On a list of things that wouldn’t surprise me, Beijing abusing history is pretty high (via The Diplomat):
Historically, China was the dominant power in East Asia and considered lesser powers as its tributaries. By insisting now on territorial claims that reflect a historical relationship that vanished hundreds of years ago with the rise of the West, Beijing is, in a sense, attempting to revive and legitimize a situation where it was the unchallenged hegemon.
The ambiguity about what parts of international law China recognizes and which bits it doesn’t gives rise to the current dispute, which directly involves Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and indirectly involves the interests of many other nations.
The claims made by Southeast Asian countries rest primarily on the provisions of the Law of the Sea. China, however, is taking the position that its sovereignty over the territories concerned precedes the enactment of the Law of the Sea, and so the law doesn’t apply. History trumps law.
In 2009, China submitted a map to the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea in support of its claims to ‘indisputable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and the adjacent waters’ as well as ‘the seabed and subsoil thereof.’
The map featured a U-shaped dotted line that encompassed virtually the entire South China Sea and hugged the coasts of neighbouring countries including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. This was the first time China had submitted a map to the United Nations in support of its territorial claims, but there was no explanation given as to whether it claimed all the waters as well as the islands enclosed by the dotted line.
China’s resort to history is a relatively new development in international law, although it isn’t completely unprecedented. For example, coastal states have been allowed to claim extended jurisdiction over waters, especially bays or islands, when those claims have been open and long-standing, exclusive, and widely accepted by other states.
In China’s case, however, its claims are evidently neither exclusive nor widely accepted by other states since they are being openly contested. Still, Chinese officials and scholars have attempted to buttress their arguments by appealing to historical records.
For example, Li Guoqiang, a research scholar with the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences wrote in July in the China Daily: ‘Historical evidence shows that Chinese people discovered the islands in the South China Sea during the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties.’ China’s maritime boundary, he asserts, was established by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
‘In contrast,’ he wrote, ‘Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines hardly knew anything about the islands in the South China Sea before China’s Qing Dynasty.’
Vietnam, in pressing its case, has cited maps and geography attesting to its ‘historical sovereignty’ over the Paracel and Spratly islands going back to the 17th century. This doesn’t match the antiquity of China’s claims, but, at the very least, it shows that Chinese claims have been contested for centuries, and that China didn’t enjoy exclusive and continuous jurisdiction over these islands.
And, if history is to be the criterion, which period of history should be decisive? After all, if the Qin or Han dynasty is to be taken as the benchmark, then China’s territory today would be much smaller, since at the time it had not yet acquired Tibet, Xinjiang or Manchuria.