This May 11, 2015 aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China’s on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The dispute over the strategic waterways of the South China Sea has intensified, pitting a rising China against its smaller and militarily weaker neighbors who all lay claim to a string of isles, coral reefs and lagoons known as the Spratly and the Paracel islands. Only about 45 of them are occupied. (Ritchie B. Tongo/Pool Photo via AP)
China’s dubious claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea, which includes overlapping claims with the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam, took another hit recently when Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son, a Vietnamese historian and deputy director at the Da Nang Institute for Socio-Economic Development, visited Yale University in New Haven, CT.
Dr. Son had previously made trips to the Yale University Library and the U.S. Library of Congress to collect proof of Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagos in the South China Sea.

Two maps throw doubt on China’s claims

According to a report in the Ho Chi Minh City-based Tuoi Tre News on Sunday, Dr. Son found two map collections which sketched China’s territory during the Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The first collection, around 200 maps, was named Qianlong’s Map in Thirteen Rows, and dated 1760.

The maps illustrate in detail all the territories that belonged to China under the rule of Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796). The territories stretched from mainland China to islands and surrounding waters, but none of the maps drew nor mentioned the Nansha Islands or Xisha Islands, the names given by China for the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Moreover, one of the maps specified that the southernmost point of China’s territory at the time was the Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point.

The second collection that Dr. Son found at the library was the Atlas von China (The Atlas of China). It consists of two parts published in 1885 by Dietrich Reimer publishing house, a Berlin-based publisher.

It might seem unusual for a German publisher to print maps of 19th Century China but Sino-German relations were formally established in 1861. Moreover, Germany joined other Western powers like Great Britain and France in carving out spheres of influence in China. German troops also took part subduing the Boxer Rebellion between 1899 and 1901, part of China’s 100 years of humiliation.

Along with the second collection of maps found by Dr. Son was 16 pages of description in German and 55 color-printed, full-page administrative and geographical maps on Beijing along with 26 other prefectures under the rule of Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908), the eleventh emperor of the Qing dynasty, and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China.

Interestingly, the first map in part one of Atlas von China draws the entire Chinese territory at the time, and also shows Hainan Island as China’s southernmost point.

Dr. Son said that “it is observable that Chinese maps in official atlases released during the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China period all specified that the southernmost point of China is Hainan Island.”

He added that he has also collected numerous other separate maps published by the Chinese government since the late 19th Century until the 1930s, and none of them mention the Spratly Islands or the Paracel Islands.

Filipinos, together with Vietnamese expatriates, display placards during a rally at the Chinese Consulate to protest China’s island-building and deployment of surface-to-air missile system at the disputed Paracel Islands off South China Sea, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016 in the financial district of Makati city, east of Manila, Philippines. The protesters, who were also joined by students from the ASEAN countries, are urging the international community to join unified efforts in calling for peace, stability and development in the ASEAN region. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
U.S. Navy commander behind the scenes

A former U.S. Navy commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that he was part of a National War College delegation sent to China to dialogue with their counterparts at the PLA National Defense University. He said that the subject of the South China Sea was raised repeatedly during the talks.

During these talks a Funan University professor stated that the Chinese position on freedom on navigation in international waters would probably evolve to mirror the American position after China develops a blue water navy like the U.S.

The commander also noted the interesting differences between what he called “the old guard” at the talks and “twenty-somethings who literally banged their heads on the table while a senior went on an extended tirade reiterating longstanding Chinese government positions.”

The commander’s experience shows China’s resolve over the South China Sea.

Moreover, Beijing claims that its right to the areas in question is centuries old, dating even as far back as the 13th Century when the Paracel and Spratly Island chains were indeed integral parts of China.

In 1947, China issued a map detailing its claims, showing the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Many assert that the 1940s is actually as far back as any true Chinese claim to most of the South China Sea goes.

Wikileaks data also throws doubt on China’s claims

In April 2012, news broke about a message sent to Washington by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on September 9, 2008 and later uncovered by Wikileaks.

Cable 08BEIJING3499 stated that a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official and a local scholar could not identify specific historical records to justify China’s claim that covers the whole Spratly islands and areas within other countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs.)

Wikileaks, and maps or no maps, China will continue its push over disputed claims in the South China Sea, including the possibility of arming submarines with nuclear weapons. The next segment of this ongoing geopolitical drama will come over the next two months when the international court at The Hague rules on the Philippines’ case against China in the South China Sea.

Beijing for its part, has already stated that it will not abide by any unfavorable ruling issued by the Court, which leaves little options for rival claimants in the troubled body of water.