Having secured an alliance with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a state visit to Beijing in 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined it when he visited Manila in 2018, promising a new chapter in the two nations’ diplomatic ties and vowing to turn the disputed South China Sea into “a sea of peace”.
In a published message to Filipinos just before his trip, Xi recalled how, more than 600 years ago, Chinese explorer Zheng He “made multiple visits to the Manila Bay, Visayas and Sulu” areas during his “seven overseas voyages seeking friendship and cooperation”.
The suggestion was that China had been in contact with the archipelago long before Europeans arrived and named it Las Islas Filipinas after Spain’s King Felipe II. It was also a way for Xi to bolster China’s claims in the South China Sea – based on its “nine-dash line” and long contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
The problem is that the evidence suggests Zheng never set foot in the future Philippine islands.
“All the scholars all over the world are unanimous: Zheng He never visited the Philippines,” Antonio Carpio said in an online lecture earlier this month, calling Xi’s anecdote “totally false”. The former Philippine Supreme Court justice also presented official Chinese records that debunk Beijing’s “historical maritime rights” over the South China Sea – thereby raising new questions about its standing in the region as tensions escalate.
On Monday, the US raised the stakes, saying “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources” across most of the disputed seas were “completely unlawful”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the world would “not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” In response, Beijing accused Washington of unnecessarily inflaming the situation.
Earlier, the US deployed the warships USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan to assert what it calls its freedom of navigation in the waters. A sailor on one of the ships told Al Jazeera that the operations could last for weeks. China held a large-scale naval exercise in the area from July 1 to 5.
‘History vs facts on the ground’
Historical records may not favour China in the continuing debate on the control of the South China Sea, through which as much as $5.3 trillion in global trade passes annually.
Refuting the Chinese president’s claim, Carpio presented evidence from China’s own Naval Hydrographic Institute, chronicling Zheng’s visit to the then-Cham Kingdom of central Vietnam. A translation mixup of the kingdom’s Chinese name incorrectly referred to it later as a Philippine island.
A 2019 Ancient History Encyclopedia article also traced Zheng’s expeditions in the early 1400s as far as Arabia and Africa, but nowhere in the story did it mention Zheng’s supposed visit to the Philippines.