For the past two years China has dispatched a flotilla of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships to the farthest reaches of the South China Sea to assert Beijing’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters and features lying within its nine-dashed line. Beijing’s ambitious claim covers an estimated eighty percent of the South China Sea.
On each occasion PLAN warships sailed to James Shoal, or Beting Serupai in Malay, eighty kilometers off the coast of East Malaysia. According to Bill Hayton, who is completing a book on the South China Sea, China’s claim is based on a double historical error.
The first error occurred in 1933 when the Republic of China set up an official Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps to catalogue every part of Chinese territory on land and sea. The Inspection Committee lacked the means to carry out any maritime surveys and so it plagiarized from a contemporary British Admiralty map and attempted to translate the names of maritime features into Chinese. James Shoal was erroneously translated as Zengmu Tan or sandbank. This error had the effect of transforming a shoal, which lies under the water, into a land feature above the water.