Archaeology could wreck China’s sea claims
At the conclusion of the recent Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Malaysia, the Chairman’s statement read: “We share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea.” The stock response from China is that it has an “indisputable right” to be there and to do whatever it likes. And while ASEAN treads on eggshells, China demands that Vietnam, the Philippines, and other occupiers immediately stop their infringements on Chinese sovereignty.
All claimants are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into effect in 1994. Before then, China had as much right as anybody else to occupy previously unoccupied territory in the Spratlys. Since then, China has occupied or blockaded reefs within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China’s nine-dash-line claim severely encroaches on the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia. Vietnam and the Philippines have loudly proclaimed that under international law, China’s rights are disputable.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that the nation’s rights are historical, with the earliest proof of hegemony over the Nanhai (the South Sea) spelled out in Han and Tang texts. The Han dynasty ruled from 206 BC until AD 220 and the Tang from AD 618 to 906, implying that China deployed an assertive fleet of sea-going junks throughout the first millennium.
Chinese products such as ceramics, ironware and silk were in high demand. But paradoxically, the South-east Asians, and to some extent the Arabs and Indians, initially provided all the shipping. To quote from Singaporean history professor Derek Heng’s book on Sino-Malay trade: “Information on Chinese participation in maritime shipping to the Malay region (present day Malaysia and Indonesia) is not forthcoming until the 11th century”.
Maritime archaeology confirms this. Hundreds of shipwrecks have been discovered in China and throughout South-east Asia over the past few decades. Sadly, for shipwrecks from the 17th century or earlier, only 35 have been sufficiently well documented to provide a date and origin.
This is still sufficient to indicate trends. Seven South-east Asian ships of the lashed-lug shipbuilding tradition span the thousand years from the fourth century AD until the 13th century. Two stitched Arab dhows appear in the ninth century, when large Arab communities are known to have resided in principal Chinese ports. No fewer than 15 shipwrecks of vessels of the South China Sea tradition — a hybrid South-east Asian/Chinese construction centred in Siam — occurred from the 14th to 16th century. There are 11 Chinese junks, but the oldest is dated to the late 12th or early 13th century.
Clearly, China could not claim maritime sovereignty before the advent of Chinese sea-going shipping.
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