The South China Sea is one of the great connecting oceans of the world, acting as a major conduit of Asian and global trade. It has also been a worrisome site of conflict. In recent years, disputes over territorial claims have led to armed clashes involving China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It has also led to demonstrations. Arguments have spilled into cyberspace: on YouTube, Google Earth, online newspaper articles, and chat rooms, nationalist tempers have flared over their country’s claims to these tiny islands, atolls, and reefs.

Most of the territorial claims over the South China Sea are surprisingly weak, and none is incontestable. Here we must distinguish between arguments over the Paracels, the far-flung cluster of islands, reefs, and atolls closest to China, and those over the Spratlys, a similarly widely spread set of islands further to the south. Only China and Vietnam contest the Paracels, whereas six countries have claims to the Spratlys. Finally, the contemporary bitter arguments over sovereignty in this area repeatedly invoke historical evidence. It is the latter issue that will be the focus of this Policy Commentary.

Bluntly stated, we cannot impose contemporary notions of sovereignty on historical practices before the twentieth century. Despite much misinformation and inflamed rhetoric to the contrary, historical evidence overwhelmingly supports the view that states did not, traditionally, claim exclusive territorial rights over the vast majority of the South China Sea. To the contrary: the area has historically been an Asian maritime commons. What, then, does the historical evidence suggest? And how has argument over this evidence shaped Asian identity politics today?

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