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What’s in a Name? South China Sea Claimants Seek to Remove ‘China’


Indonesian President Joko Widodo onboard the Indonesian Navy ship KRI Imam Bonjol during a visit to the waters of Natuna Islands, Riau Islands, Indonesia, 23 June 2016. (EPA/AGUS SUPARTO / PRESIDENTIAL PALACE / HANDOUT)

Some nations have renamed parts of the South China Sea to strengthen their claims over the disputed waterway. But how much effect do such changes have on territorial disagreements?

Indonesia is the latest country to take such action. Officials there recently released a new map showing the renamed North Natuna Sea. The sea, northwest of Borneo island, includes an internationally recognized economic zone belonging to Indonesia.

China claims territory that overlaps part of Indonesia’s economic zone. Last month, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited the disputed sea area. His visit came a week after an Indonesian navy ship fired warning shots at Chinese fishing boats in the area.

Officials from Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries launch the new map renaming part of the South China Sea to the North Natuna Sea. (Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries)
Officials from Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries launch the new map renaming part of the South China Sea to the North Natuna Sea. (Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries)

The visit was seen as an attempt to send China a message that Indonesia is committed to protecting its economic zones. Foreign policy experts say Indonesia’s renaming of part of the South China Sea was also meant to send that message.

The name change drew immediate criticism from China. A foreign ministry spokesman said it was “meaningless” for any nation to change the sea’s name. The spokesman added that “South China Sea” was widely accepted by the United Nations and international community.

China’s claims are based on its so-called “nine-dash line.” China says the line, first added to a Chinese map 70 years ago, dates back about 2,000 years. It uses the line to define its historical territorial claims, which cover most parts of the South China Sea.

But last year, a world arbitration court ruled China had “no legal basis” for its claims. That ruling was based on the United Nations Law of the Sea.

A ship (top) of the Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of the Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off shore of Vietnam May 14, 2014.
A ship (top) of the Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of the Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off shore of Vietnam May 14, 2014.

Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam also claim parts of the South China Sea. This has led to disputes between China and some of its neighbors. In some areas, China has created artificial islands and built military facilities.

Indonesia is not considered an official claimant in the South China Sea dispute. But it has clashed with China over fishing rights around the North Natuna Sea area.

Le Hong Hiep is a researcher at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. He says Indonesia’s name change is another example of South China Sea claimants responding to continued Chinese expansion.

“To some people, especially in China, when the sea is called the South China Sea, it naturally entitles China some rights, which is false. If the South China Sea belongs to China, then the Indian Ocean belongs to India, for example.”

Le noted that other countries in the region have also used different names for the South China Sea. Vietnam calls it the East Sea, while the Philippines calls it the West Philippine Sea.

In this April 21, 2017, photo, an airstrip and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130.
In this April 21, 2017, photo, an airstrip and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130.

Calling the sea by any other names has not slowed China’s South China Sea expansion. But some experts do believe the names can have symbolic value.

Euan Graham is with the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. He says if more nations change names, it could show more of a unified effort to resist Chinese moves.

“If you connect the dots, China I think will receive the message that Southeast Asia has not rolled over in the way that it might have hoped and expected.”

Another example of a sea name dispute is the Sea of Japan. The Japanese archipelago separates the sea from the Pacific Ocean. It also borders on South Korea, North Korea and Russia.

South Korea calls the waters the East Sea, while North Korea uses the term East Sea of Korea. Seoul argues that “East Sea” dates back some 2,000 years, but Japan renamed it during its decades-long colonial rule of Korea.

South Korea sent the issue to the International Hydrographic Organization, which considers territorial sea disputes. But the organization has not chosen to order an official name change.

According to Japan’s foreign ministry, “Sea of Japan” is “the only internationally established name” for the area.

The issue even entered U.S. politics in 2013. Korean Americans pushed for legislation requiring that school textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea. The state of Virginia approved this textbook requirement in 2014.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this for Learning English, based on reports from VOA News, Reuters, the Associated Press and other sources. Hai Do was the editor.

Do you think nations should change the names of disputed areas to push their claims? Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

arbitration – n. process for people or groups to settle disputes

artificial adj. not natural or real

entitlev. give rights to a person, country, etc.

symbolic adj. serving as a symbol or representing something

connect the dots – idiom way to understand the relationship between different ideas or experiences

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