China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands is the result of a gradual process in which the islands were first discovered, named, and developed by the Chinese people over the course of history and governed under the administration of successive Chinese dynasties and governments on an uninterrupted basis. This process of development is not only supported by a wealth of reliable historical evidence, but has also long been acknowledged as fact by the international community.
According to historical records, the discovery of the South China Sea Islands by the Chinese people occurred during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) at the very latest, by which time the Chinese people had already gained a basic understanding of the islands. Chronology of Rare Things, written by Yang Fu during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), contains the following passage: “There are islets and reefs in the South China Sea. The water is shallow and there are numerous rocks.”
In the Essays on Things of Interest in Southern China, written by Wan Zhen during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280 CE), a passage documenting a nautical voyage from the Malay Peninsula to China includes the following description: “traveling northeast, (we encountered) large islets and reefs emerging from the South China Sea.
The waters in between are shallow, and there are many rocks.” These two historical records, both of which refer to terms such as islets, reefs, and the South China Sea by their names in ancient Chinese, are highly consistent with each other. The term “islets and reefs in the South China Sea” refers to the reefs of the South China Sea Islands. According to these records left by Yang Fu and Wan Zhen, by the Eastern Han Dynasty at the very latest, the Chinese people had not only discovered and named the South China Sea, but had also gained an initial grasp of its basic features.
A house built on a one-square-meter rock that is one meter above sea level in Yongshu Reef, Nansha Islands (taken in September 1988). In accordance with a proposal by UNESCO, a permanent ocean and meteorological observation station was set up on the Yongshu Reef by the Chinese government in 1988. The station was established for the purpose of monitoring diastrophism and sea level changes in the Pacific Ocean, and also conducts hydrometeorological research on tropical oceans. The data it collects is conducive to the peaceful exploitation of ocean resources. / Photo by Xinhua reporter Tao Junfeng
The South China Sea appears frequently in historical records under the name of “Zhanghai.” We can be sure that the term “Zhanghai” was a widely accepted term used to refer to the South China Sea in general at those times. The emergence of other place names such as “Jiaoshi Shan,” “Xiang Shi,” and “Qizhou Yang” by the Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907 CE) further demonstrates that the activities of the Chinese people in the South China Sea had already spread to the Xisha Islands at that time.
Specific names for islands in the South China Sea, such as “Shi Tang” and “Chang Sha,” had emerged by the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). Shi Tang (石塘) was also known as “Shi Tang” (石堂) (an alternative written form with identical pronunciation), “Qianli Shi Tang,” and “Wanli Shi Tang,” while Chang Sha was also referred to as “Qianli Chang Sha,” “Wanli Chang Sha,” and “Wanli Chang Di.”
According to historical research, the term “Chang Sha” as documented in historical records generally refers to what we now know as the Xisha Islands, while “Shi Tang” generally refers to what are now known as the Nansha Islands.
The South China Sea Islands were integrated into the administrative region of Qiong Zhou during the Song Dynasty. Specifically, the islands of “Qianli Chang Sha” and “Wanli Shi Tang” were placed under the jurisdiction of Qiong Zhou, an administrative region under the province of Guangnan-Xilu, signifying the earliest integration of the South China Sea Islands into the territories of China.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911 CE), the central governments of China continued to clearly integrate the South China Sea Islands into the scope of Chinese territory, placing them under the effective administration of Wanzhou, a prefecture of Qiong Zhou, Guangdong Province.
In fact, starting from the Song Dynasty, the South China Sea Islands not only became a traditional sphere of activity for Chinese civilians, but also served as an important maritime area for naval patrols. After the defeat of Liu Chang and the Southern Han Dynasty in the Fourth Year of the Kaibao Period (971 CE), Song Taizu, the founder of the Song Dynasty established a naval force whose area of jurisdiction covered the Xisha Islands.
Following this precedent, the governments of the Ming and Qing dynasties regarded the South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters as part of their territories, with patrols, coastal defense, and administration by China’s naval forces in these waters becoming commonplace.
The Chinese governments from the late Qing Dynasty continued to recognize China’s traditional territories in the South China Sea. By warding off foreign invasions, safeguarding Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea, and standardizing local place names and maps, these governments bolstered China’s sovereign position in the South China Sea.
The occupation of nine small islets in the Nansha Islands by French in 1933 was met with strong condemnation from the Chinese government and all sectors of Chinese society, and in response, both the Chinese government and the chargés d’affaires ad interim stationed in France at the time lodged solemn representations with the French government.
On December 21, 1934, the Ministry of Internal Affairs called together the General Staff Department, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Navy Command, the Ministry of Education, and the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission for the 25th Session of the Review Committee for Land and Sea Maps, which confirmed the names of the respective islands in the South China Sea in both Chinese and English, and issued a bilingual table for reference.
This represented the first attempt by the Chinese government to semi-standardize the names of the islands comprising the South China Sea Islands. According to the scheme, the South China Sea Islands were officially divided into four parts: the Dongsha Islands, Xisha Islands, Nansha Islands (now known as the Zhongsha Islands), and the Tuansha Islands (also known as the Shanhu Islands; now known as the Nansha Islands). The bilingual reference table listed the names of 132 islets and reefs comprising the South China Sea Islands.
In April 1935, the Review Committee for Land and Sea Maps published the Map of the South China Sea Islands, an official map of the South China Sea sanctioned by the Chinese government. This map gave a relatively detailed profile of the South China Sea Islands, marking Zengmu Shoal as their southernmost point, which is located on northern latitude of 4°.
On September 2, 1946, the Chinese government ordered the recovery of the Xisha and Nansha islands. Following consultations between the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense, a predominantly naval detachment was dispatched to bring the islands back under Chinese control.
The detachment succeeded in the smooth recovery of the Xisha and Nansha islands, and erected stone pillars reading “Taiping Island,” “Taiping Island of the Nansha Islands,” “Nanwei Island,” and “Xiyue Island” in order to reaffirm Chinese sovereignty over this territory. On April 14, 1947, the Ministry of Internal Affairs called together the related departments to discuss the Scheme for the Confirmation and Publication of the Scope and Sovereignty of the Xisha and Nansha Islands.
During the meeting, it was confirmed that: “the southernmost point of territory in the South China Sea shall be regarded as Zengmu Shoal, as this was the scope referred to in the publications of the government, schools, and publishers prior to the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.”
On December 1, 1947, the Ministry of Internal Affairs re-examined the names of the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands, as well as their various islets and shoals, and formally issued a reference table of the new and old names. The renaming scheme comprised of 167 islets and shoals in the South China Sea, including 3 in the Dongsha Islands, 33 in the Xisha Islands, 29 in the Zhongsha Islands, and 102 in the Nansha Islands.
In addition, the published map contained a broken U-shaped line comprising of 11 segments which marked out the scope of China’s territory in the region, starting from the estuary of the Beilun River in the west, reaching Zengmu Shoal in the south, and extending to the northeast of Taiwan in the east. In February 1948, the Ministry of Internal Affairs published the Map of the Administrative Area of the Republic of China, which included the Positional Chart of the South China Sea Islands.
China’s sovereign administration of the South China Sea Islands entered a new era with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The pre-established layout of China’s territories in the South China Sea remained largely the same, the only change being the deletion of two segments in the broken U-shaped line in the Beibu Gulf in 1953, resulting in the formation of the nine-dotted line currently in use today.
At the same time, the Chinese government actively fulfilled its sacred obligation to administer the South China Sea, not only developing the area, but also taking a series of political, military, and diplomatic measures to safeguard Chinese sovereignty. By doing so, the Chinese government strived to maintain stability in the South China Sea as well as peace and development in the Asia-Pacific region.
Unlike China, whose sovereignty in the South China Sea developed progressively over time, the other nations of the South China Sea region knew almost nothing about the South China Sea Islands throughout the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan (1279-1368 CE) dynasties, and even during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
These countries have no solid evidence to prove that their people were the first to discover the islands, nor do they have any historical basis to show that their governments administered the islands. During the historical process in which China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters developed, not a single country voiced any challenge to China’s sovereignty or jurisdiction in the South China Sea.
Therefore, in addition to being an inevitable product of history, China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters is also unique and continuous in nature. This process of history is irrefutable.
In fact, for a considerable period of time following the Second World War, there was no so-called dispute over the South China Sea at all. During this period, none of the countries surrounding the South China Sea voiced any opposition to China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and their surrounding waters, and the vast majority of world nations both acknowledged and respected China’s sovereignty in the region.
Vietnam clearly recognized China’s territorial sovereignty over the Nansha Islands prior to the year 1975. Even as late as 1974, the following passage could still be found in Vietnamese textbooks: “The arc of islands extending from the Nansha and Xisha islands to Hainan Island, Taiwan, the Penghu Islands, and the Zhoushan Islands forms a great barrier that protects the Chinese mainland.”
Prior to the 1970s, no legal documents or speeches by the national leaders of the Philippines or Malaysia contained any mention of the Nansha Islands as territories of these countries.
Moreover, no mention of the Nansha Islands is found in the Treaty of Paris or the Treaty of Washington signed between the U.S. and Spain in 1898 and 1900 respectively, both of which clearly stipulated the territorial boundaries of the Philippines. Malaysia did not mark some of the Nansha Islands and the waters as part of its territory until the publishing of a map of its continental shelf in December 1978.
In the 1950s, the Coordinating Committee for Coastal and Offshore Geoscience Programmes in East and Southeast Asia (CCOP) discovered rich reserves of oil and gas during a geological and geophysical survey of the Nansha Islands. In 1968, a report completed by the Committee for the Co-ordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas, a sub-committee of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, further revealed the prospective oil reserves in the South China Sea.
Following this, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia seized certain islets in the Nansha Islands by force, beginning the large-scale exploitation of natural resources in the surrounding waters and claiming sovereignty. This is the reason why the territorial dispute over the Nansha Islands arose and why it continued to intensify.
In the late 1970s, and especially after the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 granted coastal nations with the rights to exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelf jurisdiction within 200-nautical miles of the baseline, the countries surrounding the South China Sea claimed their 200-nautical mile EEZs and continental shelves in succession, thereby bringing the Nansha Islands and the surrounding waters under their claims of territorial sovereignty. These claims infringed China’s territorial sovereignty, overlapping with its claimed administrative waters in the South China Sea over a large area. The result was a new round of disputes over the South China Sea.
Since the 1990s, the dispute over the South China Sea, which was predominantly a dispute over the ownership of the Nansha Islands and the demarcation of territorial waters, has become increasingly intertwined with the scramble for strategic resources and geopolitical security concerns. For this reason, the dispute is continuing to escalate in terms of complexity and intensity.
At the present, the peace and stability of the South China Sea region is being seriously threatened by the constantly expanding sovereignty claims and demands of countries surrounding the South China Sea, the constantly growing conflict caused by overlapping claims for EEZs and continental shelf jurisdiction, the constantly intensifying competition over maritime rights and interests, and the constantly increasing tendency for non-local countries to interfere in South China Sea affairs.
The Chinese government has always been committed to the peaceful resolution of the sovereignty dispute over the Nansha Islands through diplomatic means. For this reason, China has maintained a restrained, calm, and constructive approach, by which it hopes to seek a means of resolving the dispute in the South China Sea. In the 1970s, China identified the principle of “putting aside disputes and engaging in joint development under Chinese sovereignty.”
Since then, China has established a mechanism for negotiations and communications with neighboring countries over the dispute in the South China Sea, signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and actively promoted pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea. Owing to China’s unremitting efforts, the situation in the South China Sea has remained essentially stable, and its development has been kept under control.
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.15, 2011)
Author: Deputy Director of the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences