China’s nine-dash line and related claims are based on British mistakes and its own ignorance and confusion, an expert asserts.
The nine-dash line is a relatively new claim based on a line drawn around nonexistent islands on a bad copy of a British-drawn map in 1936, according to Southeast Asia expert Bill Hayton.
The infamous “nine-dash line” that China has been using to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, originates in China’s own ignorance and seriously mistaken information on the sea’s islands in the 1930s, Hayton said at the ninth annual South China Sea Conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington last Wednesday.
During his presentation, Hayton, an associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at the London-based thinktank Chatham House, cited historical documents from China which show that it was not until 1909 that China first evinced interest in the South China Sea, after they learned that a Japanese guano entrepreneur had started operating on Pratas Island, which lies southwest of Taiwan in the northern part of the South China Sea.
In June 1909, China launched a three-day expedition to the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam calls the Hoang Sa Islands and had affirmed its sovereignty over in the 17th century, after which it announced its claim over the islands.
However, China did little to exercise its self-claimed “sovereignty” over the Paracel Islands in subsequent years, other than entering into a diplomatic dispute with France when it claimed the islands on behalf of its then protectorate Vietnam in 1931.
Two years later, in 1933, France made a separate claim to nine islands in the Spratly Islands, which Vietnam calls Truong Sa, and historical documents make it clear that the government of the Republic of China at the time had no knowledge of where the Spratly Islands were, and confused them with the Paracel Islands.
Specifically, in a telegram dated July 19, 1933 that was sent to the Chinese foreign ministry regarding France’s new claim, the Chinese Minister of Navy claimed that “after investigation, there were no nine islands at 10o 0′ N, 150o 0′ E between the Philippines and Vietnam. The nine islands between the Philippines and Vietnam were further north.”
The Chinese government then established a “Review Committee for Land and Water Maps,” which held 25 meetings between June 1933 and December 1934 to come up with a list of 132 features in the South China Sea that belong to China and create Chinese names for them.
However, this list had in fact been copied from the U.K.’s 1906 China Sea Directory, as the Chinese list contained the same mistakes and the same nonexistent features as the British one, Hayton pointed out.
The first versions of the Chinese names for the features were also simply translations or transliterations of the English names that could be found on British maps at the time, such as the James Shoal being named Zengmu Tan or Vanguard Bank being named Qianwei Tan.
Furthermore, the Chinese committee had mistakenly translated terms such as “shoal” and “bank,” which are submerged features, into “Tan” which is the Chinese word for features that are above water, suggesting that the Chinese had no information on the features in the list and had never surveyed them prior to 1933.
Based on these mistakes, Bai Meichu, a retired geography professor, published in 1936 an Atlas of China in which he labeled features in the South China Sea, including James Shoal, Vanguard Bank and some nonexistent features as Chinese islands and drew a U-shaped line around them to express China’s so-called sovereignty in the sea.
The map used by Bai to create his Atlas was also likely copied from the “Asiatic Archipelago” map by British publisher Edward Stanford & Co. in 1918.
“The only reason that this line was drawn the way it was was because [Bai] drew this line on this map back in 1936 around these nonexistent features,” Hayton commented.
Aine-dashed line drawn by Bai Meichu, a retired geography professor, in an Atlas of China pubished in 1936. Photo by Bill Hayton.
A U-shaped line covering the South China Sea, drawn by Bai Meichu, a retired geography professor, in an Atlas of China pubished in 1936. Photo by Bill Hayton.
After the second World War, Bai’s students Zheng Ziyue and Fu Jiaojin, who had assisted with creating the atlas, were hired by the Chinese interior ministry to formulate its national boundaries.
The two subsequently used the map from Bai’s atlas as a basis to create the first official map of China in 1947, which includes a U-shaped eleven-dash line to show China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Through the second half of the 20th century, this “eleven-dash line” was adjusted multiple times to become the “nine-dash line” that China currently uses to assert its claim.
As most of China’s claims are based on “historical bias,” Hayton proposed that one solution to resolving disputes in the South China Sea would be to clarify the history of occupations of features in the South China Sea.
He noted: “All of the archives to do with [China’s] occupation of the South China Sea features are in Taipei. Taiwan I think has what really could be a nuclear option.”
Contradicting current-day Chinese propaganda, which claims that “the islands have been sacred to Chinese territory since ancient times,” Hayton remarked: “The Chinese claim to the Spratly Islands is younger than my parents.”