South China Sea: Still no evidence of historical Chinese claims


Two scholars have responded to my call for supporters of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea to provide verifiable evidence in support of their arguments. However the response of Dr Li Dexia and Tan Keng Tat ( shows just how difficult this task is likely to be. They are unable to prove any Chinese claim to any specific island made before 1909, and none of their assertions contain verifiable evidence. Some are demonstrably untrue.

Where is the proof that any pre-modern Chinese officials laid any claim to any feature in the South China Sea? There is no evidence that Zheng He or any of the other Ming Dynasty admirals did so. The same is true of the Mongol expeditionary forces a century before. Some 500 years ago seafarers generally sailed around the edges of the Sea to avoid the dangers of uncharted reefs that lay at its centre. If the authors know of documents or other evidence that prove otherwise, this is the time to make the exact references public.

Vagueness remains

There are certainly old Chinese texts mentioning “islands” but they are vague in the extreme, unconnected to specific pieces of land and provide no proof of discovery or claim. Some are reports of accounts given by foreigners arriving in China, others refer to mystical places near the entrance to the underworld and others are copies of European maps.

Dr Li and Tan make a number of other specific points. I need to turn to each one in turn.

The authors have failed to convince me that the name “Xisha” – referring to the Paracel Islands – appeared in Chinese documents before the name “West Sand” appeared on Western maps. I am quite prepared to accept that Europeans adopted local names for features but in this case I believe that it was the other way around. I am prepared to be proven wrong – but only if there is evidence.

The assertion that the 1887 agreement between France and China awarded the Paracels and Spratlys to China is patently untrue. The Convention, signed in Beijing on June 26, 1887, specifically concerns only the area of Indochina that French colonialists referred to as “Tonkin” – the northernmost part of what is now Vietnam.


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