Once could have been attributed to a slip of the tongue. But twice? On May 7, an anchor for China’s state-run TV network CCTV, who was chatting with a colleague on the late evening news, remarked: “We all know that the Philippines is China’s inherent territory, and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty. This is an indisputable fact.” The unfortunate news clip, which has since been removed from CCTV’s website, was part of a report on a monthlong standoff between China and the Philippines over a remote shoal in the South China Sea, which both nations claim as their own.
The latest maritime scuffle between the Philippines and China began on April 10 near Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China and as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines), when Chinese surveillance ships and fishing boats began facing off against Philippine naval vessels, including at one point the Southeast Asian nation’s largest warship. A fertile fishing ground, Scarborough Shoal is located about 220 km off the major Philippine island of Luzon, but China considers the shoal’s scattering of rocky, guano-covered islets and reefs as part of its vast maritime holdings. Beijing likes to refer to a Yuan-dynasty (a Mongol dynasty that briefly ruled China) map from 1279 that includes the shoal, as well as a Yuan-era survey of the surrounding area by a Chinese astronomer that is believed to have been conducted from Scarborough Shoal. On May 7, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying warned Manila: “It is obvious that the Philippine side has not realized that it is making serious mistakes and instead is stepping up efforts to escalate tensions … The Chinese side has also made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side.”
China claims almost the entire 3.5 million-sq-km South China Sea as its own, citing historical precedent. On its maps, China scoops out a vast U-shaped portion of the vital waterway with a vague series of nine dashes that skirt close to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. (A more detailed Chinese government rendering of what exactly it considers under its control is not publicly available.) Those nine dashes — which in 1953 were narrowed down from a series of 11 dashes first drawn by Chinese authorities in 1948, according to a 2005 paper in a journal called China’s Borderland History and Geography Studies — have put Beijing in conflict with five other governments: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The Southeast Asian claimants tend to adhere either to their own historical understanding or to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which, at its outermost limit, can allow nations to claim waters within 200 nautical miles (or 370 km) from their territorial seas as “exclusive economic zones.” Manila has urged China to settle the matter through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, although the international body has no authority to impose its judgments. Beijing, which has also been embroiled in maritime disputes with South Korea and Japan over other bodies of water, has refused international mediation. Last month, in a move that irked Beijing, the Philippines conducted joint naval drills with its American allies. The U.S., which has made other moves seen as attempts to contain China’s regional influence and reassert American authority in the Pacific, also engaged in military exercises with Vietnam last year.
In dispute, beyond a span of turquoise water full of rich fishing grounds and busy trading lanes, are a sprinkling of rocky islets, shoals, atolls, bits of sandbar and, most consequentially, untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that are believed to be particularly plentiful around the Spratly and Paracel islands.
Heated rhetoric has emanated from both the Philippines and China. Some major Chinese travel agencies have suspended trips to the Philippines, on the eve of an anti-China protest in capital Manila set for this weekend. Meanwhile, the website of the Philippines News Agency, the state newswire, was hacked twice in 12 hours (from Wednesday through early morning on Thursday) by suspected Chinese hackers, who placed a Chinese flag on its home page, along with a message in broken English: “Huangyan Island belongs to China, what power you have said is you? … Tolerance is not possible, no need to endure.” Separately, Chinese inspections of Philippine banana and pineapple imports have been intensified, according to a report by the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, which pointed to the existence of “harmful organisms” in certain shipments.
On May 9, the predictably patriotic Global Times, which is based in Beijing, printed an editorial headlined “Peace Will Be a Miracle if Provocation Lasts.” “A feeling of indignation is fomenting within the country that has been sticking to a low-profile approach,” said the Global Times, referring to China. “Under the circumstances, the Philippines needs to be taught a lesson for its aggressive nationalism … The political implications of using force against Philippine provocation cannot be exaggerated. China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty needs to be clearly felt by the outside world.” A day later, a signed editorial in the PLA Daily, the Chinese military’s official newspaper, opined: “We want to say that anyone’s attempt to take away China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island will not be allowed by the Chinese government, people and armed forces … If one mistakes China’s kindness for weakness and regards China as a ‘paper dragon’ as instigated by some onlookers, he is terribly wrong.” A video clip of the CCTV anchor’s gaffe on Youku, China’s version of YouTube, had by Thursday afternoon elicited nearly 735,000 hits. Many of the comments were supportive of the broadcaster’s blunder. “What mistake,” wrote one commenter. “She was speaking the truth. Japan was a tributary state of China, too, and so was Korea, Vietnam, etc.”
Chinese schoolchildren are taught that China, even during imperial times, was never a classic empire that gobbled up colonies like European powers did. Instead, Chinese textbooks tend to emphasize a tributary system in which rulers from, say, Luzon sent gifts like tortoise shells and gold to the Ming-dynasty court. That version of history clashes with the perspective of people like the Vietnamese, who endured a millennium of Chinese occupation that has left bitterness lingering even today. (And that’s not to mention the complicated feelings of some locals in Tibet and Xinjiang, who believe their lands once enjoyed sovereignty from China.)
Of course, China isn’t the only major power with historical blind spots. I’d wager that few Americans know that, as spoils of the Spanish-American War, the islands named after Spain’s King Philip II were annexed as an unincorporated territory by the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. American hubris led to nearly half a century of control over the Philippines — an experience marred by atrocities and revolt that carries echoes of the U.S.’s more recent forays in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Philippines was later invaded by Japan during World War II and granted independence by the Americans only in 1946, even though the nation considers its first national liberation to have occurred back in 1898. At no point, it must be emphasized, were the Chinese involved — despite what a certain CCTV anchor and nationalist Chinese bloggers might say.
— With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing