Analysis of the South China Sea disputes only emerged in English-language
publications following the occupation by the People’s Republic of China
(PRC) of the western half of the Paracel Islands in 1974. Since then the
volume of analysis has ebbed and flowed in parallel with the course of the
disputes themselves. The latest flood has followed the 2011 announcement
of the United States’ pivot to Asia. In the past few years there has
been a profusion of research papers, think-tank reports, and news articles
about the disputes. The vast majority of these discusses contemporary
developments and provides only cursory examinations of the disputes’ history.
A few delve a little deeper. All, however, ultimately rely for their
historical background on a very small number of papers and books.
Worryingly, a detailed examination of those works suggests that they are
unreliable bases from which to write reliable histories.
Who Controls the Past, Controls the Future
This unreliable evidence is clouding the international discourse on the
South China Sea disputes. It is skewing assessments of the disputes at high
levels of government—both in Southeast Asia and in the United States. I
will use three recent publications from diverse perspectives to illustrate my
point: two 2014 commentary papers for the Rajaratnam School of
International Studies in Singapore written by Chinese academic Li Dexia
and a “Singaporean researcher” Tan Keng Tat, a 2015 presentation by the
former US Deputy-Ambassador to China, Charles Freeman, at Brown
University, and a 2014 paper for the US-based Center for Naval Analyses
(CNA) by Pete Pedrozo (Li and Tan 2015; Li 2014; Freeman 2015;
What is striking about these recent works—and they are just examples
of a much wider literature—is their reliance on historical accounts published
many years ago: a small number of papers published in the 1970s,
notably one by Hungdah Chiu and Choon-Ho Park (1975); Contest for
the South China Sea by Marwyn Samuels (1982); China’s Ocean Frontier
by Greg Austin (1998); and two papers by Jianming Shen examining the
historical legal perspective (Shen 1997, 2002).
These writings have come to form the backbone of what has become
conventional wisdom about the disputes. Google Scholar calculates that
Chiu and Park’s paper is cited by 85 others and Samuels’ book by 143.
Works that quote these authors include one by Brian Murphy (1994) and
those by Jianming Shen from 1997 and 2002—which are, in turn, quoted
by 34 and 35 others, respectively—as well as by Chi-kin Lo (1989), whose
book is cited by 111 other works. These references are probably just the
tip of the iceberg, since some descendant works have been re-cited hundreds
of times. Lo explicitly relies on Samuels for most of his historical
explanation and indeed praises him for his “meticulous handling of historical
data” (Lo 1989, p. 16). Retired Admiral Michael McDevitt, who wrote
the forward to Pedrozo’s CNA paper, noted that Contest for the South
China Sea “holds up very well some 40 years later” (McDevitt 2014, p. ii).
These works were the first attempts to explain the history of the disputes
to English-speaking audiences. They share some common features:
• They were written by specialists in international law or political science
rather than by maritime historians of the region.
• They generally lacked references to primary source material.
• They tended to rely on Chinese media sources that contained no
references to original evidence or on works that refer to these sources.
• They tended to quote newspaper articles from many years later as
proof of fact.
• They generally lacked historical contextualizing information.
• They were written by authors with strong links to China.
The Early Works on the Disputes
English-language writing on the South China Sea disputes emerged in the
immediate aftermath of the Battle of the Paracels in January 1974, when
armed forces of the PRC evicted forces of the Republic of Vietnam (South
Vietnam) from the western half of the islands. The first analyses were journalistic,
including one by Cheng Huan—then a Chinese-Malaysian law
student in London, now a senior legal figure in Hong Kong—in the following
month’s edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review. In it, he
opined that, “China’s historical claim [to the Paracels] is so well documented
and for so many years back into the very ancient past, that it
would be well nigh impossible for any other country to make a meaningful
counter claim” (Cheng 1974). This judgment by a fresh-faced student was
approvingly quoted in Chi-Kin Lo’s 1989 book China’s Policy Towards
Territorial Disputes (Lo 1989). The next substantial analysis came in an
article by John F. Copper (1974) in the May–June 1974 edition of China
Report, a New Delhi-based publication.
The first academic works appeared the following year. They included a
paper by Tao Cheng (1975) for the Texas International Law Journal and
another by Hungdah Chiu and Choon-Ho Park (1975) for Ocean
Development & International Law. In 1976, the Institute for Asian Studies
in Hamburg published a monograph by the German academic, Dieter
Heinzig (1976), titled Disputed Islands in the South China Sea. Cheng
concluded that, “[I]t is probably safe to say that the Chinese position in
the South China Sea islands dispute is a ‘superior claim’” (Cheng 1975,
p. 277) and Chiu and Park concurred, writing that “China has a stronger
claim to the sovereignty of the Paracels and the Spratlies [sic] than does
Vietnam” (Chiu and Park 1975, p. 20). Heinzig opined that, in terms of
historical argumentation, “There cannot be any doubt that in this respect
the Chinese are in a more favorable position than the others” (Heinzig
1976). These were pioneering papers, but their sources—and therefore
their analyses—were far from neutral.
Cheng’s paper relied primarily upon Chinese sources with additional
information from American news media. The main Chinese-language
sources were commercial magazines from the 1930s, notably editions of
the Shanghai-based Foreign Affairs Review (Wai Chiao P’ing Lun/Wai
Jiao Ping Lun) from 1933 and 1934 and New Asia Monthly (Hsin-ya-hsi-
ya Yüeh-k’an/Xin Ya Xiya Yue Kan) from 1935. These were supplemented
by material from the Hong Kong-based news magazine Ming Pao
Monthly (Ming Pao Yüeh K’an/Ming Bao Yue Kan) from 1974. Other
newspapers that were quoted included a 1933 edition of National News
Weekly (Kuo Wen Chou Pao/Guo Wen Zhou Bao), published in Shanghai,
People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao), and The New York Times. Cheng didn’t
reference any French, Vietnamese, or Philippine sources with the exception
of a 1933 article from La Geographie that had been translated and
reprinted in the Shanghai-based Foreign Affairs Review.
The paper by Hungdah Chiu and Choon-Ho Park relied upon similar
sources. In crucial sections it quotes evidence based upon articles published
in 1933 in Foreign Affairs Review and Diplomacy Monthly (Wai-chiao
Yüeh-pao/Wai Jiao Yue Bao) (1933, p. 78), and Geography Monthly
(Fan-chih yüeh-k’an/Fan Zhi Yue Kan) (1934, p. 2) as well as National
News Weekly from 1933 and the Republic of China (ROC) Government’s
own Gazette of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wai-chiao-pu Kung-pao/
Wai Jiao Bu Gong Bao) (1933, p. 208). It supplements this information
with material gathered from a 1948 Shanghai publication by a geographer
seconded to the ROC Ministry of the Interior, Cheng Tzu-yüeh (Zheng
Ziyue), General Records on the Geography of Southern Islands (Nan-hai
Chu-tao Ti-li Chih-lūeh/Nan-hai Zhudao Dili Zhilue), and ROC government
statements from 1956 to 1974 (Free China Weekly 1956, p. 3;
Chung-yang jih-pao 1956, p. 6; Shao 1956; United Daily News 1974;
“Memorandum on Four Large Archipelagoes” 1974).
Chiu and Park do use some Vietnamese references: eight press releases
or fact sheets provided by the Embassy of the Republic of Vietnam in
Washington. They also refer to some “unpublished material in the possession
of the authors.” However, the overwhelming majority of their sources
are from the Chinese media.
Writing a year later, Dieter Heinzig relied, in particular, on editions of
two Hong Kong-based publications Seventies Monthly (Ch’i-shih nien-tai)
and Ming Pao Monthly published, respectively, in March and May 1974.
What is significant is that all these foundational papers used as their
basic references Chinese media articles that were published at times when
discussion about the South China Sea was highly politicized. It was in
1933 that France formally annexed features in the Spratly Islands, prompting
widespread anger in China; 1956 was when a Philippine businessman,
Tomas Cloma, claimed most of the Spratlys for his own independent
country of “Freedomland,” provoking counterclaims by the ROC, PRC,
and Republic of Vietnam; and 1974 was the year of the Paracels battle.
Newspaper articles published during these three periods cannot be
assumed to be neutral and dispassionate sources of factual evidence.
Rather, they should be expected to be partisan advocates of particular
nationalist viewpoints. This is not to say they are automatically incorrect,
but it would be prudent to verify their claims with primary sources. This is
not something that the authors did.
The next major publication on the subject was Marwyn Samuels’
(1982) book Contest for the South China Sea. His method and narrative
followed that of Cheng, Chiu and Park, and Heinzig. Samuels himself
acknowledges the Chinese bias of his sources in the book’s Introduction,
when he states, “[T]his is not a study primarily either in Vietnamese or
Philippine maritime history, ocean policy or interests in the South China
Sea. Rather, even as the various claims and counterclaims are treated at
length, the ultimate concern here is with the changing character of Chinese
ocean policy” (Samuels 1982). Compounding the issue, Samuels acknowledges
that his Asian research was conducted primarily in archives in
Taiwan. However, crucial records relating to the ROC’s actions in the
South China Sea in the early twentieth century were only declassified in
2008–09, long after his work was published (Chung 2013, p. 8).
There was another burst of history writing in the late 1990s. The former
US State Department geographer-turned oil-sector consultant, Daniel
Dzurek, wrote a paper for the International Boundaries Research Unit of
the University of Durham in 1996, and a book by Australian analyst Greg
Austin was published in 1998. Austin’s historical sections reference
Samuels’ book, the paper by Chiu and Park, a document published by the
Chinese Foreign Ministry in January 1980 titled “China’s indisputable
sovereignty over the Xisha and Nansha islands” (PRC Ministry of Foreign
Affairs 1980), and an article by Lin Jinzhi in the People’s Daily (Lin 1980,
p. E6). Dzurek acknowledges more sources but relies on Cheng (whom
he confusingly refers to as “Chang”), Chiu and Park, Heinzig, and Samuels
for the bulk of his historical narrative.
The next major contributor to the narrative was Jianming Shen, a
Chinese-American attorney with an affiliation to St. John’s University
School of Law in New York. In 1997 he published a key article in the
Hastings International and Comparative Law Review. Like the Texas
International Law Journal (which published Cheng’s 1975 paper), the
Review is a student-edited publication. It hardly needs saying that an editorial
board comprising law students may not be the best body to oversee
works of Asian maritime history. Shen followed this article with a second
in a more prestigious journal, the Chinese Journal of International Law—
although in many sections, it simply referenced the first article. Shen’s
point of view is self-evident from the titles of his papers: “International
Law Rules and Historical Evidence Supporting China’s Title to the South
China Sea Islands” and “China’s Sovereignty over the South China Sea
Shen’s two articles have been particularly influential—the 2014 CNA
paper by Pedrozo references them at least 170 times, for example.
However, an examination of their sources shows them to be just as suspect
as their predecessors. The historical sections that provide the evidence for
his 1997 paper rely in large part on two sources. One is a book edited by
Duanmu Zheng titled International Law (Guoji Fa) published by Peking
University Press in 1989, referenced at least 18 times (Zheng 1989). But Duanmu was not a neutral historian. In 1990 he became the PRC’s second-highest ranking judge: Vice President of the PRC’s Supreme
People’s Court—and was later one of the drafters of the Hong Kong Basic
Law.1 In other words, he was a senior Chinese state official. All the footnotes
in Shen’s paper citing Duanmu’s book refer only to pages 155 and 156 These two pages do not contain a historian’s account with references, simply a catechism of the standard official Chinese narrative. In
legal terms, it might be described as hearsay evidence. It is remarkable that
no one in the two decades since Shen’s paper was published seems to have
checked this reference—yet they have made use of the paper without caveats
Shen’s other main historical source is a collection of papers from a
1992 Symposium on the South China Sea Islands organized by the
Institute for Marine Development Strategy, part of the Chinese State
Oceanic Administration (referenced at least 11 times). It seems more
than ironic that material produced by the State Oceanic Administration
and the Chinese legal establishment has subsequently been processed
through the writings of Professor Shen and then the CNA, and has now
become part of the Pentagon’s understanding of the history of the South
None of the writers mentioned so far was a specialist in the maritime
history of the South China Sea: Cheng was a political scientist; Samuels a
geographer; Chiu, Park, and Shen lawyers; and Heinzig and Austin international
relations specialists. As a rule their works don’t examine the
integrity of the texts that they quote, nor do they discuss the context in
which they were produced. In particular Cheng and Chiu and Park incorporate
anachronistic categories—such as “country” to describe pre-modern
relations between political entities around the South China
Sea—for periods when political relations were quite different from those
that exist today.
It’s also worth noting that Cheng, Chiu, and Shen were Chinese born.
Cheng and Shen both graduated with Bachelor of Laws degrees from Peking
University. Chiu graduated from National Taiwan University. While this does
not, of course, automatically make them biased, it is reasonable to assume
they were more familiar with Chinese documents and the Chinese point of
view. Both Samuels and Heinzig were scholars of China. Shortly before
authoring his paper, Dzurek had advised the American energy company
Crestone on its negotiations to obtain the Chinese oil exploration rights to a
disputed region of the South China Sea (Hayton 2014, p. 139).
It is hardly surprising that the first English-language writings on the
disputes, written as they were by Chinese authors and based upon Chinese
sources, come down on the Chinese side of the argument. These verdicts
are still influential today: they were quoted in Li and Tan’s 2014 papers,
for example. Yet a closer examination of the evidence upon which they are
based suggests they are deeply flawed. Those magazine articles from 1933,
1956, and 1974 should not be regarded as neutral evidence but as partisan
readings of a contested history.
Having demonstrated the partisan and self-referencing sourcing of these
standard accounts of the history of the South China Sea, this chapter turns
now to an examination of the historical evidence for some of the events
they describe. New evidence about the history of the claims continues to
be unearthed. The following represents the state of knowledge at the time
A full analysis and commentary on the claims the various writers make
about pre-nineteenth century events is beyond the scope of this chapter.
In short, the accounts by Cheng, Chiu and Park, Samuels, and Shen share
a common assumption: that China has always been the dominant naval,
trading, and fishing power in the South China Sea. Cheng, for example,
puts it like this: “It has been an important part of the sea route from
Europe to the Orient since the sixteenth century, a haven for fishermen
from the Hainan Island, and the gateway for Chinese merchants from
south China to Southeast Asia since earlier times” (Cheng 1975, p. 266).
More empirically based histories of the Sea suggest that the situation
was much more complex. Works by the historians Leonard Blussé, Derek
Heng, Pierre-Yves Manguin, Roderich Ptak, Angela Schottenhammer, Li
Tana, Nicholas Tarling, and Geoff Wade have revealed a much more heterogeneous
usage of the sea in the pre-modern period (Blussé 1999; Heng
2013; Manguin 1980; Ptak 1992; Schottenhammer 2012).
Chinese vessels and merchants played almost no role in seaborne trade
until the tenth century, and even after that they were never dominant but
shared the sea with Malays, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans. Research by
François-Xavier Bonnet, Ulises Granados, and Stein Tønnesson shows
how similar patterns persisted into the twentieth century (Bonnet 2012;
Granados 2005; Tønnesson 2006).
Accounts from the early twentieth century demonstrate that the
Chinese state had great trouble even controlling its own coast and was
completely unable to project authority to islands hundreds of miles offshore.
For example, two articles in The Times of London from January
1908 describe the inability of the Chinese authorities to control piracy in
the West River—inland from Canton/Guangzhou (Chinese Foreign
Relations 1908, p. 5; The Recent Piracy 1908, p. 5). A 1909 article by the
Australian newspaper The Examiner tells us that foreigners, two Germans,
one Japanese, and several Malays (China And Her Islands 1909, p. 8), had
begun mining operations on Hainan Island without the authorities finding
out until much later. It also records the presence of foreigners on the
Paracels themselves who’d carved their names into trees.
What these contemporary accounts reveal is a South China Sea that was
essentially ungoverned until the mid-twentieth century, except for the
occasional interventions of foreign powers against piracy. It was only in
1907, after being alerted by the US government that a Japanese guano
entrepreneur named Nishizawa Yoshiji was occupying Pratas Island, that
the Qing authorities became interested in the offshore islands (Hong
Kong Daily Press 1907, Granados 2005). Several writers have, however,
attempted to backdate official Chinese interest in the islands to the late
1876 Claim to the Paracels by the Chinese Ambassador to London
Samuels (1982, p. 52) suggests that the first Chinese ambassador to
London, Kuo Sung-tao, made a formal claim to the Paracel Islands. This
claim is repeated in a 1991 paper by Teh-Kuang Chang, who notes that
“Guo Songtao, the Chinese Minister of the Qing Dynasty to Britain, in his
book Shi Xi Ji Cheng (Travel Notes of an Envoy to the West), recorded his
voyage to his post in 1876 by noting that, on his voyage through the
South China Sea, ‘nearby to the left were the Paracel Islands (the Xisha
Islands) which yielded sea slugs, and also coral, which was not of very
good quality. These islands belong to China’” (Chang 1991, p. 399).
However, a full translation of the comments (quoted in Frodsham
1974, p. 10–11) casts them in a different light. They were notes in the
ambassador’s own journal, intended to be sent back to the Qing court to
inform them about life in the world outside China. They were not a formal
diplomatic note to a foreign government. The fact that Guo felt it necessary
to inform the court of the Paracels’ existence suggests they were not
aware of this fact before. Moreover, he does not use a Chinese name for
the islands, referring to them as the “P’ai-la-su” a transliteration of the
international name. Finally, he notes that the islands are “barren and uninhabited”
(Frodsham 1974, p. 11). All the details about the islands that
Guo described were learned from the crew and passengers of the British-owned
P&O ship on which he was travelling.
1883 Protests Against German Surveys in the Spratly Islands
Samuels (1982, p. 52) argues that the Chinese claim to the Spratly Islands
might be dated to 1883 when—in his account—the Qing government
officially protested against a German state-sponsored expedition to the
islands. The assertion is sourced to the May 1974 edition of the Hong
Kong-based magazine Ming Pao Monthly without other corroborating
evidence. Chiu and Park (1975, footnote 47) ascribe it to an article published
a good half-century after the alleged events in question took place,
in the September 1933 edition of Diplomacy Monthly,2 and Heinzig quotes
the same edition of Ming Pao Monthly that Samuels relies on to state that
the 1883 German expedition actually withdrew following the Chinese
The claim seems highly unlikely. German surveyors were indeed in the
South China Sea between 1881 and 1883, but they were there mapping
the Paracel Islands, not the Spratlys. The German Admiralität subsequently
published a detailed chart of the Paracels in 1885 (Annalen der
Hydrographie und maritimen Meteorologie 1889, p.X) that was copied and
republished in the same year by the British and French hydrographic services
(Hancox and Prescott 1995, p. 36; The China Sea Directory, Vol. 2
1889, p. 103; quoted in Bonnet 2012, p. 14).
The 1887 Sino-Tonkin Convention
Samuels argues that the 1887 Sino-Tonkin convention negotiated by the
French government, nominally on behalf of Tonkin, amounted to an
international agreement allocating the islands to China (Samuels 1982,
p. 52). Article 3 of the Convention does indeed allocate islands east of
the Paris meridian 105°43′ to China, but a brief glance at the map
attached to the agreement (see Fig. 1.1) makes it clear that this arrangement
was purely intended to apply to the islands immediately offshore—
within just a few hundred meters of the coast. Moreover, the Convention
applied to Tonkin, the northernmost area of what is now Vietnam. The
Paracels and Spratlys lie much further south in what were then the realms
of Annam and Cochinchina, and thus could not have been covered by the
The Mystery of the 1902 Voyage
There also appears to be some confusion about the date of the first visit by
Chinese officials to the Paracel Islands. On the strength of the 1974 Ming
Pao Monthly article, Samuels (1982, p. 53) puts it in 1902, with a return
visit in 1908. Austin and Dzurek follow Samuels in this. Li and Tan (2014)
also assert the 1902 claim, as do Chiu and Park (1975). However, a survey
of contemporaneous newspapers makes it quite clear that no voyage took
place in 1902 or 1908. Furthermore, the account of the Qing Admiral
who led the expeditions, Li Zhen, makes clear that the first reconnaissance
took place in April 1909 and a formal expedition in June 1909. His
account was republished in 1933 (Saix 1934, p. 67; The French Plot to
Snatch the Paracel Islands 1934, p. 92; On Li Chun’s Patrol of the Sea
1933, p. 6), albeit with some mistakes—such as stating that the expedition
took place in 1907.
There is good reason for the confusion about the 1902 expedition.
Thirty-five years later, in June 1937, the chief of Chinese Administrative
Region Number 9, Huang Qiang, was sent on a secret mission to the
Paracels—partly to check if there was Japanese activity in the islands, but
he had another role, too, which a secret annex to his report makes clear.
An excerpt of the annex was published in Chinese in 1987 by the
Committee of Place Names of Guangdong Province (1987, p. 289).
According to Huang Qiang’s own account, his boat was loaded with 30
stone markers—some dated 1902, others 1912, and still others 1921. On
North Island, they buried two markers dated 1902 and four dated 1912;
on Lincoln Island, the team buried one marker dated 1902, one dated
1912, and one dated 1921; and on Woody Island, they buried two markers
dated 1921. Finally, on Rocky Island, they deposited a single marker,
The markers were forgotten until 1974 when, after the battle of the
Paracels, they were found again, and the discovery was trumpeted in Hong
Kong newspapers such as Ming Pao Monthly. The non-existent 1902 expedition
then entered the history books. Only recently was it debunked by
the Manila-based French geographer Francois-Xavier Bonnet (Bonnet
The Island Names
In his 1997 paper, Shen claims that the ROC government “reviewed the
names of the islands in the South China Sea” in 1932. In fact, that government
committee simply translated or transliterated the existing British or
international names. The full list of names makes this clear, but a few
examples serve to illustrate the point. Several of the Chinese names for the
features continue to honor the British surveyors that first mapped them.
In the Paracels, Líng yang Jiao—Antelope Reef—is named after a British
survey vessel, the Antelope. Jın̄ yín Dǎo—Money Island—is not named
after notes and coins, but rather William Taylor Money, the superintendent
of the Bombay Marine—the navy of the East India Company.
The Chinese names were revised in 1947 by the ROC government.
Spratly Island, which had previously been known as Si-ba-la-tuo (a transliteration
of the English name) became Nanwei (Noble South, an obviously
artificial name) and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ge-ba-luo
(a transliteration) to Min-zhu Jiao (Democracy Reef). In 1983 the PRC
revised the names again and Min-zhu Jiao became Huangyang, which
translates to a less threatening-sounding Yellow Rock.3
1933 Diplomatic Protest?
One argument that is key to China’s claim to the Spratlys is the oft-repeated
assertion that the ROC made a formal protest to the government
of France following the latter’s formal annexation of several features in the
Spratly Islands on 26 July 1933. It’s certainly true that the annexation
provoked consternation in government, and spurred nationalist anger
among the public. But was a formal protest ever lodged?
Tao Cheng (1975) makes reference to an article in New Asia Monthly,
dated two years later (Lu 1935). Chiu and Park (1975) state in a footnote
that, “there is proof that China also protested.” They reference an article
in Diplomacy Monthly (Cho 1933, p. 78) and a 1948 book titled General
Records on the Geography of Southern Islands (Cheng 1948, p. 80). Chiu
and Park (1975) concede, however, that, “The date of the Chinese note
was not reported in Cheng’s book, nor is it mentioned in the Memorandum
on Four Large Archipelagoes of the Republic of China in South Sea, issued
by the ROC Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” (United Daily News 1974, p. 3).
The claim that a 1933 protest was issued appears in Ambassador
Freeman’s presentation and in the CNA paper, which quoted Shen. In his
1997 paper, Shen quotes two sources: Cheng and Chiu, and Park—but as
we have just seen, they do not provide any references for their claim. In his
2002 paper, Shen references papers from the State Oceanic Administration’s
symposium (Shen 1997, footnote 160). These papers are not available
outside China, but there is good evidence to suggest that all of these
works are simply incorrect.
There are no mentions of a formal protest being issued in the pages of
the Shen Bao newspaper from 1933, and no author has been able to cite a
reference to a protest document in any government archives. The closest
anyone has come has been to find references to government intentions to
issue a protest (Shen 2002). The Chinese foreign ministry’s own official
publication for July-September 1933 notes that, when the ministry first
heard of the annexation, it “reserved its rights” subject to clarification of
the islands’ location (Gazette of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1933).
Geographer Francois-Xavier Bonnet has found American records showing
that, immediately after the French announcement, the Chinese government
had to ask its consul in Manila, Kuan-ling Kwong, to ask the
American colonial authorities there for a map showing the location of the
Spratly Islands. 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 (Bonnet 2012).
According to Bonnet, the reason is evident from the minutes of a meeting
of the ROC’s Military Council on 1 September 1933, “All our professional
geographers say that Triton Island [in the Paracels] is the
southernmost island of our territory” (Compilation by the Department of
Foreign Affairs of all the records concerning the islands in the South Sea
1995, p. 47–49; quoted in Bonnet 2012). The ROC decided that it had
no claim in the Spratly Islands at that point and therefore had nothing to
Research by Chris Chung, a Canadian PhD student, has found that by
1946, ROC files were referring to China’s formal protest in 1933 as if it
were fact. This then became the Chinese justification to reclaim the islands
from Japan after the Second World War. The ROC archives relating to the
South China Sea for the 1933–1935 period have not yet been fully
explored, and this should be an important source of further archival
research (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1946a, b; Chung 2013).
In summary, what seems to have happened during the 13 years after the
French annexation is that a different understanding of what had happened
in 1933 took hold in ROC governing circles. The hypothesis offered here
is that Chinese officials confused a real 1932 protest to the French about
activity in the Paracels with a non-existent 1933 protest about the Spratlys.
There may also be confusion about actions by the rival government in
southwestern China which, during the early 1930s, often acted at variance
with the recognized government in Nanjing.
Shen (2002, p. 107) claims that the ROC, “organized three rounds of
large-scale survey and renaming activities respectively in 1932, 1935 and
1947.” There was no surveying work done by the ROC during this period,
however: just copying from international maps. This seems to be why the
ROC mistranslated the name of James Shoal—initially calling it Zengmu
Tan. Zeng-mu is simply a transliteration of James, whereas Tan means
sandbank, when in fact the shoal is underwater. If ROC surveyors had
visited the site in person, they would not have made this mistake. Instead,
because of this simple mistranslation, a piece of seabed became an island,
and to this day is regarded as China’s southernmost territory—even
though it doesn’t exist. When the features’ names were revised by the
ROC in 1947, Zengmu Tan became Zengmu Ansha. (Chen 1996). Ansha
(literally “hidden sand”) appears to have been a neologism coined at this
point to equate to the English word “shoal.”
The Cairo Declaration
Shen (2002, p. 139) and Li and Tan (2014) follow the PRC foreign ministry
in arguing that, under the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the wartime
Allied powers awarded the South China Sea islands to China. Freeman
(2015) argues that, because the Japanese authorities incorporated the
Paracels and Spratlys into their province of Taiwan, the Cairo Declaration
returns them, along with the rest of “Taiwan Province,” to China.
However, the Cairo Declaration doesn’t mention the word “Taiwan:”
it talks about Formosa and the Pescadores. The fate of the other islands is
left open, presumably because France maintained that its pre-war annexation
still stood. The logical conclusion is that the Allied powers agreed
that only named islands should be returned to China. This point is made
in Pedrozo’s CNA paper:
The Cairo Declaration, as reinforced by the Potsdam Proclamation, only
provides that China would recover Manchuria, Formosa [Taiwan], and the
Pescadores [Penghu Islands] after the war. The next sentence simply provides
that Japan would be expelled from ‘other territories’ which it had
taken by violence, but it does not indicate that these ‘other territories’
would be returned to China. Although not specifically stated, the only logical
conclusion is that these ‘other territories’ included the Spratly and
Paracel Islands, which were seized by violence from France, not China
(Pedrozo 2014, p. 97).
Kimie Hara’s account of discussions within the US State Department
about the fate of the disputed islands during 1943–1944 makes clear that
the US remained neutral on the territorial issue. The ongoing discussions
within the department demonstrate that the US never intended the Cairo
Declaration to allocate the Paracels and Spratlys to China (or any other
state) (Hara 2006).
The Surrender of the Japanese Garrisons in the Paracels
The CNA paper and Ambassador Freeman’s presentation both carry
claims that Chinese forces received the surrender of the Japanese garrisons
in the Paracels and Spratlys at the end of the Second World War. Freeman
has argued that the US Navy actually transported Chinese forces to the
islands for this purpose. However, in personal communication with the
author, he was unable to provide any corroborating evidence for this
Based upon evidence from the US and Australian military archives, the
claim seems very unlikely to be true. During the war, Japan had military
bases on Woody and Pattle islands in the Paracels, and Itu Aba in the
Spratlys. Woody Island was shelled by the submarine USS Pargo on 6
February 1945 (Feuer 2006, Chap. 6) and on 8 March, American aircraft
bombed both it and Pattle Island (VPB–117, Aircraft Action Report No.
92). When another submarine, the USS Cabrilla, visited Woody Island on
2 July, the French tricolor was flying, but this time with a white flag above
it. (US Office of Naval Intelligence Review 1956). Exactly when the
Japanese left Woody and Pattle islands is equally unclear. One Chinese
newspaper account from 1947 (Ta Kung Pao/Dagong Bao 1947) suggested
that a US warship visited Woody Island in November 1945 but
carries no details of a Japanese surrender (quoted in Granados 2006).
In the Spratlys, Itu Aba was napalmed by US planes on 1 May 1945
(United States Pacific Fleet, Patrol Bombing Squadron 128. Action report
1945), and B-25s bombed the islands six times in one week in mid-July
(Carter and Mueller 1991). There can hardly have been anything left
standing. Six months later, the US Navy sent a reconnaissance mission to
Itu Aba. It landed on 20 November 1945, and found the island unoccupied—
the Japanese had fled (USS Sea Fox; USS Cabezon; USS Bugara)4.
It wasn’t until more than a year later, in December 1946, that a Chinese
landing party—using the second-hand American warships just transferred
to the ROC Navy—was able to reach the island. There is no evidence of
Chinese troops receiving a Japanese surrender in the Spratlys.
There is more research to be done on the history of the islands of the
South China Sea in the first half of the twentieth century. The evidence
that is already available, however, negates much of what has been put forward
in the standard English-language accounts common within the disciplines
of international law and international relations. There is more still
to discover. The ROC archives are largely untapped, as are contemporaneous
Chinese and international newspaper accounts.
Any work on the twentieth century history of the sea that continues to
rely on the evidence put forward in the works under review by Cheng,
Chiu and Park, Heinzig, Dzurek, Samuels, and Austin needs to be critically
re-evaluated to see whether its arguments still stand in light of the
new information now becoming available.
A review of the verifiable evidence recounts a different history of the
islands in the South China Sea—one which deviates from that found in
most of the commonly used reference texts. It is clear, for example, that
the Chinese state’s interest in these islands dates no further back than the
twentieth century. There has been no evidence yet put forward for any
Chinese state official visiting the Paracel Islands prior to 1909. It was only
in 1933 that national attention turned to the Spratly Islands—and at that
time, the ROC decided not to press a claim to them. Attention was revived
immediately after the Second World War, based on misunderstandings
about what happened in 1933 and, for the first time ever, a Chinese official
landed in the Spratly Islands on 12 December 1946.
In 1933, 1956, 1974, and again today, histories of the islands were
written and rewritten. During each crisis, advocates of the Chinese position
published new versions of history that often recycled earlier mistakes
and sometimes added in more of their own. By the time these accounts
leapt the language barrier into English in the mid-1970s, their shaky foundations
appeared solid to those exploring the history for the first time.
They were printed in Western academic journals and became accepted as
fact. But a review of their sources reveals their inherent weakness.
It is no longer good enough for historians, lawyers, and international
affairs analysts to base their arguments on baseless assertions. It is time
that a concerted effort be made to re-examine the primary sources for
many of the assertions put forward by these writers and reassess their accuracy.
The resolution of the disputes depends upon a clear and fact-based
understanding of the history of the South China Sea.
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