Webinar on “The Invention of China’s South China Sea Claims and Implications for Southeast Asia”

In this webinar, Dr Bill Hayton explains how a failed Chinese official who became a self-taught geography professor and two of his students who became government advisors invented the line in the 1930s and 1940s.


Monday, 11 January 2021 – Dr Bill Hayton kicked off the first webinar of the year under the RSPS Programme titled “The Invention of China’s South China Sea Claims and Implications for Southeast Asia”. Formerly a reporter with BBC with stints in Vietnam and Myanmar, Dr Hayton is an Associate Fellow of Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House in London and has written several books on Southeast Asia. His webinar is based on extensive research on the South China Sea (SCS) that is part of a chapter in his recent book ‘The Invention of China’ (Yale University Press, 2020).

Dr Bill Hayton
Dr Bill Hayton observed how Chinese claims in the SCS evolved between the publication of the 1943 and 1947 editions of the officially-written China Handbook. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his talk, Dr Hayton traced the historical emergence of Chinese sovereignty claims in the SCS, arguing that China’s current stance is partly the result of an erroneously-drawn 1936 map and mistranslations. The latter partly helps to explain why China found itself conducting a naval ceremony in open waters on 10 May 2016 to signal its claim over James Shoal—an underwater feature 22 metres below sea level that had been mistakenly depicted as an island in the 1936 map. In particular, Dr Hayton highlighted the distinctively modern and recent origins of China’s territorial claims. In one instance, he observed how Chinese claims in the SCS evolved between the publication of the 1943 and 1947 editions of the officially-written China Handbook. The authors of the Handbook located China’s southernmost point at the Paracel Islands in the first edition, but this was later extended southwards by 600km to include the Spratly Islands in the second edition. 

According to Dr Hayton, the genesis of the claim that Chinese territory stretched as far as the Spratlys can be attributed to four men: Li Zhun, Bai Meichu, Zheng Ziyue and Fu Jiaojin. Li Zhun was a naval commander based in Guangdong during the twilight of the Qing dynasty who led the 1909 expedition to claim the Paracels on China’s behalf. Following that, Chinese interest in the Paracels were on the wane until the French advanced its claims over six of the Spratly Islands in 1933, which was a completely separate group of islets south of the Paracels. The resulting confusion and panic over the French annexation inadvertently caused China to push its territorial claims southwards with newspaper articles around the time reprinting Li Zhun’s 1909 claim to the Paracels and reinforcing the impression that the islands the French had just annexed were the Paracels. However, Li Zhun and these articles had mistakenly conflated the Paracels and the Spratlys, leading to the popular perception that Chinese sovereign territory encompassed lands that far south. This was compounded by a map produced in 1936 by self-taught geography professor Bai Meichu, which featured a U-shaped red line demarcating Chinese territorial ownership in the SCS. Included within this red line are non-existent “islands” such as the Vanguard Bank, James Shoal and Reed Bank. Dr Hayton surmised that Bai may have made a mistake while reproducing a British map that featured these underwater formations. This error made its way into officialdom through two of Bai’s students, Zheng Ziyue and Fu Jiaojin, who worked in the Republic of China’s ministry of interior and were involved in clarifying the ROC’s post-war territorial claims in the SCS. Significantly, these claims were the subject of internal bureaucratic disagreement in the ROC, with the commander of the ROC’s expedition to the Spratlys expressing doubt about Chinese ownership over the islands. 

In highlighting the relatively modern invention of China’s claims in the SCS, Dr Hayton hopes to  advance the possibility that the legal disputes in the SCS over the ownership of rocks and reefs can be resolved. These disputes have generally been regarded as intractable, particularly due to the overarching nature of the territorial claims advanced by the involved parties, which often extends over entire archipelagoes of islands rather than over specific features. For instance, China asserts its sovereignty over huge swaths of the SCS consisting of various differently-sized islands, reefs, shoals and cays, while Vietnam claims the entirety of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. However, Dr Hayton believes that understanding the historical processes of claim-making allows us to write “little histories” of how specific features in the SCS came to be occupied and administered. Dr Hayton suggested that adopting this granular approach can potentially break the current impasse since it becomes more possible for countries—if they are so inclined—to pursue disaggregated claims over the individual features and formations in the SCS in which they have a historically-grounded presence. 

During the Q&A session, Dr Hayton fielded questions relating to the Chinese and ASEAN-claimant states’ reaction to his research, China’s strategic interest to improve its relations with the Southeast Asian countries by resolving the SCS territorial disputes, the US-China dynamics and possible impact on the South China Sea issue, prospects of ASEAN claimant states working together to disaggregate their claims and recognise one another’s holdings before presenting this outcome to China, and the role of Taiwan in the SCS dispute, amongst others. The webinar was attended by 190 viewers from Singapore and abroad.

Almost 200 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)