Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mistranslation and misunderstanding – the unlikely origins of China’s ‘U-shaped line’ claim in the South China Sea

By Bill Hayton, Author of ‘The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia’ 
Yale 2014

demographic map only bay Hundred Viet's 
How did China come to claim an underwater feature over 1500km from Hainan as its ‘southernmost
territory’? Answering this question will help us understand how the authorities of the Republic of China
came to draw the ‘U-shaped line’ in the South China Sea. In the process we will see how one of the most
dangerous territorial disputes in the world today has its origins in early 20th century misunderstandings
among Chinese nationalists about Southeast Asia’s history and British maps.
The James Shoal (Zengmu Ansha in Chinese, Beting Serupai in Malay) lies 22 metres below the surface of the
South China Sea. Hydrographic charts clearly demonstrate that the Shoal is not part of China’s
continental shelf; wide areas of deep sea separate it from the mainland. There are no grounds under the
United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for any state to claim the James Shoal as
‘territory’. It lies more than 12 nautical miles from any coast and is therefore simply part of the seabed.
There are no historic documents showing evidence of Chinese interest in the Shoal and no old Chinese
maps marking it. Yet none of these difficulties prevent PLA-Navy ships visiting the Shoal from time to
time to assert Chinese sovereignty over it.
The origins of this situation lie in what Chinese commentators call ‘The Century of National Humiliation’
and particularly the series of so-called ‘unequal treaties’ between the Qing Dynasty and the colonial
powers. One result was a profound anxiety among the Chinese elite about the extent of ‘their’ territory.
As anti-colonial sentiment gave rise to a ‘national revival’ movement among this elite, agitators and
intellectuals formed new understandings about the nature of China itself and its historic relationships with
Southeast Asia.
These understandings moved from private discussions into state policy as the Qing Dynasty collapsed. In
March 1909 Chinese fishermen discovered a Japanese entrepreneur, Nishizawa Yoshiji, and around
hundred workers on Pratas Island, a coral reef 400 kilometres southwest of (Japanese-occupied) Taiwan
and about 260 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. They were digging up guano to sell as fertiliser.
Nishizawa declared that he had discovered the island and it now belonged to him.
When news reached Canton (Guangzhou), one group of nationalist agitators, the Self-Government
Society, launched a boycott of Japanese goods and demanded the Qing authorities do something. The
authorities in Tokyo offered to recognise Chinese sovereignty if its claim could be proved. 1 On 12
October 1909 the Viceroy of Canton and the Japanese consul in the city agreed that Japan would
recognise Chinese sovereignty and Mr Nishizawa would vacate the island in exchange for 130,000 silver
dollars in compensation. 2
At this time, official Chinese maps (whether national, regional or local) showed Hainan Island as the
southernmost point of Chinese territory. This had been the case on maps published in 1760, 1784, 1866
and 1897.3 But in May 1909, while the negotiations over Pratas unfolded, the Governor of Guangdong,
Zhang Yen Jun, despatched a boat to the Paracel Islands. According to a contemporary account by a
French businessman P.A. Lapique, the expedition (guided by two Germans from the massive trading firm
Carlowitz and Company) spent two weeks at anchor off Hainan waiting for good weather and then sped
to the Paracels on 6 June 1909 before returning to Canton/Guangzhou the following day.4 In the
aftermath of the expedition a new map of Guangdong was published showing, for the first time on any
Chinese map, the Paracel Islands as part of the province. 5
After the overthrow of the Qing, one of the first acts by the new republican government was the
publication, in 1912 of an official Almanac. The Almanacincluded an official map of China: a highly
unusual map since it showed no borders at all. The new national leadership was avowedly ‘modern’ – it
aspired to become part of the international system – but as William Callahan has pointed out, it couldn’t
resolve the contradiction between China’s new identity as a nation-state and its old one as the centre of a
mandala-based series of hierarchical relationships with the wider region. The first constitution of the
Republic of China illustrated this perfectly when it asserted that ‘The sovereign territory of the Republic of
China continues to be the same as the domain of the former Empire.’ This simple equation of the old
‘domain’ with the new ‘sovereign territory’ fundamentally misconstrues the historic relations between
Chinese dynasties and Southeast Asia and underpins the current disagreement over ‘borders’ in the South
China Sea. 6
The discussion about the extent of Chinese territory continued among nationalist intellectuals throughout
the first half of the 20th Century. Zou Keyuan has shown how, in December 1914, a private cartographer
Hu Jinjie, published the New Geographical Atlas of the Republic of China containing the first Chinese map to
include a line drawn across the South China Sea. Hu entitled the map the ‘Chinese territorial map before
the Qianglong-Jiaqing period’. In other words the line purported to represent the extent of Chinese state
‘control’ before 1736. Significantly, the only islands within the line were Pratas and the Paracels. It went
no further south than 15° N. 7
In 1916 the Central Cartographic Society in Shanghai published a ‘Map of National Humiliation’ showing
the territories lost to foreigners. Interestingly, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tonkin were prominently marked
but no mention was made of anywhere else in the South China Sea.
In July 1933, France formally annexed six islands in the Spratly archipelago. It’s clear from contemporary
accounts in, for example, the Shen Bao newspaper, that the RoC authorities did not know the location of
these islands. They instructed the Chinese consul in Manila, Mr KL Kwong, to ask the American colonial
authorities there for a map showing their location. Only then was the government in Nanjing able to
understand that these islands were not in the Paracels and then decide not to issue any formal protest.8 A
once-secret report for the RoC’s Military Council, from 1 September 1933 seems to confirm this, “All our
professional geographers say that Triton Island [in the Paracels] is the southernmost island of our
territory.”9 (There are claims by some writers that the Chinese government did issue a formal protest but
I have seen no evidence.)
On 7 June 1933, shortly before the French annexation (perhaps as rumours of a French expedition began
to circulate), the RoC established the ‘Review Committee for Land and Water Maps’. While the
committee deliberated, another private cartographer, Chen Duo, published his Newly-Made Chinese Atlas in
which the Chinese sea border stretched down to 7° N – firmly including those Spratly Islands which
France had just claimed.
It seems that this influenced the Committee because the first volume of its journal, published in January
1935, included Chinese names for 132 features in the South China Sea that the Committee believed
rightfully belonged to China. 28 were in the Paracels and 96 in the Spratlys. The list was not a collection
of traditional Chinese names for the features but transliterations and translations of the Western names
printed on British navigation charts. In the Spratly Islands, for example, North Danger became Be ̆i xiăn
(the Chinese for ‘north danger’) and Spratly Island became Si-ba-la-tuo (the Chinese transliteration of the
English name). In the Paracels, Antelope Reef (named after a British survey vessel) became Líng yang (the
Chinese word for antelope) and Money Island (named after William Taylor Money, the Superintendent of
the Bombay Marine) became Jīn yín Dǎ(money island).
But how to translate ‘shoal’? It’s a nautical word meaning an underwater feature. It’s derived from an Old
English word for ‘shallow’. But the Committee didn’t seem to understand this obscure term because they
translated ‘shoal’ as ‘tan’ - the Chinese word for beach or sandbank – a feature that is usually above water.
The Committee – never having visited the area seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a
piece of land and therefore a piece of China.10
In April 1935, the Committee published The Map of Chinese Islands in the South China Sea taking the
country’s sea border right down to James Shoal, only 107 kilometres from the coast of Borneo.11 Then
one of China’s most eminent geographers, Bai Meichu, added his own innovation. Bai had been one of
the founders of the China Geographical Society. He was also an ardent nationalist and in 1930 had drawn
his own version of the ‘Chinese National Humiliation Map’ to educate his countrymen about how much
territory they had lost to foreigners. 12
In 1936, at the age of 60, he created his most enduring legacy: a map in his New China Construction Atlas
including a U-shaped line snaking around the South China Sea as far south as James Shoal. This was then
copied by others. Between 1936 and 1945 versions of the line were published on 26 other maps. Some
stretched down to the James Shoal, though most only included the Spratlys. 13
In 1947 the Republic’s cartographers revisited the question of China’s ocean frontier. They adopted Bai’s
line, formally including would become known as the ‘U-shaped line’ on the country’s map. It seems that
they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within
the line. A non-existent island became the country’s southernmost territory. Only then was the tan
redesignated an ansha (reef) – but by then the line had been drawn. Thus it would seem that China’s claim
in the South China Sea is, to some extent, based on a translation error.

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