China’s gigantic hoax
China’s leaders may yet relive Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about vanity, featuring an unclad emperor who couldn’t see his own nakedness, thanks to Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. In a diligently researched 62-page treatise titled “Historical facts, Historical Lies, and Historical Rights in the West Philippine Sea,” Carpio called China’s claim to the greater part of the South China Sea a “gigantic historical fraud,” with no ground to stand on.
Briefly, Carpio’s impressive research yielded the following historical insights:
• There are no Chinese documents in the form of maps, constitutions, treaties, and official pronouncements—from ancient times to 1932—that claim China’s southern perimeter extends farther than Hainan Island, some 19 miles from the mainland’s Guandong province. The exhaustive research included Chinese and foreign sources, with authoritative documents and 72 cartographic records, including that of the epic voyages of the eunuch admiral Zheng He during the Ming dynasty.
• In contrast, Philippine historical records clearly prove, in maps, international agreements, and official statements, that Scarborough (or Panatag) Shoal, situated 123 miles west of Subic Bay (which is among the islands, reefs, atolls and rocks claimed by China) is an integral part of our territory. China seized the shoal in 2012 and has since prevented Filipino fishermen from operating in the area.
• Most telling of all is the fact that US and Philippine armed forces used Scarborough Shoal for aerial and naval gunnery from 1960 to 1980 without any hint of protest from Beijing. Hardly the behavior expected of a proud nation zealously defending its sovereignty.
Why the big geopolitical scam? First, a short background to Carpio’s thesis: Geologists are certain untold riches in oil, natural gas, and strategic metals lie beneath the contested waters. Whoever controls the vital area also holds sway over one of the most important maritime region on Earth, accounting for almost half of the world’s total trade. Supertankers loaded with commercial goods and Middle East oil must pass through the Straits of Malacca and the seas China claims, on their way to countries like Japan which is heavily dependent on Arab oil. The return trip is just as lucrative, when the vessels carry the export products of the region’s booming economies.
Relying on its rising and dominant economic power that will soon surpass that of the United States, China’s leaders calculated that it was the right time for bullying and outright lies. In the blunt lecturing words of a ranking Chinese official, “We happen to be big while you are small.” Translation: Sorry, but life is unfair because size does matter.
So in 2009, the Chinese arbitrarily drew a crude 9-dash-line perimeter to mark China’s maritime boundary to its south, never mind if the mojones brazenly encroach on the 200-mile EEZ (exclusive economic zone) of countries like the Philippines. Consequently, in nine tiny strokes of a pen, China symbolically gobbled up 80 percent of the Philippines’ EEZ and virtually the entire continental shelf along her western flank.
Prior to Carpio’s scholarly work, no one—whether historian, sinologist, or pundit—could offer convincing evidence to refute China’s so-called historical claims. Sure, the Philippines and its neighbors, like Vietnam, contested China’s intrusions into their territorial waters, but none could show hard, irrefutable evidence that China was lying through its teeth. The gist of our government’s position is that anything within our EEZ is within our sovereign rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which China and the Philippines are signatories. Not much more than that. We are not aware of a companion effort by the Department of Foreign Affairs to effectively discredit China’s own historical claims of ownership and sovereignty based on existing Chinese official records and maps. In this context, Carpio’s paper will serve our country well.
In the wake of Carpio’s exposé on China’s “historical lies,” the latter is now under great pressure to respond to and repudiate the Filipinos’ masterful historical research. And we don’t mean merely issuing more arrogant ex cathedra rejoinders that will insult our intelligence. Silence and indifference will not serve Beijing’s interest. If it takes this path, people will say: Absence of evidence is itself evidence of wrongdoing. A response of benign contempt will thus erode China’s prestige and whatever remains of its moral high ground. It will just be perceived by its small neighbors and the international community as another big bully, unworthy of its rising economic status.
Great power must be tempered with great responsibility. In 1974, at the UN General Assembly in New York, Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader and widely acknowledged as the architect of his country’s economic renaissance, warned against the poison of imperialism: “If one day China should change her color and turn into a superpower, a tyrant … and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression, and exploitation, then the people of the world should identify her as a social imperialist and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow her.” Prophetic words. Deng must be turning in his grave.
Narciso M. Reyes Jr. (ngreyes1640hotmail.com) is a former journalist and diplomat. He holds an MA in international and strategic affairs from Georgetown University.
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