Neighbours accuse China of militarising its fishing fleet
If you want to understand the way China really feels about its controversial claim to huge swathes of the sea off its southern shore, then the island of Hainan is a good place to start.
This is a place where everything is bent towards justifying and upholding that assertion of sovereignty, from government and military policy, to fishing and tourism, and even history itself.
We came to the fishing port of Tanmen, on Hainan’s east coast, because of recent state media reports about the existence of an extraordinary document – a 600-year-old book containing evidence of vital, national importance.
The book, in the possession of a retired fisherman called Su Chengfen, is said to record the precise navigational instructions by which his long-distant forefathers could reach the scattered rocks and reefs of the far-flung Spratly islands, many hundreds of nautical miles away.
China’s insistence that these features are Chinese territory rests largely on a “we were there first” argument. So 81-year-old Mr Su’s book, “cherished” and “wrapped in layers of paper” is apparently a kind of maritime Holy Grail.
In fact, the reports suggest, it offers nothing less than “ironclad proof” of China’s ownership of the South China Sea.
So we went to meet Mr Su and found him busily building a model boat in his front yard, a short walk from the beach.
“It was passed down from generation to generation,” he tells me when I ask about the book. “From my grandfather’s generation, to my father’s generation, then to me.”