The ASEAN Sea Dispute with China

ASEAN Opinion

Tensions are high and other countries that are not within the immediate area of “ASEAN Sea” or “South China Sea”, like South Korea, Japan, and the United States of America, are now joining in. China’s argument is always centered around historical records, does it hold water?

I prefer to call it “ASEAN Sea” because I personally believe that the ASEAN region should and must unite as a single entity to address this issue. This is one major area where we can test our regional grouping and see how far it can get us. Yes, calling it as “ASEAN Sea” would mean we’re going to share the resources between all member states — and why not?

This part of our planet is known today by various names: “West Philippine Sea”, “Luzon Sea”, “South China Sea”, and other various names down in history. Officially, this sea is part of the larger Pacific Ocean, from Singapore in the west to the the Americas in the east.

What is China doing today? They are claiming a large part of this sea based on their historical records. But there are holes in it that we can use against them.

Naming of Body of Waters

The name of a body of water doesn’t necessarily mean that someone owns it because it was named after them. A body of water was named by explorers based on the first civilization they first encountered in the area.

For example, when the Spanish colonialists conquered the Philippines, they encountered a group of people living on the shores of the country’s largest body of inland water — Bay (“Bai”). The Spaniards named the immediate waters as “Laguna de Bay” or in English “Lake of Bay”. If these conquerors met a different group of people, they would name it something else and it will go down in history bearing that name.

It’s the same thing with South China Sea. Western maps named it as “South China Sea” because the Chinese were a major trader in the region when western explorers arrived. Ironically, based on Chinese records they (the Chinese) simply called it as “South Sea” in various times (they can’t even settle what name to call it). In Vietnamese records, simply as the “East Sea”.

They Closed Their Borders

But it doesn’t stop there. Throughout history, when countries closed their doors, they leave any stakes that they have elsewhere up for grabs. Granted, South China Sea was owned by China. But their own historical record tells us that they closed their country from the outside world, and was only trading with the then Kingdom of Tondo.

That decision had an effect in the region. The Japanese traders resulted to piracy. They attacked Chinese traders on their way to the Kingdom of Tondo, and back. Even the Sultan of Brunei waged a war against the kingdom and carved out the Kingdom of Maynila, because China only traded with Tondo.

If, as China claims, they own South China Sea, then why were the Japanese pirates and the Brunei armada, were able to travel unchecked in the region? Why haven’t they, China, protected their own traders? Why haven’t they, China, defended the Kingdom of Tondo as they were their only access to the outside world?

Simple. Because they closed their borders from the outside world and gave up everything outside for others to claim. They did not even care for the safety of their own traders because they no longer have a navy! Again, that is if we are going to assume that they do owned the sea.

It was not also the first time that China cut ties with the outside world. They did it time and time again.

History is China’s Weakest Link

China is claiming ownership of ASEAN Sea by using history. The history they are using was picked. Only those that will benefit them. It’s time that we pick all of history and throw history back at them.

They have no right to ASEAN Sea because history showed:

  • They gave it up when they closed their borders from the outside world, and it wasn’t once that they did this.
  • They called it as “South Sea” in various times – obviously because they don’t have a government mandate (because they don’t own it at all).
  • They never exercised sovereignty continuously.
  • They never showed force, authority, nor patrol the sea uninterrupted.
  • They left their own merchants at the mercy of the pirates. If they own the sea, they would have patrols, their navy scaring away the pirates.
  • The Spaniards wouldn’t have arrived in Manila Bay if they have authority and presence in the disputed sea.
  • Their own historical records speak against their claim.

China doesn’t have any historical basis for their claim. There are no verifiable records anywhere in the world (even within China and Taiwan) that they owned and exercised their sovereignty over this disputed sea and/or any part of it. The only time their claim ever showed up was on mid-1909 for Paracels, and late-1946 for Spratlys.

No dynasty of theirs ever claimed ownership and sovereignty over the sea and its features, in whole or in part. Even if they did, they failed at it miserably, which made it invalid.

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