The recent disputes about the South China Sea (SCS) islands are entirely different matters. Most SCS islands are uninhabitable and never have had natives. A few large islands now with people came from China or Taiwan. Why is the Chinese claim of sovereignty rights over the SCS islands an issue then? It shouldn’t really be. The sovereignty issue on the SCS islands should be resolved by establishing the historical facts such as i. Which people from where came first (usually fisherman), ii. Historical claims made by government and iii.
International recognition made by other governments. These historical facts supported with documents, maps and governmental announcements should constitute solid proofs of sovereignty. As for the definition of island versus reef and their rights associated with economic zone versus security zone, they are defined by UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) signed and agreed by international members. Not all nations ratified the UNCLOS, China did and the U.S. did not.
Not surprisingly, there will be disputes on SCS islands as contemporary fishermen desire to catch fish wherever and however far they can reach, but it is surprising that the disputes are elevated to high tension under the issue of maritime freedom. After all the SCS islands are small compared to the vast seas and there were never any incidence of obstruction of maritime freedom. Rather, when the mighty naval ships came from afar to patrol the SCS, the tension rose. Should these naval vessels make their frequent presence in SCS? Why and What for? If it was for island disputes, shouldn’t we let the disputing parties to resolve the disputes according to the historical facts they can present and resolving any rights issue by bilateral negotiation? For helping world citizens (especially Americans) to understand the SCS island dispute issues, the following discussion referencing two articles in the Observer Magazine (Cheng Hai Ling, British Navy Records Prove That China Has Sovereignty over SCS, 3-19-2016 and Chang Chien Fong, Taiping Island Is Not An Abandoned Island Governed by Jungle Rule, 3-20-2016) would shed some light on the issue.
China, in her long history, has ample records documenting the historical facts related to every dynasty and every emperor. Many of these records include sovereignty matters including territories extending into the seas from shore. However, these Chinese documents tend to be ignored by the West partly due to language difficulties and partly due to prejudice. Regarding SCS, as early as Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), a geography book (Han Book Geography) recorded since Qin (221-206BCE) and Han, Chinese had sailed to SCS with Map (called Needle Map) and discovered the SCS islands. Tang Dynasty (618-906) included SCS in her sovereignty map. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) famous for sending Cheng Ho out for seven sea fares to explore the world and one of his missions was to inspect the SCS islands. However, these historical records did not have as much impact on the West’s understanding os SCS as the western records.
Through scholars’ research, it was found that British ships had reached Canton, China in 1637 and since then the British had cumulated lots of maritime records including SCS confirming that only the Chinese fishermen were ever present in the SCS centuries ago. A more recent reference from the British Royal Navy, ‘the Chinese Sea Directory’ (1879), had plenty vivid descriptions about the Chinese fishermen working and living on the SCS islands taking advantage of seasonal wind to go there, sending supplies and returning with sea cucumbers and sea turtle shells items only Chinese people valued them. In volume II of this 1879 book, numerous pages were devoted to SCS, mentioning “Tizard Bank and Reefs” (Chinese fishermen settled there and trade sea products with Hainan boats carrying rice), “Huba Island” (Named Taiping Island today governed by Republic of China where the drinking water quality was noted to be better), “Thi-Tu Reefs and Island” (Zhong Ye Island, now squatted by the Philippines, where Chinese fishermen from Hainan were found getting drinking water from north east part of the island. There was no mention at all any presence of the Filipinos) and “Lan-Keeam Cay” is a name from Hainan Chinese not a Filipino name.
The British Royal Navy record described how the Hainan fishermen went to the South Sea of China Sea (i.e. SCS) to practice seasonal fishing, harvesting sea cucumbers, turtle shells and fish fins. One sea route was described that Hainan people in March would go to SCS dropping supplies and a few fishermen there to work and sailed on to Borneo then came back in June to collect the fishermen with their sea goods, apparently taking advantage of the weather and ocean wind. In this directory, it also made reference to Daniel Ross’s comments (1817) on Hainan’s fishing boats being solid and fast (made of special hard wood) and they could sail 700-800 miles. Another British publication, Nautica Magazine and Navel Chronicle (1842) even mentioned that the Chinese fishermen had reached the Indian Ocean.
In addition to British and French archives about SCS, Japanese had records as well. China lost in the Sino-France war (1884-85) and let France colonized Indochina, but France clearly recognized China’s sovereignty over SCS. In 1933, France seized Spratly and Paracel islands but then in1938 lost them to Japan. Japan renamed them New South Islands and later assigned to be part of KaoHsiung (Taiwan’s largest southern city) expecting to permanently occupy them all. When WW II ended in 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally and, per Potsdam Declaration and San Francisco Treaty, Japan had to renounce all her illegally captured territories including Taiwan and SCS islands which should be returned to China.
Japan not willing to share her relevant official government records on SCS is easily understandable (damaging to her ambition to occupy China’s Diaoyu Island in the East China Sea), but there are some civilian records available. For example, a Japanese book, Hurrican Islands (published in 1940, JPNo. 46072746 and NDC 292.24, written by a retired Japanese Navy Lt. Colonel, 1890-, 小倉, 卯之助), describing his sea adventure from Okinawa to Taiwan and SCS. He traveled to Taiping Island on 1-13-1919, upon landing discovering that Chinese had been living there. He found a shrine with plaque written in Chinese with Chinese date, Year Seven of Republic of China (1918). In addition, there is government document from Vietnam officially recognizing China’s U shaped SCS boundary.
The above and much more foreign documents and numerous Chinese ancient and modern history books and maps prove without doubt that SCS islands belong to China. Both PRC and ROC governments are united on this position, that is why President Ma Ying-Jeou had flown to Taiping island on 1-28-2016 and showed the world with his presence that Taiping is not only habitable (discredit Philippine’s false claim) but is established with school, bank, hospital and sea and air ports. As an American, it is really puzzling to see the U.S. siding with the Philippines and hyping the SCS situation to a world crisis. Wouldn’t the stability of SCS be far more important to China for her trades and security than to the U.S.? Are we playing an honest game?