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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America to Cut UXO Aid to Cambodia: an explosive legacy forgotten

Reports from the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC) suggest that the US government will cut its $2.5m a year funding to help rid the Southeast Asian country of the scourge of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).

A Mines Advisory Group worker lays out his daily find in Cambodia

It is estimated that the US dropped more than 2 million bombs on Cambodia between 1963 and 1975, largely as part of efforts to flush out Vietcong insurgents and destroy both their training camps and logistical supply corridors.

The Richard Nixon administration intensified what had been a more subtle bombing campaign in 1969 when ‘Operation Menu’ was launched. This began the process of B-52 aircraft carpet bombing vast swathes of eastern Cambodia in a bid to wipe out Vietcong bases. It was followed by ‘Operation Freedom Deal’, which had an expanded remit focused on halting the advance of the Khmer Rouge communist rebels.

Simultaneously, the Americans carried out a strategic air warfare campaign in neighbouring Laos, which also faced its own communist insurgency in what became a bloody civil war. The (il)legality of this bombing rampage caused controversy at the time in America, although its scale was largely covered up until Bill Clinton released classified documents relating to it in 2000.

It is difficult to know how many civilian casualties were caused by America’s bombing of Indochina at the time. What is certain, is that the legacy of UXO in the region (much of it American) provides a constant menace to the civilian population.

A victim of the UXO legacy in Laos

Coupled with an horrendous land mine problem – remnants of the civil wars fought throughout the region – large tracts of land remain contaminated. That these are generally poor countries whose people require access to farmland only exacerbates the problem, and increases the risk of deaths.

As the rap rockers The Transplants succinctly put it:

Well, drop more, two million tons,
Ho Chi Minh’s trail was sprayed with bombs,
Jungles of Laos, knew all along,
That the American war would finally come,
America, land of the free,
Purveyour and leaders of democracy,
Debauchery, luxury,
Bacchanalia’s alright to be.

This is a rare reference in popular culture.

Whilst this particular stain on America’s recent history hasn’t been completely forgotten at home, it is, understandably, overshadowed by the more personal tragedy of the Vietnam War. As such, the funding and expertise offered by the US government to help mitigate the risk of UXO in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is not only a rightful penance but also helps retain a vestige of memory amongst those Americans involved in the clean-up effort.

The number of UXO-related incidents across Cambodia remains staggering

Strong support from NGOs and UN-funded organisations will continue to play a crucial role in freeing up hectares of fertile land from the explosive remnants of war. But the withdrawal of US funding in Cambodia is as much a symbolic defeat as it is an economic one.

UXO is not an issue that has been resolved; rather it is being gradually resolved in a country whose suffering extended long after the US intervention, as the dystopian vision of the Khmer Rouge resulted in genocide.

Cluster munitions, chemical weapons, herbicidal agents; all of these continue to blight a landscape increasingly admired by adventurous tourists of the West. Along with land mines and air-dropped bombs they have combined to create a toxic burden that will be forcibly carried by generations for decades to come.

The Agent Orange defoliant – designed to remove tree cover and reveal the Vietcong but also a vicious herbicide – is sprayed during the Vietnam War

Most worryingly, this is just one small part of the Donald Trump administration’s foreign aid cut, and the implications could be massive. It begs the question of what is next. Why should the American government turn its back on the catastrophes it helped conceive, and condemn to struggle those born into less fortuitous circumstances than its own members?

Hardly befitting of the land of the free, nor the purveyor and leaders of democracy.