Winning the Historical Narrative: Zheng He Helps Beijing Claim the South China Sea

It seems as if the majority of the world has forgotten about the South China Sea dispute and China’s not-so-subtle programme of land reclamation and military installation around the disputed island chains that pockmark this critical waterway.

China has not tried to hide its land reclamation activities

This is perhaps not surprising given the more pressing concerns in the region over North Korea’s accelerating nuclear programme, not to mention the slew of other global conflicts and crises diverting the attention of global leaders.

In essence, it seems as if China’s belligerence has payed off. After several months of half-hearted protest by the international community, Beijing’s gambit has won the day and China has, with a calculated swoop, exponentially increased its power-projection capabilities in the region.

For the other claimants in the dispute, of course, the situation has not been resolved. Foremost amongst these are Vietnam and the Philippines, and the latter was even on the winning side of an international tribunal ruling in 2016 that dismissed China’s claims to atolls and reefs around the disputed Scarborough Shoal – claimed by Manila.

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ vigilante president, has cosied up to China in the last year or so, moving away from Manila’s traditional alliance with the USA. However, despite his aggressive and nationalistic rhetoric winning sway with many voters, Filipinos are not inclined to roll over for the Chinese in the South China Sea.

President Duterte with Chinese ruler Xi Jinping

Therefore, an upcoming cultural mission is of particular interest. In 2018, Art Valdez and his team plan to sail three traditional balangay from Manila to Dezhou in China. The adventure seeks to recreate the voyage of Sultan Paduka Batara, who in 1417 travelled with an entourage of over 300 men from his Sulu kingdom to Dezhou, where he met the Chinese Yongle Emperor.

Two points are of note:

  1. The Valdez mission will – like its 600-year old predecessor – pass through the Spratly Islands chain, vehemently claimed by both China and the Philippines, not to mention Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei.
  2. The man who encouraged the Sultan to make his historic voyage was none other than Admiral Zheng He.

If Zheng He had been European, his legend would be unsurpassed. The semi-mythical Muslim eunuch, who rose to become the preeminent explorer and navigator of the Ming Dynasty, has some story.

From 1405, Zheng He led a series of huge naval expeditions across virtually all of the Indian Ocean and the seas of East Asia. His first expedition was said to have comprised 62 junks, 225 support vessels, and 27,780 men; a staggering concept.

Zheng He’s magnificent fleet of ‘treasure ships’

Nobody is exactly sure of the main objectives of these expeditions but commercial enterprise undoubtedly played a part, as did scientific exploration and political intrigue, with unfavoured rulers of distant lands replaced by those that would pledge obeisance to the Yongle Emperor.

Zheng He’s largest ships were ten times their European equivalent (at 3,000 tons). On his seventh voyage, the Admiral sailed 12,618 miles, such breathtaking endeavours having led in recent years to far-fetched claims that he even reached America before Columbus.

Visiting more than 32 countries, Zheng He created a platform for Ming imperialism that the Yongle Emperor gratefully seized. In addition to conquering neighbouring kingdoms:

He exchanged ill-tempered embassies with Muslim potentates in Central Asia. He invested kings in Korea, Melaka, Borneo, Sulu, Sumatra, and Ceylon. (Fernandez-Armesto, 2009, p.245)

Yongle Emperor

Sultan Paduka Batara travelled to Dezhou as a vassal of the Yongle Emperor and he would die on Chinese shores. Thousands of his descendants remain in the region, and they share cultural exchanges with the Philippines to this day (any chance of a territorial claim?).

Remarkably, Art Valdez has been halted in recreating the 1417 mission before. This has mainly been at the behest of his own government, which is afraid that Valdez and his men would be arrested by the Chinese should they pass through the Spratlys, adding unnecessary tension to the relationship with Beijing.

China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea rest heavily on Zheng He’s historic voyages

It is ironic, for Valdez’ voyage does not seek to politicise but to honour history and the friendship between two great countries. That China’s historic claim to the entire South China Sea is based on the ‘discovery’ voyages of Zheng He in the 15th century adds salt to the wound. After all, it was the famed Admiral who had prompted the original voyage and yet now it is in his name that its re-creation may never happen.

Whoever can conjure the most potent historical narrative often triumphs in the modern day. China has been steadfast in its promotion of Zheng He’s legacy as a legitimate source of its claims. The Philippines, meanwhile, has been more reliant on non-binding international arbitration and unwieldy mechanisms for avoiding maritime dispute such as the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A Chinese coast guard vessel sprays water at a Filipino fishing boat near Scarborough Shoal

It’s not even as if the Philippines is an historical loser in this sense. As the Ming Dynasty faltered amidst civil unrest and court intrigue, its emperors began to look inwards. The great ‘treasure ships’ of Zheng He ceased to leave port and the Chinese yoke of imperialism quickly receded, eventually to be usurped by the Europeans.

The various Sultanates that make up today’s Philippines continued to agitate for supremacy, the South China Sea serving as a resource-rich waterway through which cultural and commercial exchange flowed.

So there isn’t a ‘Lost Cause’ or ‘Stab in the Back’ with which to rile contemporary Filipinos. There isn’t a simplified history written by colonial masters, as is the case for much of America and Africa.

Neither triumphalism nor rage dictates the Filipino claim. These islands have simply always been available to them, to their ancestors, to their friends and masters. “Our forefathers used to meet in [the] Spratlys and get drunk” says Art Valdez.

Not much to see…but the seas around Scarborough Shoal have important fisheries and may contain substantial reserves of gas and oil

Sadly this narrative just isn’t as heroic as Zheng He, and Beijing knows it. Whilst the world turns its back and shrugs its shoulders, the Philippines must feed off scraps, and Chinese charity is notoriously frugal, international arbitration equally unfulfilling.

Let us hope that Art Valdez can make his journey and remind Beijing that not every act is political, and that history can be a tool for uniting people, not just dividing them.

Further Reading

Fernandez-Armesto, F. (2009) 1492: the Year Our World Began

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Trump Stirs up the Holy Land: Jerusalem Recognition Revives Crusading Passion

So, President Donald Trump has done what the whole world knew he was going to do; he has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking an international precedent despite warnings from allies and enemies both at home and abroad.

A defiant POTUS declares Jerusalem capital of Israel

The next few years promise a relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, although how practical that will be on a security footing is something even this blundering administration will need to consider.

Unsurprisingly, the move has caused uproar in the Arab world, with protesters taking to the streets to burn effigies of Trump and global leaders strongly rebuking the incendiary announcement. That the recognition also further destabilises the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process – despite Trump’s claims to the contrary – is somewhat of an aside.

Burning an effigy of President Trump the West Bank city of Nablus

From Pope Urban’s call for crusade in 1095, Jerusalem has served as a battleground – the Holy Grail – of the Abrahamic religions. It changed hands between Christendom and Islam on several occasions, men travelling from far flung places to spill blood in the name of their God.

Crusaders and Seljuk Turks do battle during the First Crusade at Dorylaeum, Anatolia

Of course the Jews have remained present in Jerusalem for most of that time – indeed since the days predating Christianity and Islam as they like to remind us – even if actual power was only bestowed upon them by the victorious parties (mainly the Truman administration) post-WWII.

The monumental decision to create a new religious state – whilst understandable given the centuries of horrific Jewish persecution which had culminated in the Holocaust – has resulted in intermittent warfare ever since, and has added another simmering rivalry to that already existing in the region between the perennially fighting Sunnis and Shiites.

Why has Trump done it? To appease the pro-Israel lobby that voted for him in large numbers during the last election is the obvious answer. In fact, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility for the President to have suggested a new Christian crusade to the Holy Land, such is his dedication to his Evangelical base.

Trump went overboard to impress the pro-Israel lobby during the election campaign

Trump is also playing to type, sowing divisions where they already existed. What makes your rivals weaker makes you stronger right?

Some have advocated more pragmatic and sentimental reasons; that Jerusalem is the economic and political capital of Israel, ‘home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court and the prime minister’ , or that it ‘reflects the reality that [the] city is [the] historic center of [the] Jewish faith’.

Jews at the wailing wall, 1891. Parts of the wall predate Christianity and Islam

Either way, it takes little to incense the Arabs and whilst Trump’s move isn’t particularly beneficial to the US – who Israel will continue to rely upon for years to come no matter how strained relations are – it is unlikely to create major change or crisis.

There are arguments that it will encourage further ‘illegal’ Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, though this is likely to continue regardless. Indeed, Trump has left the door open for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The claim that the move has irrevocably destroyed the potential for a two-state solution, however, is ridiculous. This is, and has been since Israel’s inception, a distant dream. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to make the concessions to make it happen, no matter what international diplomacy can achieve.

Whatever Trump’s rhetoric and actions, the Holy Land will continue to inspire and divide, to inflame passion and hatred, to breed reconciliation and war. The world will watch on as the cycle continues, whilst the militant proxies of the region’s powers seek to gain the smallest of footholds wherever they can. They are left to take up the crusading mantle of the past.

3,000 years on the Jews are entrenched in Israel and Jerusalem is beyond sacred to them. That it is to many Muslims and Christians, too, will not change the geopolitical status quo.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – sacred to Christians
Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount – sacred to Muslims

The bloodshed of the infidel will continue to stain the holiest of monuments, memories of crusade and defiance infusing energy into every brick that help to make Jerusalem one of the most captivating cities to visit.

What President Trump says will never change this.