By Wang Gungwu
THERE has been much debate about the Chinese map of the South China Sea with its nine dotted lines denoting an area where China believes it has legitimate claims. How these lines came about has been a subject of much speculation.
What is clear is that the lines marking Chinese interests were drawn after World War II when Nationalist China saw the end of Japanese naval power and watched the Western imperial powers leaving the region or being forced to decolonise. After 1949, the successor state, the People's Republic of China (PRC), retained the map to show its territorial limits.
During the Cold War that followed, moves were made by new states in the region to register territorial claims, but the Chinese map seemed to have aroused little international interest. Far greater matters of how the world was to be divided were at stake.
It was only in the 1970s that the disputes over islands, rocks and waters of the South China Sea attracted wide attention. Reports of oil and other mineral resources provided the trigger. Many international meetings and agreements have been held to sort out the complex legal issues ever since.
China and others turned to historical records to justify their claims. Prior to that, little notice had been paid to what ancient traders, pilgrims and envoys made of their journeys through those waters.
When I wrote my study in 1953-1954 of the early trade of the Nanhai (South Sea), I saw only references in Chinese to how dangerous it was to head towards open seas. The first routes on record show that ships sailed close to the coasts. They noted the landmarks, the safe shelters and, of course, the ports selected for their markets.
No one claimed any kind of territorial or developmental rights in the oceans before modern times. It was not until Europeans brought their rivalries to the region that someone like Hugo Grotius began to develop the idea of the open sea in which legal or political claims drawn from European experiences need not necessarily apply. Instead, rules governing the freedom of navigation began to evolve.
South-east Asian and Indian Ocean shipping had long sailed in the South China Sea. So had Chinese fishermen and then their trading vessels long before the great naval expeditions of Admiral Zheng He. But everyone had been content with setting out and returning safely with the sketchy route guides that they used.
In the 19th century, the world's oceans were mapped and it was assumed that, unless agreed among the powers that constituted what was international authority at the time, the seas were all open. Hence all claims, if any, were irrelevant.
Before World War I, the borders of the South China Sea were the coasts of China, Japanese-held Taiwan, the American Philippines, the British and Dutch empires in the south, the kingdom of Siam, and French Indo-China. No one talked of having sovereign rights over the seas between.
Earlier, the British had used superior naval power to quell all acts of piracy in waters close to the sea lanes. Thereafter, French, Dutch and British colonial officials noted overlapping interests but were content to apply European navigation rules where necessary.
In any case, throughout history, no country had ever controlled the coastal lands of this zone. It was not until 1942-1945, when the Japanese empire controlled the coastal lands of Taiwan and southern China, the Philippines, northern Borneo and the Malay Peninsula and all the islands to its south. At that time, it also indirectly controlled the still nominally French 'Indo-China' and a subservient Thai kingdom.
For more than three years, the South China Sea could be said to be a Japanese lake. The maps certainly show the South China Sea as the watery heart of their vast empire.
Nationalist China noted all this helplessly. It had been in a state of growing hostility with Japan off and on since 1894. During the half century, Japan had moved from Taiwan to dominate the coasts of Fujian and Guangdong, and took the British colony of Hong Kong in 1941. By that time, Japan was in total control of both the East China and South China seas.
The Chinese knew the Japanese well. They had fought off Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese pirates during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and the Tokugawa decision to limit maritime adventures had been a great relief. As a result, they relaxed their vigilance along the coast.
For that, they were taught a bitter lesson during the 19th century when one naval defeat after another left the country totally vulnerable to foreign attack. By the 20th century, they were determined to regain control of the seas off their coasts.
In that context, Nationalist China saw Japanese naval power as its greatest threat. Thus, when Japan lost the war and all its conquests were returned, Chinese forces crossed the strait to Taiwan and looked both north and south at the seas they now wanted to control.
They had noted that Japanese maps included all of the South China Sea. As the colonial powers departed, the decision to determine a line marking Chinese interests was made.
The Nationalist Chinese felt a new awakening about the vital importance of maritime power. They had been quiescent too long and must now take the initiative. In 1947, the map with the dotted lines covering the South China Sea was drawn.
The PRC inherited the map and did no more about it. Eventually, its historians were asked to justify Chinese claims and several reports were done. Similarly, Vietnamese and others also looked at the historical records. All claimants then turned to international agreements like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to which China is also a signatory.
The reasons for the Chinese map of 1947 cannot resolve the complex issues involved, but the background to how the claims originated and why it is so vital to China remains important.
The writer is a University Professor at the National University of Singapore, and chairman of the managing board of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.