The South China Sea: What’s in a name?

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A rose is a rose is a rose – Gertrude Stein

ONE of the early actions of the Aquino Administration was to announce an intention to rename the South China Sea as the “West Philippine Sea,” adopting a House of Representatives resolution to that effect. But as contained in Administrative Order No. 29 issued a year after, “West Philippine Sea” was not to supplant “South China Sea” but only to refer to parts of the sea already under the jurisdiction of the Philippines. As my good friend Ambassador Dodong A. Encomenienda observes in his monograph, “The South China Sea Issues and Related Core Interests of the Philippines,” prudence must have caught up with the Administration, making it realize that thus renaming the sea would serve no constructive purpose but would only convey the misimpression that the Philippines was claiming the whole sea and aggravate tensions.

Amb. Encomienda further points out that renaming the South China Sea in whole or in part is not a simple unilateral matter if one wants the change to be recorded in international maps and charts. It would require sanction by the International Hydrographic Organization and submission to the International Maritime Organization. It would require international approval and dissemination. UN peacekeeping personnel, disaster relief teams, and maritime rescue squads from different member-states need a shared understanding of where they are going. A Committee called the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names attempts to identify and apply consistent geographic labels.

A movement to change the name of the South China Sea has been launched by the Nguyen Thai Hoc Foundation of Vietnam, which has apparently been ready to go to any lengths to realize its objective. The foundation has been circulating via Facebook among the citizens of the 11 countries of Southeast Asia a petition asking their Presidents and Prime Ministers, the President of the United Nations Atlas of the Oceans and the CEOs of 12 geographic organizations around the world to change the name “South China Sea” to “Southeast Asia Sea.”

Long before this petition, long before the flareup of the conflicting claims in the area, I have felt that “Southeast Asia Sea” is a more appropriate name for this body of water. “South China Sea’’ is in fact a misnomer, an error that it’s time, nay overdue, to rectify.


A simple look at the map of the different seas of the world makes readily clear that seas take the name of the country they adjoin or the group of countries surrounding the sea, or of things associated with that country or group of countries. As the petition asserts, the countries of Southeast Asia encompass almost the entire South China Sea with a total coastline measuring approximately 130,000, whereas the coastline of southern China measures 2,800 kilometers in length.

Actually, it was not the Chinese but the Portuguese during the (European) Age of Discovery who gave the sea its current anomalous name. It was not nameless when they did so. It was then known as the Sea of Cham after the Champa Kingdom that held sway in the region from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries, when Southeast Asian kingdoms had no finite boundaries and whose extent corresponded to their reputation for power and wealth. Happenstance was what moved the Portuguese to this strange action. Strange, because it is oblivious of the supreme reason why they had sailed for Asia in the first place, to trade in spices, the most precious commodities (more precious than gold) at the time in Europe and which were found in South and Southeast Asia. After “brutalizing,” the term historians use to describe the colonization process in Southeast Asia, they happened to set their eyes or be on the way to doing the same to China They also happened to live at a time Europeans were busy drawing new maps of Asia and the world.

The anomaly has been perpetrated in map after map through the centuries in the absence of any protest from Southeast Asia. Indeed, the consciousness of belonging to a region called Southeast Asia is fairly new among the peoples of the area. Even after Asean has become an integrated economy, many of them have still to think of themselves as Southeast Asians. The petition of the Nguyen Thai Hoc Foundation would be a test of the progress of regional integration in Southeast Asia. The regional unit called Southeast Asia, argues the Foundation, is recognized by the UN. This petition’s success will prove whether this unity exists not only in the physical world but in the minds and hearts of the people of the region.

My belief that “Southeast Asia Sea” is the correct name for our subject body of water has been bolstered by my reading of Stephen Oppenheimer’s tremendous work, Eden in the East. The book title is based on the author’s researches, combining oceanography, archaeology, linguistics, genetics and folklore, placing the cradle of civilization not in the Middle East as is often supposed, but in the drowned continent of Southeast Asia.
The book validates that the Biblical Flood really did happen at the end of the last Ice Age.

The Flood drowned forever the huge continental shelf of Southeast Asia and caused a population dispersal that fertilized the Neolithic cultures of China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Rice culture, the foundation of human settlements, originated in Southeast Asia, not China. Southeast Asia, not Europe or the West, was the center of language dispersal at the end of the Ice Age. As the Flood engulfed Indochina and separated Sumatra from Malaysia, the ancestral languages of the Khmers, whose descendants built the Angkor War, moved west into India. To the first cities of
Mesopotamia Southeast Asians brought new ideas and skills of megalithic construction, cereal domestication, seafaring , astronomy, trade and commerce and introduced the tools to harness and control the labor of the farmer and artisans, including magic, religion, and concepts of state, kingship, and social hierarchy.

Shouldn’t this sunken civilization of Southeast Asia be memorialized with its name or identity on the sea that covers it ?

Finally, “South China Sea” makes it appear that Chinese is the more important external influence in Southeast Asia. No, that of India is the more pervasive; its quite marked in all of Southeast Asia except Vietnam and yet even in Vietnam, the Indian influence is considerable, the French hence called the subregion, Indochina. The influence of India on Southeast Asia is such a marvel in that it spread by cultural, religious, and economic expansion rather than military conquest. It has glorious manifestations in the architectural monuments of Borododur and Angkor Wat, the Buddhist temples of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar and in literature and the arts.

A few years back, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations celebrated an important anniversary by a wonderful staging of “Ramayana” as ballet based on the Hindu epic about the liberation by Rama of his wife Sita from the villain Ravana with the help of a race of monkeys. It has a localized, well-loved version in each of the member-states. With the dancers drawn from all the member-countries, the presentation went around the region, delighting audiences.

If “Southeast Asia Sea” does not get the regional consensus, how about “Ramayana Sea?”

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4 Comments

  1. It should be renamed Atlantis of the East Sea – primarily because China has successfully converted the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t submersible rocks and reefs, atolls and lagoons in the Spratleys into man made islands…