nautical miles from the coast of Luzon—the main Philippine island—but about 350 miles from the mainland of China and 300 miles from the nearest point on Taiwan. It is also thus well within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

So the principal pillar of China’s claim is history—a 13th-century map made from a visit to the rock by a ship from China. At the time, China itself was under Mongol rule. The argument is thus “we got there first, and the fact that we put it on a map shows it is ours.”


This attitude puts China squarely in the company of 19th-century European voyagers who planted their national flags everywhere they went and claimed those places for their mother country.

Worse, it is a denial of the history of the non-Chinese people who border the sea, the Malay peoples of the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, and the Vietnamese.

The historical facts are that the Chinese were latecomers to navigation in the South China Sea and beyond. They were invisible before the Tang Dynasty, and although vast amounts have been written about Chinese expeditions under admiral Zheng He around Asia and across the Indian ocean to Africa in the early 15th century, these occurred more than a thousand years after Malay seafarers began to cross the Indian ocean.

People from what is now Indonesia were the first to settle Madagascar, more than 4,000 miles away, where the language and half the human gene pool show Malay origins. They also left a mark on the coast of Africa. The Roman empire’s imports of silk from China and spices from Southeast Asia mostly went on Malay and Indian ships to southern India and then on other vessels to the Arabian peninsula.

When the 4th-century Chinese pilgrim Fa Hsien wanted to visit Sri Lanka, he had to travel in Malay-owned and operated ships from China to Sumatra and then on to Sri Lanka.

Likewise, there was regular trade on Cham ships between Luzon and the Asian mainland. Seafarers could hardly been unaware of the Scarborough Shoal, which lay on the direct route from Manila Bay to Hoi An, the trading center on the Vietnam coast.

It was probably from Champa that the Philippines acquired the Indian-type scripts used on the islands prior to the arrival of the Spanish.

The dominance of ethnic Chinese commerce in the region is a much later phenomenon, which anyway almost owes nothing to the Chinese state. Indeed, the expansion of trade and settlement by the Chinese over the past 200 years was owed in large measure to the opportunities offered by Western political dominance and promotion of free trade.

An historical fiction

The earlier history is vital to understanding why China’s claim to almost the whole sea—as shown by a dotted line on a map which goes close to the coasts of all the other littoral states—is based on an historical fiction which relegates the histories of the non-Han peoples to inferiority or irrelevance.

This is also illustrated by the use of the term “tribute,” implying hegemony, to apply to taxes paid by neighboring states to be allowed to trade in China.

China’s claim to the Scarborough Shoal also rests partly on an equally feeble pillar—the the Treaty of Paris in 1898, which ended the Spanish-American war and ceded the Philippine Archipelago to the U.S. The shoal is a few miles outside Longitude 116E, defining one limit of Philippine territory, so China asserts it is not part of the Philippines.

It is particularly ironic to find a China which refuses to accept the legitimacy of treaties it once accepted, but now deems “unequal,” falling back on a treaty drawn up by foreign imperialist powers without any reference to the Philippine inhabitants, and consisting of a few straight lines hastily drawn on maps.

Appeals to the Treaty of Paris also look bizarre given that France itself claimed all the Spratly Islands as part of its Vietnamese empire, a claim never countered by the U.S., though some of the islands are much closer to the Philippines than to any other land mass.

All told, it is time to wake up to the fact that the Scarborough Shoal dispute is not a petty one about a rock, but is rather about the history of a crucially important sea and of the peoples who live next to it.

Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.


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