Having secured an alliance with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a state visit to Beijing in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined it when he visited Manila in 2018, promising a new chapter in the two nations’ diplomatic ties and vowing to turn the disputed South China Sea into “a sea of peace”.
In a published message to Filipinos just before his trip, Xi recalled how, more than 600 years ago, Chinese explorer Zheng He “made multiple visits to the Manila Bay, Visayas and Sulu” areas during his “seven overseas voyages seeking friendship and cooperation”.
The suggestion was that China had been in contact with the archipelago long before Europeans arrived and named it Las Islas Filipinas after Spain’s King Felipe II. It was also a way for Xi to bolster China’s claims in the South China Sea – based on its “nine-dash line” and long contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
The problem is that the evidence suggests Zheng never set foot in the future Philippine islands.
“All the scholars all over the world are unanimous: Zheng He never visited the Philippines,” Antonio Carpio said in an online lecture earlier this month, calling Xi’s anecdote “totally false”. The former Philippine Supreme Court justice also presented official Chinese records that debunk Beijing’s “historical maritime rights” over the South China Sea – thereby raising new questions about its standing in the region as tensions escalate.
On Monday, the US raised the stakes, saying “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources” across most of the disputed seas were “completely unlawful”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the world would “not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” In response, Beijing accused Washington of unnecessarily inflaming the situation.
Earlier, the US deployed the warships USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan to assert what it calls its freedom of navigation in the waters. A sailor on one of the ships told Al Jazeera that the operations could last for weeks. China held a large-scale naval exercise in the area from July 1 to 5.
‘History vs facts on the ground’
Historical records may not favour China in the continuing debate on the control of the South China Sea, through which as much as $5.3 trillion in global trade passes annually.
Refuting the Chinese president’s claim, Carpio presented evidence from China’s own Naval Hydrographic Institute, chronicling Zheng’s visit to the then-Cham Kingdom of central Vietnam. A translation mixup of the kingdom’s Chinese name incorrectly referred to it later as a Philippine island.
A 2019 Ancient History Encyclopedia article also traced Zheng’s expeditions in the early 1400s as far as Arabia and Africa, but nowhere in the story did it mention Zheng’s supposed visit to the Philippines.
To further disprove China’s claim of “historical rights”, Carpio presented several ancient Chinese maps, dating as far back as 900 years ago, to the Song and Tang dynasties. All the maps showed that China’s southernmost territory was the island of Hainan.
Additionally, the 1947 Constitution of the Republic of China, also identified Hainan as the country’s southernmost part, raising questions over what would later emerge as the “nine-dash line” claim.
Regardless of the historical evidence, the reality is that China already “controls almost all the facts on the ground” and now has a “real and credible foothold” in the South China Sea, said Thomas Benjamin Daniel, senior foreign policy expert at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS Malaysia).
Still, Daniel and other analysts urge China and other stakeholders in the region to abide by the principles and spirit of international law, to keep the peace and avoid situations that would lead “down a very dangerous road.”
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For years, China has anchored its South China Sea claims on the “nine-dash line”, under which it lays claim to almost 90 percent of the disputed waters as far south as the coasts of Malaysian Borneo and Brunei. Images published by China showed the imaginary line almost hugging the shores of neighbouring countries.
Using the controversial line, Beijing has been ramping up activities in the South China Sea, starting with the Paracel Islands in the 1970s and 1980s, the Spratly Islands in the 1990s, and the Scarborough Shoal in the early 2000s.
Chester Cabalza, a security analyst and fellow at the National Defence University in Beijing, said China has been strategic in approaching the “South China Sea conundrum”. He added that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has only provided the country even more opportunities to advance its interests.
“It seems like China is winning,” he told Al Jazeera, noting how it had militarised the disputed waters by developing rocks and atolls into islands in recent years.
ISIS Malaysia’s Daniel added that China “is playing the long game”, as it attempts to solidify and “normalise” its regional maritime position.
The Hague ruling
Beijing’s approach encountered resistance in 2016 with the landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which declared that China’s “historical rights” had no legal basis.
The ruling also said that the rocks and the partly submerged features on which China had built its naval and aerial facilities, were within the 200 nautical-mile (370.4km) Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, as defined by the UN. An EEZ is an area where only the country it belongs to can fish and explore natural resources, although safe passage is granted to foreign vessels.
The court also established the EEZs of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam, boosting their positions in relation to China.
Furthermore, the court said China’s reclaimed areas and artificial islands were not entitled to a 12-nautical-mile (22.2km) territorial sea, because they were not habitable in their original form. As such, freedom of navigation and overflight are allowed in those areas.
China refused to participate in the arbitration case, dismissing the ruling as “null and void”.
It has also continued to expand its facilities in the South China Sea, including a three-km (1.86-mile) military-grade runway, barracks and radars on Mischief Reef, which is within the Philippine EEZ.
Maritime incidents have also escalated, with a Vietnamese boat being sunk in April, an incident blamed on a Chinese surveillance vessel. All eight fishermen survived. In June 2019, at least 22 Filipino fishermen were left to drown when their fishing boat was rammed under suspicious circumstances by an alleged Chinese militia boat. They were later rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.
On Tuesday, Malaysia revealed that Chinese coastguard and navy ships had encroached into its waters at least 89 times between 2016 and 2019. Earlier this year, there were also reports of a Chinese government survey ship “tagging” a Malaysian oil-exploration vessel within the Malaysian EEZ.
Cabalza, of the National Defence University in Beijing, described China’s behaviour as “schizophrenic”, as it tries to employ both confrontation and cooperation in dealing with its neighbours.
‘Code of Conduct’
As part of its effort to defuse tensions in the region, the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been pressing China for years to reach agreement on the so-called Code of Conduct, which would govern countries’ behaviour in the South China Sea.
Differences between members – some of whom have no claim to the sea but are close to China – mean there has been little headway made.
Cabalza says the 10-nation bloc must present a more unified voice before it takes on China, which prefers bilateral negotiation, adding that ASEAN nations “should not become submissive” in negotiating an equitable deal with Beijing.
On June 26, ASEAN leaders held a virtual summit hosted by Vietnam, in which they declared that the 1982 United Nations oceans treaty should be the foundation for sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea. However, the leaders were unable to make significant progress on the Code of Conduct.
Daniel says he is “not very optimistic” that an agreement can be reached soon to help ease tension.
“ASEAN is an association of 10 member states with different national and foreign priorities, that makes decisions based on consensus. Consensus here often means the lowest common denominator.”
In the absence of a consensus, the increased presence of the US in the South China Sea could prove a useful counterweight.
Daniel said the “marked increase” of US freedom of navigation operations and sharper rhetoric, show that Washington wants to remain relevant in the region.
On Wednesday, Pompeo issued another statement saying the US would “support countries all across the world who recognise that China has violated their legal territorial claims as well – or maritime claims as well.”
Meanwhile, Carpio said the world’s navies should be encouraged to sail through the South China Sea and exercise freedom of navigation – to deliver a message to Beijing that it does not control the area.
He also urged Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam to help the Philippines in explaining that China’s claim of “historical right” is “totally false.”
“We should continue resorting to the rule of law, because we have no other choice,” Carpio said.
“War is not an option.”