— Bill Hayton (@billthesceptic) March 16, 2014
My personal response to above message from @billthesceptic to me on Twitter:
Thank you for your suggestion for me to read your insight opinion published on South China Morning Post website. I appreciate your effort in checking and writing on the above topic. While there is some guess in your published opinion, in my personal knowledge I would like to point out a few things:
1. Your article’s title is “How a non-existent island became China’s southernmost territory” – this statement itself is half correct (or half incorrect): while China regards James Shoal as its southernmost territory, it doesn’t see it as and island, thus it is not regarded as an “non-existent island” because everyone is clear it is not an island. It is “Zengmu Ansha”, the name used since 1947 and correctly corresponds to the feature’s English name James Shoal.
2. While discussing, referring, and studying about the Spratly Islands, for long time people (including laymen and academics and political persons) have tended to regard this as a group in their reference to it. You effort to single out the Zengmu Ansha and discuss about its property and rights based on today’s understanding is nothing wrong, but is not so helpful regarding the overall dispute solving. Please do not forget that not far north of Zengmu Ansha, there are a few other features like the South and North Luconia Shoals which are also included in the Chinese government maps in 1935, 1946 and 1947.
3. China has regarded the Spratly Islands features as territory belonging to itself and published maps in 1935, and revised in 1947 to announce sovereignty over these island features. I am not sure at that time, before United Nations Conventions on the Law of Seas existed, these type of territory like “Shoal” was regarded as a territory and should be regarded as “territory” or not then. But judging a shoal as non-territory today is somewhat unfair to something then. Some more, the dispute is not settled today so no conclusion is accepted universal yet.
4. Regarding your guess and opinion that “The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.” There is something I can share with you: long before the English name “James Shoal” or “Tseng-mu shoal” was made, Chinese fishermen from Hainan have been calling this place as Shapai [“沙排”] which is a correct description of this type of feature – a coral reef which does not surface out of the water level even during low tide. While I have not researched on the detailed process how the 1935 Land and Water Investigation Map Committee gave names to these islands, reefs, shoals and I will not say a conclusion based on guessing. However in 1947 the revised name correctly corresponds “Ansha” to shoal and the name has been used since then till this date. In fact the names revising was an ongoing process as more knowledge was gained, even in 1983 some more changes were made, Chinese finshermen’s “更路簿” (Clocked Route Book) and names given by the Chinese fishermen contributed to many of the names in Spratly Islands, even the British， Japanese used names called by the Chinese fishermen working in the area or on the islands. Many of the English names were translation from Hainanese dialect itself.
5. Your claim that “By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.” is giving too much weight to the naming of Zengmu Ansha itself, whether it was a translation error in 1935 or not, and which was corrected in 1946 and 1947.
If China (ROC and then PRC) were powerful enough to safeguard its territory claim by stationing troops earlier than the later claimants like Philippines and Malaysia came in to claim because these islands are within “their 200nm EEZ”, or “proximity”, or like Thomas Cloma’s “discovery” claim in 1950s these were “terra nullius“, I believe it will be a much different picture today. And the same UNCLOS principles to be applied would be interpreted in another way , the correct way – these islands proper should be given their EEZ and thus the coastal countries like Philippines’ using EEZ to claim China’s islands will be too obviously a nonsense – yet so much favored in the country itself and supported by some biased media.