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