the struggle for the south china sea -- 9/7/21

Today's selection -- from The New Map by Daniel Yergin. China’s efforts to assert sovereignty in the South China Sea is perhaps the most volatile foreign policy issue in the world today:

"The South China Sea, described as the 'world's most critical wa­terway,' stretches from the Indian Ocean to Asia and the Pacific Ocean. It is bordered by Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Viet­nam, China, and Taiwan. Singapore is just beyond its limits. Through its waters pass $3.5 trillion of world trade -- two-thirds of China's mar­itime trade, and over 40 percent of Japan's and 30 percent of total world trade. The flows include fifteen million barrels of oil a day -- almost as much as goes through the Strait of Hormuz -- as well as a third of the world's LNG. Eighty percent of China's oil imports pass through it. Its waters are crucial for food security. Ten percent of the world's entire fish catch comes from it, 40 percent of its tuna. It provides much of the seafood consumed both in China, the world's largest consumer of fish, and Southeast Asia. It has even been suggested that 'the value and importance of the South China Sea's fish stocks' make 'fish a strategic commodity.' Conflicts over fisheries also inflame public opinion in the countries that border the sea.

"Those waters are also fraught with risk. 'A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict,' warned Vietnam's prime minister, 'could well lead to the interruption of these huge trade flows, with unforesee­able consequences not only to regional economies but also to the entire world.'

South China Sea

"By comparison, in 1933, [French naval captain Georges] Meesemaecker's mission was far from the center of global contention. Its objective was much simpler -- to try to consolidate France's position in the region [by establishing 'possession' of a group of 'land features' in the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands]. But news traveled slowly in those days. It was only later in the year that word of the mission finally reached the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was outraged. But after a few weeks of reflection, the Chinese Military Council warned, 'We need to cool down the game with the French.' The reason? 'Our navy is weak and these nine islands are not useful for us now.'

"Others, however, were hardly prepared to cool down, for the ter­ritorial integrity of China was a rallying cry for nationalists outraged by what became known as the 'Incident of the 9 Islets.' They were already mobilized by the 'humiliation' of the 'unequal treaties' with foreign countries, beginning, after the First Opium War, with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. It required a defeated China to lease Hong Kong to Britain and grant 'extraterritoriality,' which meant that Brit­ish citizens would be subject to British law, not Chinese. A whole se­ries of subsequent 'unequal treaties' over the nineteenth century gave European nations, including Russia, as well as Japan, preferential com­mercial and extraterritorial legal rights in Chinese coastal cities, along with political control within defined concession areas. All this under­mined China's sovereignty and heralded its weakness. A climax of the 'humiliation' came in 1919, when the Versailles treaty awarded Ger­many's Shandung concession to Japan. This ignited student demonstra­tions in Beijing on May 4, 1919 -- what became known as the 'May 4 Movement' -- a landmark for modern Chinese nationalism.

"The Republic of China, founded in 1912, was supposed to mod­ernize the country and regain sovereignty. But by the beginning of the 1930s, China had degenerated into a fragmented country. Chiang Kai­shek, leader of the Nationalists and heir to the Republic of China, was fighting both warlords and Communists. In 1931, the Japanese seized control of Manchuria, where a substantial part of China's industry was located, and breached the Great Wall.

"In the face of this turmoil and continuing dissolution, any further diminution of Chinese authority, no matter how distant, stoked outrage and alarm. But without the naval power to counter the French advance, 'the Chinese government,' as one historian has written, turned to war­riors of another kind -- 'its mapmakers.'

"Various maps were promulgated between 1933 and 1935 that as­serted Chinese sovereignty into the South China Sea, reaching almost a thousand miles from the Chinese mainland, and with Chinese names for the various islands (in the words of a recent government document), 'reviewed and approved.' A singular cartographic combatant led the charge -- Bai Meichu, one of China's most influential and respected geographers. His work was inspired not only by longitudes and lati­tudes but also by nationalist passion. 'Loving the nation is the top pri­ority in learning geography,' he said, 'while building the nation is what learning geography is for.' To drive home the point and educate the country, he had already in 1930 produced a 'Chinese National Humil­iation Map.' One of his aims, he said, was 'to help the common people to be patriotic.'

"In 1936, he drew a map for his New China Construction Atlas. It included a U-shaped line-some would call it a 'cow tongue' -- that snaked down the coastlines along the South China Sea almost to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Everything within that line, he as­serted, belonged to China. As he put it in an annotation, the South China Sea was 'the living place of Chinese fishermen. The sovereignty, of course, belonged to China.'

"Almost nine decades later, Bai Meichu's map is at the heart of today's struggle over the South China Sea."



Daniel Yergin


The New Map


Penguin Press


Copyright 2020 by Daniel Yergin


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment