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-by Ernie Diaz
Citizens of the world may find it refreshing to have a Chinese city grabbing attention for being new, rather than ancient. Citizens of superpowers, probably not. China just announced the birth of its newest city, Sansha, not 200 nautical miles south of Hainan Island. Of course this birth was planned, and will bring Mother China much joy. The city will grow into an ever-larger claim on her sovereignty over the Xisha, Zhongsha, and Nansha Islands, otherwise known as the Paracel, Macclesfield Bank, and Spratly.
But it would be unseemly to boast of such obvious, indelicate purposes for a newborn. For now, the Chinese press is gushing over the great plans for tourism in Sansha and its outlying islands, beautiful in turquoise and ivory, but also lacking the infrastructure to attract any tourist save a passing seabird. Any vacation amenities requiring more than tortoise shells and guano will have to be imported. Imported, then distributed to a sparse 13 square kilometers of total land, pin-dotting an eternal two million square kilometers of South China Sea.
The Xisha Islands are the most bustling of these three scattered micro-pelagos, and closest to China (although equally close to Vietnam – don’t even get Nguyen started.) The Xisha Islands boast over three thousand people on its 22 islets, the largest, Yongxing, sprawling over two square kilometers, and thus large enough to host Sansha.
Another two hundred nautical miles east of Yongxing Island lie the Zhongsha Islands, entirely submerged, save for a handful of rocky shoals only particularly optimistic crabs count as dry land. Crabs and Chinese officials, who call the largest shoal, an amoeba-shaped ring of sand and coral, “Huangyan Island”.
Finally, and much further south, lie the Spratleys Nansha, more than 750 little protrusions, four square kilometers’ worth, over half a million square kilometers of tropical ocean. No people, lots of fish. From Zengmu Reef, the southernmost protrusion, you could lob coconuts onto Malaysian sunbathers. Nonetheless, Vietnam and China are the two nations trading fire to claim Nansha’s islets.
The aggression springs from lust for power, political and geological. Oil and natural gas aplenty percolate beneath the vast sea beds surrounding these islands. Politically – hey – he who controls the islands controls the South China Sea, if indeed having naval dominance means squat anymore in this age of drone-assassinations and Stuxnet worms.
It means much more than squat to China, but then again a Hummer is still a mark of distinction here, rather than a target of derision. Also important to China is that the rest of the world understand its ancient and indisputable claims to these far-flung, desolate scraps of land. They’re in the South China Sea, for God’s sake! More supporting evidence:
110 BCE – The Han Dynasty sets up a military garrison on Hainan island, then abandons it, sensibly declaring it expensive and useless. But many dispossessed people of South China, particularly the Li, set up on Hainan. Among them, the occasional fisherman will find himself drifting by the Xisha Islands, Old Man and the Sea style.
971 CE – A Chinese chronicle published in 1044 claims that in this year the Song Dynasty navy patrolled the Xisha Islands. Floating claims of not just Song but Tang “cultural relics” since discovered on the Islands circulate, but one can’t help thinking if these were more than palm tree splinters resembling chopsticks, Xinhua would have been trumpeting said relics in headlines.
1279 CE – On Zhongshan Isle did Kublai Khan a stately star-watching dome decree. He sent astronomer Guo Shoujing to survey both these hardly-there-islands, and the matchless southern skies above. Yuan Shi, the Yuan Dynasty history of record, claims that these islands were within the bounds of the empire, as were the Nansha.
1873 – After hundreds of years of Portuguese, Dutch, and French sailors claiming the Paracels and Spratlys with all the passion of a noodle shop patron claiming a bottle of soy sauce, British naval captain James George Meads proclaims the latter a micronation, the venerable Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads. Descendants of his are still trying to lay title to the areas’ resources, which does nothing for the Chinese claim, but does put the whole business of fighting over deserted rocks in perspective.
1883 – Germans busily survey the Paracel and Spratly isles. The Qing government strongly protests and asks that they stop. The Germans do, so obviously it’s Qing territory. In 1887, the Sino-French treaty draws the Sino-Tonkin border line, declaring all land east of it the property of China. The Paracel and Spratly islands are east of that line. Case closed?
1946 – With those pesky Japanese at last driven back home, Nationalist China formally retakes the Paracels and Spratlies. Hey – the islands belong to Taiwan! Isn’t that nice, China? Hello?
January 19th, 1974 – After a tense standoff in the Paracels, the Chinese and Vietnamese navies engage in a forty-minute donnybrook, leaving China victorious over its Xisha territory. But now we’re far from ancient claim and into modern strife, where we still fight just as viciously (and pathetically) over what can never be owned, so much as borrowed.