A neutral name for South China Sea?


A name can project a distinct culture, identity and, more importantly for land and other space resources, a connection to a certain community. Along with maps and scientific stations, it is one of the most visible markers of national presence. Territorial naming at the international level has long been recognised as a strategic tool for creating new facts on the ground. A noteworthy example involves the multiple names and claims for the Antarctic Peninsula, where it is called Queen Elizabeth Land for the United Kingdom, Tierra San Martin for Argentina, Palmer Peninsula, for the United States and Tierra de O’Higgins for Chile.

Closer to our shores, the South China Sea epitomises a similar problem.

Documented evidence suggests that prior to the name South China Sea (SCS), the surrounding waters were described with various names, including Champa Sea or Sea of Cham, East Sea, or Luzon Sea. Ancient Chinese empires such as Western Zhou and Qing dynasty named the widely contested sea territories as “South Seas”.

The name “South China Sea” came to be used officially in 1947, during the time of Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist government. The change of name was accompanied by technical claims to the seas through China’s new map and its “eleven-dash line” which later was changed to “nine-dash line”. In principle, the “nine-dash line” are barriers and exclusive territorial claims by China, which covers the majority of the South of China waters including those areas that have been claimed by other neighbouring countries. Here it is worth noting the nine-dash line has no legal significance in international maritime law which only recognizes the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) regime of respective states.

For nearly 68 years to the present day of 2015, this specific dogma and technical claim has remained constant and China’s economic prosperity together with its corresponding increase in military power has become a drive for the latter to be emboldened with the SCS policies. Hence, one sees a more deterministic approach by China within the past 15 years with regular military intrusion by sea and air. The issue, if one would look close enough, has been by and large the product of unchecked and uncontested unilateral naming of disputed waters by China and its dogma from the very beginning.

The usage of the SCS label has encouraged China’s stand to permeate slowly both at the domestic and international levels specifically, affecting most Asean members. At the domestic level, it made the SCS to subtly be equated to the exclusive dominance of China in the surrounding sea territory. In the international arena, it provided China with a quiet but legitimising power to continue roaming the disputed waters and launch military operations. The South China Sea label has seemingly put the Chinese slowly-but-surely military activity under the radar.

It took between 28 and 41 years for Asian states to realise China’s seriousness in SCS claims when the latter captured Paracel Islands from South Vietnamese armed forces in 1974 and the killing of 70 Vietnamese naval officers by the Chinese in 1988 near Spratly Islands. In a nutshell, the largely zero response to China’s geostrategic move in 1947 has created a strategic impetus to China to continue to solidify its South China Sea territorial claims and military projects. So much so, to a point where now, the move by contemporary China appears to be unstoppable and heading towards a protracted form of conflict.

The damage has been done.

In an effort to mitigate and find a middle ground in the disputed waters, there is a need for smaller countries, particularly Asean member states, to include a finer strategy in its overall diplomatic approach. One of such involves the need to consider alternative names to an already entrenched “South China Sea”. The seas in the disputed territory can be changed into a neutral name, which reflects a collective sharing of water territories among close neighbours. Various names have been suggested to reflect this, such as the “Southern Seas” or “Asian Sea”.

Here the point is to lobby and change SCS into a universally acceptable name that will make any future Chinese military action to be perceived as outrightly intrusive, absurd and in direct violation of international waters regulation. It is worth realising that, after 68 years, it will be of no surprise if the above mentioned strategy is met with strong opposition by China. Moreover, some Asean countries may be hesitant to take such an approach, given the block’s strong economic relations with China and the pacifist ideals largely practised. However, it is important to consider this softer and subtler policy as part of Asean’s long-term plans, in view of China’s increasing military assertiveness.

The tackling of this invincible form of problem is just as important, if not more, than the tangible part of the issue (China’s warship and jet plane incursions/building of artificial islands). This involves getting a hold on the perception and the underlying beliefs which are providing the impetus for Chinese leaders, policymakers and military generals to be brazen in their claims and actions.

What impact can the abovementioned strategy give? While it’s not possible to provide a definite answer, there are two prominent examples where unchallenged unilateral renaming of territory is likely to be followed by policies of occupying the space. The Islamic State’s (IS) renaming of territories in Iraq and Syria as the Islamic Caliphate is corresponded with its violent action of grabbing Syrian and Iraqi territories.

Secondly, the unilateral renaming of the West Bank in Palestine into “Judea” and “Samaria” by Israel and its unrelenting military operations to gobble up as much space. It is not my intention to distastefully equate China with IS or Israel, since the political motivation and historical background of all described actors are different. Notwithstanding this, what is crucial is the logical sequence to follow after territorial renaming, which may be worth looking at.

This article written by Ferooze Ali appeared in News Straits Times, Malaysia 13 June 2015. 

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