The South China Sea Dispute & The Malleability of History

China has been asserting its maritime strength in recent years, claiming sovereignty on waters and land that other countries consider theirs.

From the map below, we can see that these disputed areas cover significant grounds and involve numerous stakeholders. These areas are relatively under-explored and rich in resources - most notably oil, natural gas and fisheries. They provide the maritime rights to lucrative trade routes as well.

Now, more children are being born in this part of the world. About 1 in every 7 people originate from China. There are more mouths to feed and less resources available to each citizen.

China must find somewhere to harvest the energy and food needed to satisfy its growing demands. Every other country in this map faces the same problems, albeit on a smaller demographic scale.

Source credit: Asia Now
I was fairly sympathetic to the plight of fellow Southeast Asian countries. After all, they have less military might. In this regional tussle, they come across as the weaker, more vulnerable underdogs. Besides, it's ludicrous how China could claim waters that are almost along the coasts of other countries.

My friends, Chinese scholars studying at the National University of Singapore, remarked that these islands do belong to China. After all, given the extensive history of China, it shouldn't be a surprise that some Chinese fishermen might have visited, rested on and laid claim to these barren, once-insignificant rocks. There are probably historical records of such activities in the Chinese archives.

Assuming that such explorations did take place and there are uncontested records, there remains a pertinent problem. Where do we draw the historical line?

The People's Republic of China, as we know it, was only formally founded on 1 October 1949. The preceding dynasties, traceable back to 2100 BCE, were conveniently circumscribed into the modern China story.

'The explorers during the Ming dynasty have floated on these seas and landed on these islands. As such, these lands belong to China.' The problem inherent in such a statement is that China did not exist then. The Ming explorers were exploring as Ming people for the Ming emperor, not for the not-yet-existent China. The maritime rights belonged to the Ming dynasty which had faded away long ago. How can the claims that such islands belong to China be legitimate?

History is like play dough. It has been carefully massaged to give the impression that China has a legitimate claim to far-flung islands.

Here's another question: what if people from the ancient equivalent of Vietnam did visit some of these shoals but their activities were never recorded? Does the absence of archival records mean that modern Vietnam can't reclaim these spaces?

This South China Sea dispute can favor different countries depending on which historical fact is unearthed and re-presented. From it, we can observe that history can be stretched, pulled, pressed and compressed to fulfill any number of purposes and most countries have no qualms about moulding it.