A MING dynasty nautical map, the Selden Map of China, represents a world engulfed by a wave of changes that happened in the South China Sea (SCS) region since the arrival of the Europeans. Its maker and origin are still mysteries waiting to be solved. It is named after its owner, the English jurist John Selden, who wrote Mare Clausum (1635), which promoted the idea that the sea could be territorialized like land, in response to what Hugo Grotius argued in Mare Liberum (1609), which endorsed the notion of the sea as free for all mankind. It was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 1659, five years after Selden died.
Unlike other known Chinese maps, the Selden Map did not have China at its center. Its heart is what we now call the South China Sea. Sinologist Timothy Brook finds this a rather “strange thing for the cartographer to do, not just because tradition didn’t allow for it but also because there is almost nothing there: a hole in the center of the map.” In this map, land areas are peripheral to the sea. China is not a dominant part but merged into the East and Southeast Asian region.
Contrast the Selden Map with the map we now associate with that region: the SCS territorial claims map. The SCS claims map highlights how the sea is divided by the territorial interests of its littoral states. Though still at the center, the sea is now a bone of contention of polities which, throughout most of their history, had used it as the bridge of their diverse cultures and economies connected by maritime trade links.
The Selden Map shows how China was connected with its neighbors through sea routes, while the territorial claims map presents the competing claims interrupted by China’s dashed lines. In The Selden Map of China: A New Understanding of the Ming Dynasty, Annie Nie Hongping narrated how, upon its restoration, the back of the Selden Map revealed “a sketch of scale, navigation points, and a diagram showing shipping routes.” Some of these routes include those that link Fujian, Nagasaki, Hirado, and central Vietnam; and one that links Quanzhou and Manila.
These lines in the Selden Map depicted routes connecting trade networks, which facilitated the economic efflorescence in this region, which actually attracted European powers; in the territorial claims map, they are like ominous lines in a palm, auguring trouble.
This transformation has a story. A significant part of this narrative is the shift from one conception of political space to another: from relational to territorial. These two conceptions differ in terms of conception of boundary and sovereignty. In a relational conception of space, boundaries are fuzzy and fluid, and sovereignty can be shared; in a territorial one, boundaries are clearly demarcated, sovereignty is exclusive.
The shift from a relational conception of space to a territorial one is a narrative of what American historian Charles Maier called the “fixation with social enclosures,” through which “defending rigid borders became a preoccupation of social and political life,” which started in the 19th century. This preoccupation is the structuring logic of the SCS rivalry between China and the Philippines, whose respective claims are about defending their own versions of SCS enclosure.
China’s version is represented by the nine-dash line (previously known as the eleven-dash line), which was originally drawn by the nationalist government of China (Republic of China) in 1947.
Meanwhile, the Philippines’ claim is represented by its parcelization of the SCS, which it did quite recently, through Administrative Order No. 29, series of 2012, signed by President Benigno Aquino 3rd, entitled Naming the West Philippine Sea of the Republic of the Philippines, and for other Purposes.
China’s nine-dash line and the SCS parcelization sought by the Philippines are cut in the same cloth of boundary-obsessed territorialism. Corollary to the boundary-obsessed territorialism engendered by Europeans’ rediscovery in the 15th century of Ptolemy’s cartographic techniques is the exclusive notion of sovereignty, which relies on determining boundaries. Sovereignty is then marshalled by states to exclude non-members of their political communities from the areas under their control. These boundary-making practices and exclusionary sovereignty have been extended into maritime areas as the movement to territorialize the sea intensified in the 20th century. The latest development in this sea enclosure movement is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
As both China and the Philippines continue to see themselves as territorial states with sovereignty essentially interpreted as the power to exclude non-citizens within their clearly demarcated political spaces which now include the sea, the more they will see each other as rivals who see their relationship as a zero-sum game. To get out of this territorial trap, they should reflect more about their shared past, marked by flourishing trade relations made possible by an open sea, as depicted in the Selden Map.