June 21, 2016

China claims non-existant book proves its claims on the South China Sea


Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.08.50 PMAt the very center of the long-standing debate over who exactly runs the South China Sea, there is, according to Chinese authorities, a book. A very old book that, once observed, will provide the world with “iron-clad proof” that the People’s Republic of China—not the Philippines, not Taiwan, not Indonesia, and not Vietnam—is the rightful controller of the entirety of the coveted waterway, which hosts a third of the world’s shipping traffic and massive deposits of oil and gas.

For most of the twentieth century, these nations have disputed over control of the sea, maintaining a military presence and even seeing bloodshed, so the mention of a book that might resolve the conflict is worth paying some attention to.

Some—but, given the details of the claim, maybe not too much.

BBC News’s John Sudworth explains:

The book, in the possession of a retired fisherman called Su Chengfen, is said to record the precise navigational instructions by which his long-distant forefathers could reach the scattered rocks and reefs of the far-flung Spratly islands, many hundreds of nautical miles away.

China’s insistence that these features are Chinese territory rests largely on a “we were there first” argument. So 81-year-old Mr Su’s book, “cherished” and “wrapped in layers of paper” is apparently a kind of maritime Holy Grail.

In fact, the reports suggest, it offers nothing less than “ironclad proof” of China’s ownership of the South China Sea.

Naturally enough, Sudworth had hoped to see this book, which, it was promised, might resolve so much conflict. But Su quickly dashed that hope. On the island if Hainan, where Su awaited him under close watch by blacked-out government cars, Sudworth was told that the book simply no longer exists. “Although the book was important, I threw it away because it was broken. It was flipped through too many times. The salty seawater on the hands had corroded it… In the end it was no longer readable so I threw it away.”

Which, so, okay then. Sudworth:

Whatever it was, Mr Su’s book is not, it seems, any longer ironclad proof of anything. Except perhaps China’s Communist Party-controlled media’s willingness not to let a few facts get in the way of the official narrative.

China’s claim comes just weeks before an international court ruling on the South China Sea, one that is not expected to go in China’s favor—which may explain why the state has resorted to mystical books and closely-monitored media goose chases.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.