THE spectacular ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, which overwhelmingly backed the Philippines against China’s claims in the South China Sea, contained a key point on marine environmental destruction and exploitation. China’s land reclamation and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Tribunal concluded, had caused “severe harm” to coral reefs and fragile ecosystems. The Tribunal also found that Chinese authorities had done nothing to stop Chinese fishermen harvesting endangered marine turtles, coral, and giant clams on a “substantial scale.” This aggressive plunder of the South China Sea is not new; in fact, it is several millennia old.
The South China Sea has linked southern China to Southeast Asia by trade since the 3rd century BCE. Pearls, skins of ray fish, turtle and tortoise shells, mother of pearl, tripang (a type of sea slug) and corals were considered precious and exotic luxuries, and were much sought out by maritime traders and fisher folk of southern China. Their harvests were so bountiful it was said that they made “fields from the sea.” They traded with people from Southeast Asia—Malays, Chams (an ethnic group from Cambodia and central Vietnam), Bugis and Javanese peoples of Indonesia, who also scoured the sea for the same high-value commodities, exchanging them for gold, silks and ceramics brought by the Chinese. The eminent historian, Professor Wang Gungwu, has called this ancient maritime trade between China and Southeast Asia the “Nanhai trade.”
A major impetus for this trade was the establishment of new courts on mainland China which demanded luxuries and treasures. Sailors set a course for Southeast Asia, or the Nanhai countries and the Southern Seas, to search for pearls, tortoise-shell and coral. The Nanhai trade boomed after the 10th century CE. The South China Sea bustled with so much activity that some historians have called it the “Asian Mediterranean.” Craig A. Lockard, writing about the commercial importance of the South China Sea in the period from 1400 to 1750, thought it appropriate to describe the sea as a “dynamic transnational economic zone.” People depended on this expanse of water for their very survival: Chinese trading junks competed and contended with fishing, smuggling, raiding, and piracy.
Chinese commercial expansion into the so-called “southern barbarian kingdoms” brought Southeast Asia into Chinese written records for the first time. Chinese mandarin-bureaucrats produced scroll maps. Java-Sumatra, Siam, Burma, the islands of Borneo, Banka and Billiton, and the Malay Peninsula were described. A book titled Record of Strange Things of the South gave an account of the places where trading was established. The book is stuffed with fantastical, supernatural, and strange observations on the people, plants and animals that were encountered. Such writings sharply made “us” and “them” distinctions, dividing the known and civilized lands of the Chinese, from the unknown and alien lands of the Southeast Asians.
Trade in the luxury goods of the Nanhai could make people filthy rich. Shih Ch’ung was the governor of the central and south-central provinces of Hubei and Hunan. He also controlled the trade that passed through Hanoi and Canton to the city of Luoyang in central China. He was so rich that his household was made up of many beautiful women who held in their mouths exquisite exotic perfumes, so that whenever they talked or laughed, the sweet scent of their breath “was wafted by every breeze.” He had fragrant woods ground into fine powder and scattered over an ivory bed upon which the most beloved of his maidens would be asked to step, rewarding those who left the dust undisturbed with a string of 500 pearls, while enforcing strict diets on those who left behind their footprints. He owned an extraordinary collection of pearls and coral trees. The coral was known to be particularly fabulous and of a kind never before seen in China—specimens three to four feet tall with unusual stems and branches of vivid hues. These may have been red coral, Corallium nobile, or a species of shallow water coral resembling Corallium japonicum, varying from the palest pink to deep red in color, which may have come from Mindanao.
The Nanhai trade, driven largely by the demands of courts and elites, lasted for about five centuries to the end of the Chin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE). By the 15th century, the most visible and numerous Chinese maritime merchants were Hokkien speakers from the Fujian province in southeastern China. They were an adaptable, opportunistic, mobile trade diaspora who did business in the ports of Malacca in southwest Malaya, Hoi An in central Vietnam, and Ayutthaya in central Thailand. This trade diaspora would, in the 16th century, settle in large numbers in Manila, attracted by the arrival of the Spaniards and the establishment of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. Over time, they would rise to economic dominance.
In ancient times, the South China Sea brought southern Chinese into contact with Southeast Asia, with peoples from the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Borneo. The sea could make people rich and everyone jostled for a slice of the action. Today, many of these countries still have a stake in this sea and are clamoring for maritime entitlements. But resolving sovereignty disputes is far off and uncertain. As provocation and saber rattling continues, so too the plundering and destruction of marine habitats.