Recently Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on troops to "put all (their) minds and energy on preparing for war" in a visit to a military base in the southern province of Guangdong according to state news agency Xinhua.

This came shortly after Beijing increased military drills around Taiwan. Almost 40 Chinese warplanes crossed the median line between the mainland and Taiwan on 18-19 September, one of several sorties the island's President Tsai Ing-wen called a "threat of force."

After years of the United States and China butt heads over trade and other issues, opportunities for a mutually constructive rapprochement are growing scarce. It will be up to Joe Biden's administration to develop a more cogent strategy for dealing with the most important foreign-policy issue of this century.

In a recent statement referring to the Taiwan problem, China speaks of 'peaceful' yet at the same time insist ("China will resolutely deter") that Taiwan cannot strife for independence and more importantly insist Taiwan become part of mainland China (using the term 'reunification') something Taiwanese absolutely do not want especially after they see what is happening with Hong Kong.

This whereby Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen accurately stated that Taiwan de-facto is already independent.

When the United States severed relations with Taiwan (that time the Republic of China) in 1979 and discarded its mutual defense treaty with the island, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which made clear that the United States maintained special commitments to Taiwan. The TRA asserted that the United States would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also stated that the United States would both maintain the capacity to come to Taiwan’s defense and make available to the island the arms necessary for its security. Importantly, however, the TRA did not declare that the United States would in fact come to Taiwan’s defense.

American ambiguity however worked to deter China from attacking Taiwan, as Beijing could never be sure what the U.S. response would be.

As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. recently argued in What Could Cause a US-China War? The US will retain some long-term power advantages that contrast with areas of Chinese vulnerability. One is geography. The US is surrounded by oceans and neighbors that are likely to remain friendly. China has borders with 14 countries, and territorial disputes with India, Japan, and Vietnam which set limits on its hard and soft power.


Following is an overview of the wider background that led up to the current situation.

Geography and the construction of today's China

As we early on have seen, it was during the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China that became the formation stage of modern Chinese nationalism and the stage of the proposition and initial usage of the concept of 'the Chinese nation' first came in Use. To be more precise modern Chinese nationalism developed around the period of the May 4th Movement during the time of the Left and Right New Culture Movement. And although Mao Zedong in March 1953 still referred to "Han chauvinism" to criticize his rival Kuomintang party, this drastically changed following the CCP's 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

That is, where the anti-Mao Guomindang/KMT leadership deliberately used fear of the loss of territory in the 1920s and 1930s to rally political support, communist party's (for reasons we described) Deng Xiaoping re-introduced the Guomindang's “one-hundred-year history of humiliation” narrative as a new source of legitimacy of the CCP’s rule and the unity of the 'Chinese' people and CCP society. This was crowned by a new ongoing yearly National Humiliation Day.

In February 2019, the Chinese government (CCP) also issued specific rules covering the printing within China of maps in books or magazines intended for sale in overseas markets. Each map would require permission from provincial officials and none would be allowed to be distributed within the country. The possibility that a Chinese citizen might see a map showing an unauthorized version of China’s territorial claims was perceived as such a threat to national security that it justified the involvement of the National Work Group for Combating Pornography and Illegal Publications’, according to the regulations.1 To prove the point, in March 2019 the authorities in the port city of Qingdao destroyed 29,000 English-language maps destined for export because they showed Taiwan as a separate country.2

As we pointed out the story of how certain current Chinese territories came to be regarded as ‘rightfully’ Chinese while others did not is far from simple. During the twentieth century, some areas that were held to be ‘natural’ parts of the country, such as Outer Mongolia, were let go while others that had been abandoned, notably Taiwan, were reclaimed. When the Qing Empire collapsed in 1911, most of its borders were more imaginary than real. Except in a few places, where Russian, French or British empires had forced them to be demarcated, they had never been formally defined. In the decades after the revolution, the national elite in Beijing had to ‘fix’ a national territory for the first time. This was a process that had to take place on the ground but also in the national imagination. Maps had to be drawn but, just as importantly, the world-view expressed on those maps had to be inculcated in the minds of the people. Anxiety about the vulnerability of those borders was deliberately generated, right from the beginning. There were fears of foreign threats but there were also expansionist dreams and political calculations.


Enter the China trade

As we have described the history of Chinese foreign trade began as early as the Western Han dynasty when the famous "Silk Road" (although that term was only later on coined by Carl Ritter 1838 and popularized by Sven Hedin in the 1930s) as a later symbol for trade through Central Asia was pioneered by Chinese envoys.

Then in the middle of the seventeenth century in the wake of Matteo Ricci who was the first westerner to enter the forbidden city in 1601, gradually statesmen and scholars all over Europe started to look at China as a beacon of commercial, intellectual, and cultural potential, offering the promise of wealth as well as global civilizational convergence.3

Later in the spring of 1843, after a number of lively and often heated debates, the United States Congress approved funds for the first US mission to China. President John Tyler spoke of the mission as one of great "magnitude and importance“4 and Secretary of State Daniel Webster called it "a more important mission than ever proceeded from this Country, and more important mission than any other, likely to succeed it, in our day.“5 Indeed, this mission, led by former congressman Caleb Cushing, resulted in the first US treaty with China (the Treaty of Wangxia,1844), which secured trading privileges for American merchants and opened a host of Chinese ports to serve as outlets for surplus American production. Contained within the treaty was also the first appearance of a most favored nation clause-inserted in order to assure the US of the same privileges in China as might be granted any other nation. The impetus for this mission was the threat of the British monopoly of the Pacific markets. American rivalry with Britain for the markets and influence in the Pacific forced US politicians and bureaucrats to assume a positive role in East Asia in the early 1840s.

Russia posed a similar threat to US designs of spatial order and regional hegemony. Moving east across Siberia, Russians attempted to access Japan and the Pacific from the north.6 Russian territory already stretched to the North Pacific, which posed a particularly dire threat to the US. As Hawks wrote: "There is no power in the other hemisphere to which the possession of Japan, or the control of the affairs, is as important as it is to Russia. She is on one side of the islands, the United States on the other. The Pacific ocean is destined to be the theatre of immense commercial undertakings...with such harbors on the Pacific as Japan would give her, she might hope to become the controlling maritime power of the world.7

Like the treaty of Wangxia, the opening of Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1854 stands as a focal point of early US foreign policy. The Perry's mission aimed at and succeeded in throwing open an isolated Japan to the commerce of the world convinced Japan to welcome shipwrecked sailors and laid the grounds for a merchant base to access the China market. As the US worked to reinvent interaction with Asia in terms of the Pacific trade running through the American continent the incorporation of the Japanese islands into the global commercial system by Americans' own design strengthened the US hand. Unlike the case of China however, the US initiated the first treaty with Japan and thus set the terms by which this Asian country would interact with the world. This not only gave American merchants an advantage of primacy but also allowed the US to shape the relationship to its liking and gain greater control over the Pacific and the Pacific markets.

Having watched Britain take the initiative in China and American merchants gain a stronger foothold in that market, Russia could not allow either the US or Britain to gain as much influence in Japan as they did in China and moved accordingly to outdo the Perry mission and attempted to open Japan first. On October 19, 1852, the Russian expedition sailed in an attempt to beat the US to Japan. They arrived in the fall of 1853, right after Perry had paid his first visit and gave Japan the ultimatum.8 Having failed to beat Perry to Japan, the Russians actually succeeded in inciting the American Commodore to move quicker to press for and conclude treaty negotiations lest the Russians "interfere very seriously with my operation," Perry wrote in his journal.9 Hawks reemphasized this point: "The Commodore, suspecting that the Russians contemplated the design of returning to Japan and of ultimately going to Yedo, which might seriously interfere with his operations, induced him to alter his plans.“10 So Perry sailed sooner rather than later, and Russia ended up negotiating and signing a treaty with Japan a year later (1855), opening three ports to Russian trade.11


China's new geographers

Generally speaking the story of the invention of present modern China’s territory, and its territorial anxieties, as we have seen can be said to have its beginnings in the aftermath of the first world war and with the arrival of the Western science of geography. It ends with the rediscovery of Taiwan, its reconnection with the mainland, and then its separation.

The last major piece of territory to be formally renounced by the Qing court the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Japanese下関条約, also known as Treaty of Bakan (馬關條約; Mǎguān Tiáoyuē) was signed away on 17 April 1895. The treaty that Li Hongzhang (also romanized as Li Hung-chang; 1823 –1901 Chinese politician, general, and diplomat of the late Qing dynasty) agreed in the Japanese port of Shimonoseki ceded Taiwan, and the Pescadores Islands off its coast, ‘to Japan in perpetuity and full sovereignty. Just over a month later, the acting governor of the island, a mainlander, and a few other officials and merchants declared independence in the name of the Taiwan Republic’ rather than submit to Japanese rule. They hoped to elicit support from Britain and France but the Europeans saw no advantage in intervening and the Republic collapsed just eleven days after being declared.

Throughout this long campaign, the Qing court declined to offer any support to its former subjects in its former province. In fact, material support for the rebel Republic was explicitly banned by a court edict in May 1895.12

Thus in the aftermath of the treaty-signing, Qing officials almost entirely ignored developments in Taiwan. The island was lost, in the same way that other pieces of territory signed away by other treaties had been lost. In 1858 the Qing had ceded 500,000 square kilometers of land north of the Amur River to Russia through the Treaty of Aigun.13 They had then been forced, through other ‘unequal treaties’, to allow European powers to establish micro-colonies all around the coast. Taiwan appeared to have gone the same way; there was no feasible way of wresting it back from Japan’s clutches. The 2 million or so Qing subjects on the island, mostly speakers of the Hokkien and Cantonese topolects, along with the aboriginal population became colonial subjects of Japan.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the same insouciance about Taiwan’s fate also characterized the revolutionary movement. Sun Yat-sen and his comrades made no demands for the return of the island to Qing control. At no point, so far as we know, did Sun concern himself with the resistance to Japanese rule, even though it continued to smolder. For Sun, Japanese-controlled Taiwan was more important as a base from which to overthrow the Qing Dynasty than as a future part of the Republic. We can see this in his behavior during 1900. That year, Sun left Japan and traveled around Southeast Asia seeking support for a planned uprising in Guangdong province. He was disappointed: neither the established reformists nor local community leaders took him seriously. Instead, when Sun returned to Nagasaki he became part of a Japanese plot to seize the port of Amoy (modern-day Xiamen). Under Tokyo’s patronage, Sun based himself in Taiwan and ordered his revolutionary forces to mass around their main support base in Guangzhou. But, in a typically rash move, Sun changed the plan at the last minute, diverting the fighters to Amoy, where he intended to join them accompanied by a shipment of Japanese weapons. The Japanese, however, had become concerned about provoking a Russian reaction and backed out of the entire scheme. Sun’s rebel force found itself isolated and outgunned and was destroyed.14

Despite the betrayal in Amoy (modern-day Xiamen) when the Japanese had become concerned provoking a Russian reaction and backed out, Sun continued to regard the Japanese government as his main sponsor, and the revolutionary movement continued to ignore the issue of Taiwan. The reformists had little interest in the island, either. When a leading Taiwanese activist, Lin Xiantang, met Liang Qichao in Japan in 1907, Liang advised him not to sacrifice lives in opposing Japanese rule since the mainland would not be able to help. Since neither could speak the other’s topolect, Liang had to communicate with Lin through ‘brush talk.’ This only made Liang’s message more poignant: ‘(We were) originally of the same root, but are now of different countries.’15 The Qing court, the revolutionaries, and the reformists all took the same view: Taiwan had been ceded by treaty and lost to China. It seems remarkable, given the passion that the island’s political status generates today, but the island virtually disappeared from political discussions in the decade before the revolution of 1911/12. Even after the revolution, when Sun had no more need for Japanese support, he and his supporters continued to ignore Taiwan's fate.


From the patriotic education movement to the new Taiwan story

In a similar vein as above, in his speech on ‘The Anti-Japanese Resistance War and the Future of Our Party,’ Chiang Kai-shek argued that, ‘We must enable Korea and Taiwan to restore their independence and freedom. Even more so, Mao's Communist Party had long supported independence for Taiwan rather than reincorporation into China. At its sixth congress in 1928, the Guomindang party had recognized the Taiwanese as a separate nationality.

In May 1928, just after the establishment of the Guomindang’s ‘National Government’ in Nanjing, the party convened the ‘First National Conference on Education.’ The conference resolved to adopt a new national curriculum for schools based upon Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles of the People’: Nationalism, Democracy, and People’s Livelihood. Within months, the GMD had captured Beijing and very quickly set about imposing a new ‘temporary curriculum’ nationwide. From 1929 all schools were expected to imbue their pupils with strong feelings of patriotism, mobilized in particular through the teaching of history and geography.16 Pupils were expected to study the various regions of the country, ‘in order to foster the national spirit.’

A major contribution to this patriotic education movement was the series of textbooks written by Chang Ch‘i-yün who graduated from the Division of History and Geography of National Nanjing Higher Normal School (later renamed National Central University and Nanjing University) where he was a student of the first Chinese geographer Zhu Kezhen.

In 1928 the Commercial Press published one as Benguo Dili – ‘Our Geography.’ Its key message was that China formed a natural unit despite its enormous size and variety. Using his geographical training, Zhang divided up the country into twenty-three ‘natural’ regions based on their environments and the inhabitants’ ways of life. He then compared them, telling pupils that, for example, the Yangtze Delta was good for farming but had no minerals; Shanxi was rich in coal but too dry for agriculture; Manchuria was forested while Mongolia was good for grazing, and so on. He then told the young learners that this diversity was actually proof of the need for national unity since each different part was an essential part of a coherent whole.17

Yet the ‘whole’ that Zhang portrayed in the textbook was a territory that, in reality, did not exist. The book contained various maps of the country drawn on blank backgrounds so that the rest of the world disappeared from view. The simple black line marking the national boundary encompassed huge areas that were not actually under the government's control: the independent states of Mongolia and Tibet. Zhang portrayed them as a natural part of the Republic, nonetheless. How reality would be reconciled with the map was not explained to the pupils. Remarkably, given present-day politics, there was a significant omission: Taiwan was not drawn in any of the textbook's national maps. It seems that, in Zhang’s view, the ‘natural’ shape of the Republic was exactly the same as the shape of the Qing Empire at its collapse in 1911. Mongolia was included; Taiwan was not. The rocks and reefs of the South China Sea did not feature at all.

Zhang spent the next four years writing the geography textbooks used in most Chinese schools during the later 1920s and beyond. But while dozens of geography textbooks were printed during the 1920s and 1930s, and they all ignored Taiwan while stressing the importance of Mongolia and Tibet. Zhang himself, in another textbook he co-wrote in 1933, Waiguo Dili – ‘The Geography of Foreign Countries’ – described the people of Taiwan as ‘orphans’ deserted by their birthmother, the Chinese nation Zhonghua minzu, and abused by their stepmother, Japan.

Zhang, and the other authors of these books, faced a problem that was both pedagogic and deeply political. How could they persuade a child in a big coastal city, for example, to feel any connection with a sheepherder in Xinjiang? Why should they even have a connection? The general purpose of human geography was to explain how varying environments had created groups with differing cultures. However, nationalism required all these different groups to feel part of a single culture and loyal to a single state. It was up to nationalist geographers to resolve the puzzle. They found two main ways to do so. One group of textbook authors simply stated that all Chinese citizens were the same: they were members of a single ‘yellow’ race and a single nation, and no further explanation was needed. However, a second group acknowledged that different groups did exist but were nonetheless united by something greater. Within this group, some authors made use of ‘yellow race’ ideas, some used the idea of a shared, civilizing Hua culture, while others stressed the ‘naturalness’ of the country’s physical boundaries.

The textbook writers argued that the answer to the 'border question’ was to ‘civilize’ the inhabitants. One, Ge Suicheng (who was employed by the rival, but equally nationalistic, Zhonghua Publishing Company), found himself facing the same dilemma as the Guomindang government. Both needed to emphasize all ethnic groups' theoretical equality while simultaneously making a case for their melding into a single Chinese nation based on ‘Han’ culture. In Ge’s view, the study of geography should make the different peoples of the state love their particular home areas but also connect them emotionally to the wider national territory. But in the meantime, in the words of his textbook, ‘We should urgently promote the acculturation of the Mongols, Hui [Muslims] and Tibetans so that they are not lured by the imperialists, [and we should] move [Han] inhabitants to the border areas for colonization...’

Zhang Qiyun’s 1928 textbook was also deeply imprinted with racial chauvinism. One part of the book’s message to its millions of young readers was that the country was on a journey from barbarism to civilization and that the wild frontier, where the minorities lived, needed to be tamed and developed. The book included a table of various ethnic groups showing how assimilated they were to the ‘main body’ (zhuti) of the Han. In a description of the southwest Miao people, Zhang wrote, ‘They maintain the customs of great antiquity and are totally incompatible with the Han people. Eliminating their barbarism and changing their customs and habits is the responsibility of the Han people.’ For Zhang, the Han provided the ‘norm’ against which the other groups needed to be measured in order to judge their level of civilization: they had to be made ‘Han.’ He shared Zhu Kezhen’s opinion that climate was the determining factor in the spread of civilization. In his 1933 textbook, he observed that in southwestern Yunnan province, the native population lived in the hot and humid lowlands while the Han people (Han-ren) lived on the cooler plateaus. On the other hand, in the mountains of the northwest, the Han lived in the valleys where it was warm while the natives lived at altitudes where it was colder. It was only natural, therefore, that the ‘temperate-dwelling’ Han-ren,  free of ‘degenerating’ environmental influences, should exert their influence over the minorities – the tu-ren.18 Other textbooks made the same point, stressing Sun Yat-sen’s arguments that the Han made up 90 percent of the country’s population and that it was only natural that the other groups would assimilate.19 An idea that, as pointed out by me in Jan. 2018 is very present also in Xi Jinping’s repeated promise of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Underneath the diplomat and poet Huang Zunxian (center) with some of his family. He was one of the pioneers of the ‘yellow race’ thinking in the late Qing period but later helped ensure the Hakka people were classified as part of the ‘Han race.’

These arguments can be traced back to those made by Liang Qichao a couple of decades before. Liang created a story of continuity: the expansion of a civilized territory outwards from its cradle in the Yellow River valley. The new geographers tried to write the final chapter, its diffusion to the Republic's very edges.


The birth of the national territorial neurosis

An ever-present theme in these textbooks was the threat of foreigners eating away at the country’s edges. It was reinforced through school lessons about territory ‘lost’ during the previous century. Teachers could use a peculiarly Chinese form of nationalist cartography – the ‘map of national humiliation.’ Dozens of such maps were published by the Commercial Press, Zhonghua Publishing, and other companies during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, sometimes within textbooks and atlases and sometimes as posters for display in classrooms and public buildings. They are typically portrayed in bright colors, land ‘conceded’ to neighboring states over the previous century.20 There was a clear political purpose behind the making of these maps. They served to delegitimize the Qing Dynasty – by demonstrating its failure to ‘defend the country’ and thereby legitimize the revolution. But they also deliberately generated a sense of anxiety about the nation’s border's vulnerability to promote loyalty to the new Republic. It seemed to work with a young Mao Zedong. He later told the American journalist Edgar Snow that hearing about national humiliation made him an activist.21 It wasn’t just Mao. This was the birth of the national territorial neurosis.

The geographers took the nationalist idea of ‘territory’ – lingtu領土 lǐng )– and projected it back to the time of ‘domain’ – jiangyu (降雨 jiàng ) – when there were few fixed borders. A map of national humiliation in Ge Suicheng’s 1933 textbook showed vast areas of central Asia, Siberia, and the island of Sakhalin as territory ‘lost’ to Russia. The map may have displayed different areas as ‘territory,’ ‘tribute states,’ or ‘vassal states’ but all were categorized as inherently ‘Chinese,’ nonetheless. The idea that at the time they were ‘lost,’ these territories might have been contested areas with no clear allegiance to any particular empire was not part of the lesson. They were presented simply as ‘Chinese’ lands that had been stolen. Ge Suicheng called on the young citizens reading his textbook to do what they could to recover all this lost territory. Did this mean this ‘lost’ territory should be included within the state's rightful boundaries, or not? Was the shape of the country at that time natural or not? These questions were not even posed in the textbook, let alone answered. What was important for authors like Ge was to encourage students to feel the sense of loss, a collective sense of ‘national humiliation,’ and thereby develop a patriotic attachment to the country. Anxiety about the territorial loss was a fundamental part of the nationalist education project right from the beginning. The anxiety was compounded because no one, not even the geographers, knew where the borders actually were. The historian Diana Lary has shown how, in the southwestern province of Guangxi, the border's exact line was almost irrelevant. Although it had been formally agreed with Indochina'se French colonial rulers in 1894, as far as the Republican officials were concerned, the border was just somewhere in the mountains: high, remote, and difficult to reach. The state had generally managed minority groups in southern highlands through a system known as tuse, in which local leaders were held responsible for their people’s actions.22 Borders were largely irrelevant. So long as they didn’t trouble the authorities, the mountain peoples were generally left alone. In Lary’s words, ‘The Chinese world stopped well before the borderlands.’23 (Things would change. This is the same border that thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese soldiers died fighting over in 1979.)

In 1928, the first Chinese geographer Zhu Kezhen declared that Chinese cartography was about a century behind its European counterpart. At the time, most of the publicly available maps were still based on 200-year-old surveys from the early Qing period. In January 1930, the government issued an official ‘Inspection Regulations for Land and Water Maps’ (Shuilu ditu shencha tiaoli), instructing the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Foreign Ministry, the Marine Ministry, the Ministry of Education, and the Committee of Mongolia and Tibet to work together to regularise the country’s cartography. Nothing actually happened, however, until 7 June 1933, when the official ‘Land and Water Maps Review Committee’ held its first meeting.


The re-invention of Taiwan and the South China Sea question

The man who re-invented the South China Sea and caused China to claim non-existent islands hundreds of kilometers from its shores was a Manchu who probably never went to sea in his life. Bai Meichu was born into relatively humble origins in 1876 in Hebei province, 200 kilometers due east of the Forbidden City.

He became a schoolteacher and then a teacher of teachers at the Women’s Normal School in Tianjin. There he taught, among others, Deng Yingchao, a future senior cadre in the Communist Party and the wife of Zhou Enlai. At the same time, he was becoming a pioneer in the new subject of geography. This was not yet geography as the later generation of the above-mentioned Zhu Kezhen, and Zhang Qiyun would come to define it but a hybrid of old ideas and new nationalism.

In 1909 Bai became one of the ‘China Earth-Study Society’ (Zhongguo di li xue hui 中國地理學會#). According to the historian Tze-ki Hon, none of its members had any professional training in the subject. Instead, they recruited members from the old literati. Like Bai, they were people who had once expected to join the scholar-bureaucracy but were now struggling to adapt.24 

Members of the China Earth-Study Society were also profoundly influenced by Social-Darwinism. In the first issue of their ‘Earth-Study Journal’ (Dixue Zazhi) they collectively declared: ‘The cause [of the rise and fall of power] is due to the level of geographical knowledge each group. Thus, the level of geographical knowledge directly impacts a country, and it can cause havoc to a race. It is indeed [a manifestation of] the natural law of selection based on competition.’ In other words, the size of any group’s territory ebbed and flowed depending on its relative civilization. In society's view, China had advanced early but then retreated in the face of Western advances. The only way to regain strength was to master geography. In the words of Bai himself in 1913, ‘Loving the nation is the top priority in learning geography while building the nation is what learning Geography is for.’25

Bai was the first Chinese to draw a map of the South China Sea in his New Atlas of China’s Construction in 1936 and have been taught in Chinese schools since the 1940s while using a British example.

Thus James Shoal (off Borneo), Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), and Seahorse Shoal (off the Philippines) are drawn as islands, yet in reality, they are underwater features. Almost none of the islands that Bai drew in the central and southern parts of the South China Sea actually:

The ‘Land and Water Maps Review Committee’ did not have the capacity to undertake its own surveys, however. Instead, it undertook a table-top exercise: analyzing maps produced by others and forming a consensus about names.

When it came to the South China Sea, it is clear from the committee’s conclusions that its leading references were British, which had far-reaching consequences. On 21 December 1934, the Review Committee held its twenty-fifth meeting and agreed on Chinese names for 132 South China Sea features. All of them were translations or transliterations of the names marked on British maps. For example, in the Paracels, Antelope Reef became Lingyang jiao, and Money Island became Jinyin dao (金銀島 Jīn yín Dǎo) – both direct translations.

We know exactly where the committee’s list of island names came from. It contains several mistakes, which are only found in one other document: the ‘China Sea Directory’ published by the UK Hydrographic Office in 1906. This British list is the origin of all the names now used by China. Some of the names on the list had Chinese origins, such as Subi Reef in the Spratlys, while others had Malay origins (such as Passu Keah in the Paracels). Still, British navigators coined more than 90 percent translating these names caused some difficulties and a legacy that disturbs the region to this day.


Is China prepared to go to war over a translation mistake?

The committee members were confused by the English words ‘bank’ and ‘shoal.’ Both words mean an area of the shallow sea: the former describes a raised area of the sea bed, the latter is a nautical expression derived from Old English meaning ‘shallow.’

However, the committee chose to translate both into Chinese as tan, which has the ambiguous translation of ‘sandbank,’ a feature that might be above or below water. Sea Horse Shoal, off the Philippines, was dubbed Haima Tan; James Shoal, just 100 kilometers off the coast of Borneo, was given the name Zengmu tan, and Vanguard Bank, off the southeastern coast of Vietnam, was given the name Qianwei tan. Zengmu is simply the transliteration of ‘James,’ Haima is the Chinese for seahorse. Qianwei is a translation of ‘vanguard’ and tan, as mentioned above, is the erroneous translation of ‘bank’ and ‘shoal.’ As a result of this bureaucratic mistake, these underwater features, along with several others, were turned into islands in the Chinese imagination. Ultimately this screw-up is the reason why the Sapura Esperanza was harassed while drilling for gas near the James Shoal eighty-five years later. China is prepared to go to war over a translation mistake.

The committee conferred the Chinese name Tuansha on the Spratlys. The name vaguely translates as ‘area of sand.’ In 1935 however, neither the committee nor the Chinese government was prepared to claim the Spratlys.

A turning point for Bai, like so many other intellectuals of the time, was the Versailles peace conference's outcome in 1919. The decision to hand over the former German enclave in Shandong to Japan enraged students and the Earth-Study Society members. Their journal carried several articles denouncing the decision and urging the government to prevent the expansion of Japanese influence on the peninsula.

At around this time, Bai became a mentor to a young Li Dazhao, who had also studied at Jingsheng College and would become one of the founders of the Communist Party in 1921. It is possible that some of Bai’s energetic views on geography and national territory were passed directly into the communist movement.26

In 1929 Bai lost his teaching post at Beijing Normal University and moved to the women’s equivalent, instead. In 1935 he left university teaching altogether.

By chance, he came across the ‘Programme for National Reconstruction’ (Jianguo fanglue)  that Sun Yat-sen had published in 1920, during his time in the political wilderness. This book inspired him to devote his remaining years to Sun’s mission from Bai's own account: from Bai's own account using geography to enable national reconstruction.

In 1936 Bai gave the world his lasting legacy: a line drawn through the South China Sea. It was included in a new book of maps, the New Atlas of China’s Construction (Zhonghua jianshe xin tu), that Bai published for schools. He included some of the new information about place names and frontiers agreed upon by the government’s Maps Review Committee, published the year before. As was typical of maps of this period, the atlas was, in many places, a work of fiction. A bright red borderline stretched around the country, neatly dividing China from its neighbors. The line was Mongolia, Tibet, and Manchuria, plus several other areas that weren’t actually under the republican government's control. However, the fictitiousness reached spectacular levels when it came to the South China Sea.

It is clear that Bai was quite unfamiliar with the South China Sea geography and undertook no survey work of his own. Instead, he copied other maps and added dozens of errors of his own making – errors that continue to cause problems to this day. Like the Maps Review Committee, he was completely confused by the portrayal of shallow water areas on British and foreign maps. Taking his cue from the names on the committee’s 1934 list, he drew solid lines around these features and colored them in, visually rendering them on his map as islands when in reality, they were underwater. He conjured an entire island group into existence across the sea center and labeled it the Nansha Qundao – the ‘South Sands Archipelago.’ Further south, parallel with the Philippines coast, he dabbed a few dots on the map and labeled them the Tuansha Qundao, the ‘Area of Sand Archipelago.’ However, at its furthest extent, he drew three islands, outlined in black and colored in pink: Haima Tan (Sea Horse Shoal), Zengmu Tan (James Shoal), and Qianwei Tan (Vanguard Bank).

Thus, the underwater ‘shoals’ and ‘banks’ became above-water ‘sandbanks’ in Bai’s imagination and on the map's physical rendering, he then added innovation of his own: the same national border that he had drawn around Mongolia, Tibet, and the rest of ‘Chinese’ territory snaked around the South China Sea as far east as Sea Horse Shoal, south as James Shoal and as far southwest as Vanguard Bank. Bai’s meaning was clear: the bright red line marked his ‘scientific’ understanding of China’s rightful claims. This was the very first time that such a line had been drawn on a Chinese map. Bai’s view of China’s claims in the South China Sea was not based upon the Review Committee’s view of the situation, nor that of the Foreign Ministry. The result of the confusion generated by Admiral Li Zhun’s interventions in the Spratly crisis of 1933, combined with the nationalist imagination of a redundant geographer without formal academic training. This was Bai Meichu’s contribution to Sun Yat-sen’s mission of national reconstruction.

According to the Taiwanese academic Hurng-Yu Chen, ‘Director-General of the Ministry of the Interior Fu Chiao-chin . . . stated that the publications on the  sovereignty of the islands in the South China Sea by Chinese institutions and schools before the Anti-Japanese War should serve as a guidance regarding the territorial restoration issue.’ In other words, the government would be guided by putative claims made in newspapers in the 1930s. The meeting agreed that the entire Spratly archipelago should be claimed. Still, given that only Itu Aba (Taiping Dao) had been physically occupied, the claim should wait until other islands had actually been visited. This never happened, but the claim was asserted nonetheless.

A key part of asserting the claim was to make the names of the features in the sea sound more  Chinese. In October 1947, the RoC Ministry of the Interior issued a new list of island names. New, grand-sounding titles replaced most of the 1935 translations and transliterations. For example, the Chinese name for Spratly Island was changed from Si-ba-la-tuo to Nanwei (Noble South), and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ka-ba-luo (the transliteration) to Minzhu jiao (Democracy Reef). Vanguard Bank’s Chinese name was changed from Qianwei tan to Wan’an tan (Ten Thousand Peace Bank). The name for Luconia Shoals was shortened from Lu-kang-ni-ya to just Kang, which means ‘health.’ This process was repeated across the archipelagos, largely concealing the foreign origins of most of the names. A few did survive, however. In the Paracels, ‘Money Island’ kept its Chinese name of Jinyin Dao and Antelope Reef remained Lingyang Jiao. To this day, the two names celebrate a manager and a ship of the East India Company, respectively.

At this point, the ministry seems to have recognized its earlier problem with the translations of ‘shoal’ and ‘bank.’.’ In contrast, in the past, it had used the Chinese word tan to stand in for both (with unintended geopolitical consequences), in 1947 it coined a new word, ansha (Ànshā) – literally ‘hidden sand’ – as a replacement. This neologism was appended to several submerged features, including James Shoal, which was renamed Zengmu Ansha.

In December 1947, the ‘Bureau of Measurements’ of the Ministry of Defence printed an official ‘Location Map of the South China Sea Islands’, almost identical to the ‘Sketch Map’ that Zheng Ziyue had drawn a year and a half before. It included the ‘U-shaped line’ made up of eleven dashes encircling the area down to the James Shoal. In February 1948, that map was published as part of the Atlas of Administrative Areas of the Republic of China. The U-shaped line – with an implicit claim to every feature within it – became the official position.

Therefore, it was not until 1948 that the Chinese state formally extended its territorial claim in the South China Sea to the Spratly Islands, as far south as James Shoal. Clearly, something had changed in the years between July 1933, when the Republic of China government was unaware that the Spratly Islands existed, and April 1947, when it could ‘reaffirm’ that its territory's southernmost point was James Shoal. What seems to have happened is that, in the chaos of the 1930s and the Second World War, a new memory came to be formed in the minds of officials about what had actually happened in the 1930s. It seems that officials and geographers managed to confuse the real protest issued by the RoC government against French activities in the Paracels in 1932 with a non-existent protest against French activities in the Spratlys in 1933. Further confusion was caused by the intervention of Admiral Li Zhun and his assertion that the islands annexed by France in 1933 were indisputably Chinese.

The imagined claim conjured up by the confusion between different island groups in that crisis became the real territorial claim.

Pratas's islands now a conservation zone, from where visitors can send postcards back home from a mailbox guarded by a cheerful-looking plastic shark. Not far away is a new science exhibition explaining the natural history of the coral reef and its rich marine life.

Overlooking the parade ground (which doubles as a rainwater trap) stands a golden statue of Chiang Kai-shek in his sun hat, and behind him is a little museum in what looks like a scaled-up child’s sandcastle.

This museum holds, in effect, the key to resolving the South China Sea disputes. Its assertion of Chinese claims to the islets actually demonstrates the difference between nationalist cartography and real administration. Bai Meichu may have drawn a red line around various non-existent islands in 1936 and claimed them as Chinese, but no Chinese official had ever visited those places. The maps and documents on the museum walls tell the RoC expedition's story to Itu Aba in  December 1946 and a confrontation with some Philippine adventurers in 1956. Still, in the absence of any other evidence, the museum demonstrates that China never occupied or controlled all islands. In the Paracels, it occupied one, or just a few, until 1974, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) forces invaded and expelled the Vietnamese garrison. In the Spratlys, the RoC occupied just one or two. The PRC took control of six reefs in 1988 and another in 1994.

In the meantime, the other countries around the South China Sea – Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia – took control of other features. The real history of physical presence in the archipelagos shows how partial any state’s claim actually is.

The current mess of rival occupations is, with some exceptions, the only one that has ever existed. Understanding this opens a route to resolving the South China Sea disputes. By examining the historical evidence of occupations, the rival claimants should understand that there are no grounds for them to claim sovereignty over everything. They should recognize that other states have solid claims to certain features and agree to compromise. 


Conclusion:  Taking the long view

Over the last two decades, China has moved from the periphery to the very center of the world’s international relations. Given that China’s economy is now more than five times as large as it was at the turn of the millennium, that transition is hardly surprising. But many of China’s new international relationships, initially hopeful, have now turned hostile. China still has some down-at-the-heels allies, such as Pakistan and North Korea, but it is increasingly isolated from the developed countries that alone can facilitate its continued economic growth.

For China, that means trouble. Its promises are no longer taken seriously, and its propaganda falls on deaf ears. Many of its Belt and Road Initiative projects have ground to a halt. Virtually no one supports its nine-dash line in the South China Sea, and Western countries have been lining up to offer immigration pathways to professionals fleeing Hong Kong after Beijing’s takeover last year. Many countries have banned China’s Huawei and ZTE from their telecommunications networks. And India, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are all modernizing their armed forces in response to potential Chinese threats.

Under these circumstances, the best thing that U.S. President Joe Biden can do to stem the rising tide of Chinese expansionism is … nothing. China’s red tide is already rolling out all on its own. Biden can afford to pursue a policy of “masterly inactivity,” relying on China’s own aggressive foreign policy to further isolate the country from the rest of the world. Instead of increasing the pressure on China, now is the time for him to lighten up a bit.

The worst thing Biden could do is put so much pressure on China that its leaders lash out because they feel they have nothing to lose. That was arguably what happened in 1941 when the United States successfully countered Japanese expansionism with military aid to China, a trade embargo, and the freezing of Japanese assets in the U.S. banking system. Japan wasn’t on the rise in 1941; it was on the wane. Bogged down in China, checked by the Soviet Union in a little-remembered conflict in Mongolia, and increasingly squeezed by U.S. economic sanctions, Japan’s leaders recklessly sought a kantai kessen (“decisive battle”) with a naval strike at Pearl Harbor. They saw no other way to forestall a long, smothering defeat.

Of course, what Japan’s leaders got instead was a decisive, blood-soaked defeat. But today, no one except the hardest of hard-liners wants to see China defeated. That kind of language makes no practical sense. Short of a world war, there is no way for anyone outside China to dislodge Chinese Communist Party leadership from its headquarters in central Beijing. A more sensible goal for the United States and its allies would be to see China return to the slow liberalization trajectory it was arguably following before President Xi Jinping took power as the party’s leader at the end of 2012. And that’s a goal that China must be convinced to choose for itself.

As long as China’s leaders remain convinced that all of their problems stem from Washington’s ill will, reform is unlikely. Today, they seem to completely buy into their own narrative that the United States is a petulant former superpower too proud to gracefully stand aside while China takes its rightful place at the top of the world. But as China finds itself at odds with more and more countries, often with no connection to U.S. pressure, its leaders may eventually get the message. Whatever the future of their relationship with the United States, the other countries of the world have their own reservations about Chinese hegemony.

Australia’s fight with China over the former’s efforts to restrict foreign influence, Japan’s standoff with China over the Senkaku Islands, India’s actual battle with China in Ladakh, none of these were prompted by U.S. arrogance. Nor was the South China Sea dispute, which pits China against no fewer than five of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Beyond its immediate region, China is now also arguing with European countries over human rights, with Latin American countries over illegal fishing, and with African countries over-development debts. At some point, it must dawn on China’s leadership that these problems have little or nothing to do with the United States, and everything to do with their own provocative behavior.

The most effective way the Biden administration can help drive home that message is to mind its own business. Each of these countries has its own reasons to be unhappy with China. They don’t need U.S. encouragement, and it would only muddy the waters to offer support. For all Biden’s talk of working with allies and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s pledge to hold China “accountable for its abuses of the international system,” they should resist the temptation to try to solve other countries’ China problems. The truest love the United States can offer the world on China right now is the tough love of encouraging other countries to stand up for themselves.

Biden shouldn’t try to out former President Donald Trump by showing he is even tougher on China. If Biden really wants to differentiate his China policy, he should sit back and let history take its course. While keeping sensible restrictions on Chinese access to U.S. advanced technologies, he should consider pulling back in areas where the Trump administration arguably overreached. A good first step might be to reverse the steel and aluminum tariffs aimed at China that have hurt friendly countries such as Japan and Taiwan. He could also lift Trump’s visa limitations on members of the Chinese Communist Party, which are almost entirely symbolic and nearly impossible to enforce. Such measures would establish a more conciliatory tone in U.S.-Chinese relations without relieving any of the pressure Beijing faces for reform.

As for the above-mentioned Taiwan Relations Act, which made clear that the United States maintained special commitments to Taiwan.

When Sen. Rick Scott asked Asia Pacific commander Philip Davidson whether it was time for the U.S. to "state clearly that we are not going to allow communist China to invade and subdue Taiwan," Davidson did not shoot it down.

"I wake up every day, you know, trying to assess the dynamic nature of the geostrategic environment, and you know, frankly, we ought to be thinking about these things every day," Davidson said.

"I would submit that we have got more than 40 years of the strategic ambiguity, as you know, has helped keep Taiwan and its current status, but you know these things should be reconsidered routinely," he said, adding, "I would look forward to the conversation."

Whereby as another potential warning to China, Davidson said that while India may remain committed to its nonaligned approach for the immediate future,  he thinks the country will deepen its engagement with the Quad. "I think that's a key strategic opportunity for us, Australia, and Japan," he said.

In a CNN report also quoted as saying: "I see them developing systems, capabilities and a posture that would indicate that they're interested in aggression."

Meanwhile, the US has confirmed a high-level meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska next week.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior foreign policy official, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan plans to discuss a range of issues with their Chinese counterparts.

The meeting, slated for Thursday will take place after US President Joe Biden takes part in a summit with the leaders of Japan, India, and Australia, which together with the US form an alliance known as the Quad. Blinken and Sullivan will use the meeting with Yang and Wang to address a range of issues, including those where the two sides have “deep disagreements.”

The trip comes as the Biden administration has tried to highlight Washington’s alliances as an essential part of its strategy to counter a rising China, a contrast to the Trump administration’s more transactional approach to those relationships.

Even still, at the House Armed Services hearing on Wednesday, a top Pentagon official overseeing China policy insisted to lawmakers that the US was not asking any countries in the region to “choose” between Washington and Beijing.

“We welcome and encourage all nations across the Indo-Pacific to maintain peaceful, productive relations with all of their neighbors, China included,” said David Helvey, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

Instead, Helvey said, the fundamental choice for nations now is between two different international orders: the existing one that is free and open, and another, pushed by Beijing, that is authoritarian and closed. Whereby as we have explained above it is doubtful the Chinese delegation will agree with the latter charcterization.


1. Zhang Han, ‘China Strengthens Map Printing Rules, Forbidding Publications Printed For Overseas Clients From Being Circulated in the Country’, Global Times, 17 February 2019.

2.  Laurie Chen, ‘Chinese City Shreds 29,000 Maps Showing Taiwan as a Country’, South China Morning Post, 25 March 2019,

3. After he entered the Forbidden City, Ricci wrote: “The great courtyards in the Forbidden City palace … could have held 30,000 people, and the emperor’s elephants, the 3,000 royal guards, and the huge walls all increased the sense of majesty and power,” according to The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by US historian Jonathan Spence. See also Zhu Yon, Yuanlu Qu Zhongguo (Long Way to China), which was published in Chinese in 2019.

4. James D. Richardson, ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Washington: Govt. print. off., 1896), v. 4, p. 211-214. House Journal 27-3, p.122-124; House Document 27-3, no. 35, Fiche 420

5. Charles Maurice Wiltse and Harold D. Moser, eds., The Papers of Daniel Webster: Diplomatic Papers V. 1 (Hanover, N.H.: Published for Dartmouth College by the University Press of New England, 1974), 900.; Richardson, ed., Messages and Papers, v. 4, p. 211-214.

6. See Mark Bassin, “Expansion and Colonialism on the Eastern Frontier: Views of Siberia and the Far East in Pre-Petrine Russia,” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 1 (January 1988): 3–21, doi:10.1016/S0305-7488(88)80124-5; and for the nineteenth century, Mark Bassin, Imperial Visions : Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840-1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

7. Narrative of the Expedition of An American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan Under the Command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy. Compiled at His Request and under His Supervision, by Francis L. Hawks. Abridged and Edited by Sidney Wallach, 1952, 62.

8. See George Alexander Lensen, The Russian Push Toward Japan: Russo-Japanese Relations, 1697-1875, 1971.

9. Matthew Calbraith Perry and Roger Pineau, The Japan Expedition. 1852-1854; the Personal Journal of Commodore Matthew C. Perry (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968), 138.

10. Narrative of the Expedition of An American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan Under the Command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy. Compiled at His Request and under His Supervision, by Francis L. Hawks. Abridged and Edited by Sidney Wallach, 1952, 303.

11. See George Alexander Lensen, The Russian Push Toward Japan: Russo-Japanese Relations, 1697-1875,1971, 337.

12. Alan M. Wachman, Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 69. 8.  Ibid., pp. 50–60. 9.  S.C.M. Paine, Imperial Rivals: China, Russia, and Their Disputed Frontier, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, p. 352.

13. S.C.M. Paine, Imperial Rivals: China, Russia, and Their Disputed Frontier, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, p. 352.

14. Marie-Claire Bergère (trans. Janet Lloyd), Sun Yat-sen, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 92–6.

15. Shi-Chi Mike Lan, ‘The Ambivalence of National Imagination: Defining “The Taiwanese” in China, 1931–1941’, China Journal, 64 (2010), p. 179.

16. Hsiang-po Lee, ‘Rural-Mass Education Movement In China, 1923–1937, PhD thesis, University of Ohio, 1970, pp. 60–61.

17. Robert Culp, Articulating Citizenship: Civic Education and Student Politics in Southeastern China, 1912–1940, Cambridge, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 85–7.

18. Chen Zhihong.“'Climate's Moral Economy': Geography, Race, and the Han in Early Republican China.” In Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China's Majority, edited by Thomas S. Mullaney, James Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Van den Bussche, pp. 80–81.

19. Peter Zarrow, Educating China: Knowledge, Society and Textbooks in a Modernizing World, 1902–1937,2015, p. 242.

20. William A. Callahan, ‘The Cartography of National Humiliation and the Emergence of China’s Geobody’, Public Culture, 21/1 (2009).

21. Alan M. Wachman, Why Taiwan?: Geostrategic Rationales for China's Territorial Integrity (Studies in Asian Security), 2007, p. 86.

22. Laura Hostetler, Qing Colonial Enterprise: Ethnography and Cartography in Early Modern China, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 117–20.

23. Diana Lary, ‘A Zone of Nebulous Menace: The Guangxi/Indochina Border in the Republican Period’, in Diana Lary (ed.), The Chinese State at the Borders, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007.

24. Wu Feng-ming, ‘On the new Geographic Perspectives and Sentiment of High Moral Character of Geographer Bai Meichu in Modern China’, Geographical Research (China), 30/11, 2011, pp. 2109–14.

25. Ibid., p. 2113.

26. Tsung-Han Tai and Chi-Ting Tsai, ‘The Legal Status of the U-shaped Line Revisited from the Perspective of Inter-temporal Law’, in Szu-shen Ho and Kuan-Hsiung Wang (eds), A Bridge Over Troubled Waters: Prospects for Peace in the South and East China Seas, Taipei: Prospect Foundation, 2014, pp. 177–208.


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