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

Beijing Stands by Selective History and Rejects South China Sea Ruling

Tensions in the South China Sea continue their inexorable rise after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled Tuesday that China had violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines by building artificial islands around Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese have responded with typical defiance, reiterating their ‘legitimate’ claims to this entire swath of the Pacific Ocean, whilst also stating their right to create an air defence zone over the region should they so wish.


Of course, the South China Sea dispute does not merely revolve around China and the Philippines. Indeed, it is one of the critical security dilemmas confronting the Asia-Pacific today. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia also claim various atolls and islets in the Sea, the most notable being the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The West, and in particular the USA, also has more than a passing interest in the issue and has tentatively tested China’s resolve in recent months with freedom of navigation exercises in the immediate vicinity of Beijing’s man-made islands.

With increasingly frequent confrontations, naval stand-offs and nationalist pandering over sovereignty, it is perfectly conceivable that the dispute, if mismanaged, could one day lead to multilateral conflict in the region.

Because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows for overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, complainant states have sought other avenues by which to justify their claims. China’s assertion of sovereignty over the entire sea rests heavily on historical legitimacy. Namely, the government asserts that Chinese sailors, including the famed Zheng He and his historic ‘star fleets’, first discovered the plethora of small islands and cays during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Vietnamese similarly rely on the Emperor Gia Long’s 1816 claim of sovereignty over the Paracel Islands as proof that the territory was theirs first.

The voyages of Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He are revered in China
The voyages of Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He are revered in China

These overlapping historical and legal claims are worrying enough. However, the situation could be even worse. Until well into the twentieth century other great powers had trained their eyes on the strategically-important, and potentially resource-rich, islands and waterways of the South China Sea.

In the early 20th century the French, then colonial overlords in Indo-China, laid claim to “all islands, islets and reefs” situated between the 7th and 12th degrees of north latitude in the Sea. Their initial design was on the rich guano and potash extracts to be found on several of the islands. By 1933, French troops occupied Spratly Island, Amboyna Cay, Itu Aba and various other rocky outposts as they looked to flex their imperialist muscle.

Despite rumours to the contrary, the French did not relinquish their claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea islands to Vietnam in 1956. Despite the eviction of the last French nationals on the islands by the invading Japanese in 1939, Rene Coty’s government still held out hopes of regaining the territories as an overseas possession, such as Reunion and Guadeloupe are today.

Japan may well have persisted with its own claim over the South China Sea, having annexed many of its islands during WWII. However, the Allied-imposed San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 renounced Japan’s claims over the territory. This is not to say that, under renewed conservative LDP leadership, Japan will not revive this claim in the near future. With frustration mounting over China’s opposition to their sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the Japanese may strike a retaliatory posture in the South, particularly with the Abe government now in a position to amend the constitution.

Earlier this year, Japan sent a Hyuga-class destroyer to take part in naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea
Earlier this year, Japan sent a Hyuga-class destroyer to take part in naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea

A former claimant state less likely to renew its interest in the region is Great Britain. A Law Office report in 1932 stated that “His Majesty’s claim to sovereignty over Spratly Island and Amboyna Cay in April 1930 was of so doubtful a nature that it could only be laid before the Permanent Court of International Justice with a faint prospect of success”. Despite Beijing’s rhetoric in recent months, this sentiment must have been similar to that experienced by Xi Jinping and his ruling cabal when the Philippines lodged its complaint with The Hague.

Despite the Law Office warning, the British government proceeded with its claim over the two islands despite having little justification to do so. With hopes of building a plane refuelling station, the British vehemently opposed the Japanese annexation of WWII. Their reasoning? “Most of the territory covered by the claim consists of rocks the majority of which are to our knowledge incapable of effective occupation and therefore, according to our view of international law, not annexable”. What this statement said about the logic of the British claim is difficult to fathom but it is an argument that has frequently been repeated in recent years. Are the splattering of outcrops in the South China Sea definable as islands? If not, then claims to surrounding territory on the grounds of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are bogus, which is why China has sought to artificially increase the land mass and habitability of many islets.

China has been brazen in its artificial extension of the South China Sea islets, including thestationing there of sophisticated military hardware
China has been brazen in its artificial extension of the South China Sea islets, including thestationing there of sophisticated military hardware

British Commonwealth officials maintained their belligerent if futile posture on the issue into the 1950s. Only the competing French interest prevented a more forceful riposte from London when unable to achieve its ambitions.

One interesting thing to note about territorial claims in general is that, once they have been made, they can be resurrected at any moment. Additionally, new historical justification for such claims can always be found. Whilst the possibility of Britain, France or any other far-flung power having contemporary designs over the South China Sea may seem preposterous, there are many examples of overseas territorial disputes persisting into the post-colonial era. The Falkland Islands is just one example, and Britain’s unyielding sovereignty still infuriates the Argentinians to this day.

Should China ever overreach itself in the South China Sea, what is to stop the Americans and their allies from wheeling out old territorial claims to put a halt on Beijing’s aggressive expansion? Unlikely, perhaps, but always a possibility. Indeed, for a time in the 1930s, the USA subsumed the Filipino claim for sovereignty over the South China Sea during the period in which it dictated Manila’s foreign policy.

We should perhaps be thankful, therefore, that with frequent eruptions of disquiet amongst the Asian contestants over the ownership of the islands in the South China Sea, the former Western colonial powers have refrained from resurrecting their dubious claims to this most delicate stretch of water.

Competing claimant governments have nationalised the South China Sea dispute for political gain
Competing claimant governments have nationalised the South China Sea dispute for political gain

What the USA will make of China’s continuing challenge to its domination of the Pacific Ocean will be a question for the near future…perhaps one to be resolved as soon as new footsteps cross the threshold of the White House.


British Foreign & Commonwealth Office papers from the National Archives