The South China Sea:
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The South China Sea: "Lake Beijing"


What is a “lake” in maritime strategy? Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe published an op-ed in Project Syndicate last week maintaining that Chinese power is increasingly transfiguring the South China Sea into “Lake Beijing.” That sounds ominous. To counteract China’s primacy in southern waters, argues Abe, Japan must augment its combat and police capabilities while forging a “diamond” with the United States, Australia, and India to defend the commons in East and South Asia. That sounds like a multinational lake presided over by the region’s leading liberal republics. Presumably the European equivalent would be NATO trusteeship over the Mediterranean Sea.

The idea of a lake has a long provenance. Many moons ago, while researching Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influence in Imperial Germany, I stumbled across a 1907 issue of National Geographic that exuded triumphalism. The normally staid magazine ran a map showing American flags scattered all across the Pacific basin, from Hawaii to the Philippine Islands. The flags depicted the islands wrested from Spain in 1898. The caption proudly proclaimed that the Pacific Ocean was—and would remain—“an American Ocean.” And so it was. Writing a century later, pundit Robert Kaplan maintained that the Pacific has been “a veritable American naval lake” since World War II.

By no means is the United States the first seagoing state to declare this or that body of water its own. In the 1950s Indian sea-power proponent K. B. Vaidya declared that the “Indian Ocean must become an Indian Lake” guarded by forward-deployed eastern, southern, and western fleets. A vibrant oceangoing navy would work some alchemy, transforming inward-looking India into the “supreme and undisputed” master of regional waters.

But again, what precisely do sea-power enthusiasts mean when they deem some expanse a lake belonging to some seafaring nation? A lake must have geographic, military, and political components. Geography provides the arena within which nations play out their destinies. Strength, as Clausewitz defines it, is a product of force and resolve.

Let’s break the concept down. First, designating a compact or enclosed sea a national lake is one thing. Declaring de facto supremacy over the world’s largest ocean, as National Geographic did on America’s behalf, borders on hubris. Boundless ambition begets strategic overextension and all of the maladies it entails. That’s what Walter Lippmann meant when he accused interwar American administrations of “monstrous imprudence” for letting Asia-Pacific commitments outstrip naval means.

Second, claiming a lake means commanding the waters within in the Mahanian sense. Mahan famously portrayed maritime command as amassing “overbearing power” to drive enemy fleets from vital waters in wartime. Peacetime command means fielding a force able to overawe and overshadow rival fleets—opening up vistas for deterrence, coercion, and confident naval diplomacy of all varieties. That’s a high standard to meet. And the bigger the lake, the higher the standard.

And third, there’s the question of political resolve or, more accurately, political intentions. For what purpose does a seafaring nation claim a lake for itself? There’s no obvious general rule implicit within the concept. Power is a neutral thing. A nautical suzerain can be benign and self-denying, as I believe the United States has been since 1945 and India will be once it consummates its naval project. Few stay up nights worrying about the U.S. or Indian naval juggernauts’ trampling their interests.

But power can be abused. That seems to be Prime Minister Abe’s message vis-à-vis China. Abe frets that Beijing will misuse its naval might within Lake Beijing, to the detriment of Japan and other seagoing nations. It cannot be trusted to use its power responsibly. Chinese leaders have done little to allay such concerns. Just the opposite.

The concept of a lake isn’t a bad yardstick for measuring Chinese sea power. Is Beijing indeed intent on primacy in the South China Sea and other expanses, to the extent of seeing them as Chinese lakes? Does it possess sufficient naval and military power to make itself the master of the waters within? How large a margin of superiority can the PLA amass in the face of regional competitors? And to what uses would Beijing put its marine primacy once achieved?

Food for thought.

Dean M
February 5, 2013 at 23:58

USA won't help it's allies since it owes China (the most) over a trillion US dollars and it needs to borrow more money so going against China is really not a good move. What's next for China to claim? There's a few i can think off and they'll get it because there's no single nation can do anything about it. We're all too greedy thinking about our self interest that we won't doing anything to upset China. This was China's plan all along and we all got sucked in. You might ask perhaps Chinese government supremacy is not a bad thing. Do your research! Don't let me brainwash you. See how the PRC governs its people. Don't ask the Chinese people as they have possibly been brainwashed by the PRC. If PRC doesn't see anything wrong with the way it governs its people then it won't see anything wrong with the way it treats the world once it becomes a superpower. Wake up now before it's too late.

Dean M
February 5, 2013 at 23:34

There is no question about it. China is now all big and mighty ready to enforce its claims. They have nations including the US of A on its toes. This is the true price we pay. When you buy things made in China normally means you get a lower price for the item. The quality might be less but it gets the job done. The other, better quality items will soon be no longer available because they are more expensive being made in your own country. The company thqt made that item has shut down. The experience/knowledge making that item is lost. We've handed that knowledge to China to do it cheaper faster and dirtier as an environmental result. We're basically relying on China to sell us what we need. This is the true price you pay. China wants almost all South China Sea and it might get it since the ASEAN is not united. It might also get the Senkaku Island because Japan military may not stand up against China's evergrowing military strength funded by you. USA won't help it's allies since 

February 1, 2013 at 20:20

@JChan: you must have some medical/mental problem? No??

Park McGraw
January 30, 2013 at 10:51

Presuming Chinese territorial claims, and unprecedented expansion in sovereign maritime boundary, one reaching far beyond the Taiping Yang 太平洋 (Pacific Ocean) coastline of China, consuming most all of the East and South China Seas, more specifically beyond Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island), be of a valid nature, should with little difficulty be confirmable with the existence, if not the preponderance, of historical documentation and nautical maps that are, or are not, Chinese centric in nature.
For any robust territorial claim, regardless of the nation pursuing such act, needs to be juxtaposed with equally robust or greater supporting evidence.
In terms of constructing a nautical map with precision, such as that displayed by the Chinese today, relative to Japanese territory, the coast line of Taiwan, Philippines and Indonesia archipelagoes must be explicitly based on prior knowledge of water-land divides. Being obvious that once cannot possibly chart with competence the distant to positions or objects, without least of which, the spatial understanding of such location. Being that one cannot claim possession to that which one is not yet aware off or can correctly characterize, and essence of lost and found recovery.
In terms of geographical control of Chinese domain, from the Zhou Chao 周朝 (Zhou Dynasty)(1050-256 BCE) or for more than 3,000 years, relying primarily on the honorific tributary system of perimeter control, the monolithic exception being the series of "insurmountable barriers" or Great Walls 長城 (Chang Cheng). Regions excluded from Chinese administration well understood to be occupied by non Chinese.
As for maritime exploration, it is well known that the Chinese, throughout much of their history, did not possess a "blue water" naval force, and in particular, one which traveled extensively north, east and south beyond the continental coastline of China. The Chinese, and in contrast to the Europeans, historically less willing to directly transiting large, uncharted oceans, as seen from the littoral nature of Chinese cartography. The magnificent efforts performed in the Ming Chao 明朝 (Ming Dynasty)(1368–1644), to nautically explore distant areas, quickly squelched after the far reaching littoral expeditions, conducted from (1405-1433), by Admiral Zheng He 鄭和.
Consequently, China’s territorial claims into far reaching nautical realms, resulting in the annexation of the greater South and East China Seas, needing to be explicitly associated with a given and established historical time frame. So as to determine if such assertion of maritorial expansion into open waters is predicated on ancient, long understood sovereign perimeter of China or if such territorial claim is premised on contemporary 20th century rulings.
Not the least, China’s late 20th century maritime claim, along with aggressive economic interest of the East and South China Seas, by this time ocean basin regions suspected to be enriched with petroleum deposits along with having not shown for any duration of time prior, physically consistent administrative oversight of this vast maritime space, appearing more of an opportunistic as appose to judicial exercise.
In conjunction, China’s submissive and or remissive approach to the conveying of control to large portions of the East China Sea by the USA, the transfer of this domain spanning over 40 years with the return of Okinawa Jima 沖縄島 (Okinawa Island) to Japan in 1972 as a function of United States Far East 遠東 (Yuan Dong) foreign policy accord "Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan" 日本国とアメリカ合衆国との間の相互協力及び安全保障条約 (Nippon Koku to Amerika Gasshukoku to no Aida no Sogo Kyoryoku Oyobi Anzen Hosho Joyaku) signed on 19 January 1960. This accord being an expansion of the preexisting "Security Treaty Between the United States and Japan" signed 8 September 1951 relative to the entire domain of the Empire of Japan, all of which having been surrendered to the USA on the deck of the USS Missouri, 2 September 1945 with the signing of the "Japanese Instrument of Surrender".
The transfer of this very expansive domain, and one inclusive of the currently disputed maritime space by the Peoples Republic of China, officially acknowledged then by the legitimate government of China, that being the Republic of China, with the signature of General Hsu Yung Chang 徐永昌 (Xu Yongchang). The pursuant display by the Chinese, collectively non assertive and reminiscent of abandonment, on the whole conspicuously silent as to the internationally recognized USA Japanese accords, further deflating any Chinese claim to the East China Sea region.
Should China be attempting to validated their maritime annexation desired premised on Chinese history, that being from, or prior to the Qing Chao 清朝 (Qing Dynasty)(1644-1912), then such claims become even more suspect and unsupported.
For as one retreats from the 20th century, there are no known Chinese maps, even post the making of the 11th century Nan Song Chao 南宋朝 (Southern Song Dynasty)(1127–1279), stone carved Yu Ji Tu 禹地圖 (Illustration of Yu’s Land) that suggest the maritime regions beyond Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island) are the domain of China.
The Gujin Hua Yi Quyu Zongyao Tu 古今華夷區域摠要圖 (Illustration of the Ancient and Present Territories of China and Foreign Countries) map, also produced in the 11th century during the Nan Song Chao 南宋朝 (Southern Song Dynasty), gives no spatial or absolute position or compass bearing knowledge for any of the major archipelagos east of China’s coastline with the Taiping Yang 太平洋 (Pacific Ocean), with the possible exception of the Penghu Qundao 澎湖群島 (Penghu Archipelago / Pescadores) labeled as San Fo Qi 三佛齊 (Three Buddha Together). The cartographic rendering of such locations as Nihon 日本 (Japan, and possibly that of Kyushu 九州, Honshu 本州 or combination thereof), Ezo 蝦夷 what is today Hokkaido 北海道 (Hokkaido, Japan) placed grossly south and west of the Ryukyu Shoto 琉球諸島 (Ryukyu Archipelago) are represented simply as glyphs. Peculiar to this map is the articulate and very careful removal of Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island) thought the title glyph noting its location remains present. In addition, maritime realms more than 1-2 days sailing beyond the Taiping Yang 太平洋 (Pacific Ocean) coastline, appearing to be administered by entities other than China.
The frequently misunderstood and topic for separate discussion, Joseon 朝鮮 (1392–1897) Korean, Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Ji Do 混一疆理歷代國都之圖 (Illustration of Included Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals) map produced by Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun (ca. 1470), and a cartographic product greatly influenced by contemporaneous Chinese maritime knowledge, being an evolution to the nearly identical and slightly more revealing Ming Chao 明朝 (Ming Dynasty), Da Ming Hun Yi Tu 大明混一圖 (Illustrated Copulation of the Great Ming) map (ca. 1389) along with the later 1726 official map of the Qing Chao 清朝 (Qing Dynasty) printed in Gujin Tushu Jicheng 古今圖書集成, are nearly dismissive of archipelagoes located in the East China Sea. The exception being the grossly oversized rendering of the non Chinese controlled Okinawa Honto 沖縄本島 (Okinawa, Main Island), and often miss understood as being representative of a misplaced portion of central Nihon 日本 (Japan).
Complicating the usefulness of these maps, and their misrepresentation of the maritime area south of Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island) and the Ryukyu Shoto 琉球諸島 (Ryukyu Archipelago), are the omissions of Taiwan 臺灣 along with all predominate archipelagoes located further south such as the Philippines and present day Indonesia. In addition, being non coordinate based (compass predicated) maps, are unqualified spatial renderings of the China Sea region.
The three maps, Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Ji Do 混一疆理歷代國都之圖 (Illustration of Included Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals), Da Ming Hun Yi Tu 大明混一圖 (Illustrated Copulation of the Great Ming), and the Gujin Tushu Jicheng 古今圖書集成 printed Qing Chao 清朝 (Qing Dynasty) map spanning the distance from the Sea of Japan facing eastern portion of the Korean Peninsula to the Brahmaputra and Ganges River Delta, near the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh situated on the northern arc of Bengal Bay, in tandem with the minimally revealing open water segments of the cartographic content, being a strong indication that the ocean vessels and crews of the period and region tend not to venture more than 1-2 days sailing from any single land mass.
When Ferdinand Magellan was defeated in 1521 at the Battle Mactan by Chief Lapu-Lapu of Visayas Island in the Philippines, was known at the time by merchants, as there was no official lingual Franco for the region, that the South China Seas was a neutral area.
The Chinese merchants plying the waters, as were others, some from distant places such as India and the Middle East mutually "tolerated" by the numerous regional kingdoms and chiefdoms. These self governing archipelagoes, becoming less remote and increasingly aware of each other’s presence with the arrival of European explorers, being traditionally excluded from the tributary system of perimeter control exerted by China. These distant regions, and to the Chinese, populated with not just foreign but yí 夷 (barbarian) occupants, considered logistically too remote for proper political administration.
The first edition (ca. 1584) Yudi Shanhai Quantu 舆地山海全图(Complete Map of Mountains and Sea Geography) and first Chinese world map to be coordinate based, in addition to rendering areas extensively beyond Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island) being produced by the visiting Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci. This map by Ricci, being perhaps the first Chinese map to indication the presence of the sub arctic Kamchatka Peninsula, but not the furthest north member of the "first island chain", Sakhalin Island.
The (ca. 1598) map titled "Asia" by Zacharias Heyns, and produced with additional information probably not available to Ricci while residing in China, having a more accurate rendering of the Kamchatka Peninsula, though still remaining void of any knowledge of Sakhalin Island. The beginning of convoluted renderings, those generated from the errant merging of Sakhalin Island with Kamchatka Peninsula commencing from near the mid 17th century with maps such as "Atlantis Insula" by Nicholas Sanson (ca. 1670) being an example.
The regressive Chinese produced (ca. 1602) Shanhai Yudi Quantu 山海輿地全圖 (Complete Illustrated Geography of Mountains and Seas) map by Wong Qi 王圻 and Wang Siyi 王思義 printed in Sancai Tuhui 三才圖會 (Illustrated Collection of Three Powers) in 1607 and more than likely inspired by the (ca. 1602) third edition of Matteo Ricci’s Chinese World Map being generally non descript past Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island).
The rendering of the "first island chain", and still void of any awareness to Sakhalin Island, having the remaining islands in the "first island chain" being drawn as non titled, simple circular representations with no shared indication of Chinese administrative claims. The map’s acknowledging of various far reach maritime islands in the Taiping Yang 太平洋 (Pacific Ocean), and presumably representations of the Philippine and Indonesian Archipelago, in addition to being incorrectly place and spatially represented, conspicuously void of labels, but more important, regions in maritime space that are beyond the domain of Chinese political administration.
Some of the earliest European cartographic productions to give a fair representation as to the true location and content of the "first island chain" being the "Southeast Asia, China & India" map by Levinus Hulsius (ca. 1602), and Jodocus Hondius 1606 map titled "China". The Cluverius and Hulsius map indicating that only the islands immediately offshore from China as being the proper of China. In addition, both the Hulsius and Hondius nautically centric maps clearly indicate the diminutive Yaeyama Shotō 八重山諸島 (Yaeyama Islands), south east of the even smaller and appearing non indicated Senkaku Shotō 尖閣群島 (Senkaku Islands) as maritime domains beyond the political control of China.
A very important highlight feature present on both the Cluverius and Hulsius maps, is the consistent rendering of the Paracel (Xisha 西沙) region in the South China Sea as a collection of submerged reefs and marginal atolls as appose to being valid and permanent maritime land masses which can be seen to naturally and perpetually rise above maximum local storm surge tidal levels. A legitimate, non man made maritime land mass, being one which rises to a height greater than the natural difference in tidal height, for all weather states, hence in possession of an "all conditions coastline". For that reason, the Paracel region being nautically represented minus the additional artistic element of perimeter shading to note the non presence of a perpetual costal tidal zone, and consistent marking method utilized on both maps to note the existence of "high seas" (gonghai 公海), and all legitimate islands and coastlines.
The 1785 Edo Jidai 江戸時代 (Edo Period)(1603-1868) Japan, Dai Shin Koyozu 大清広輿図 (Enlarged Illustration of the Great Qing) map and an evolution of Yushu Jingtian Hedi Zhi Tu (Map if China with Latitude and Longitude and Scale) by Zhang Youyi 章有義 in Tianjing Huowen 天星回問 (Question and Answers on Astronomy) publish in China (1672) later reproduced in Japan (1730) being non inclusive of Taiwan 臺灣 (Formosa) or noting any archipelago and or maritime realm beyond Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island) as being part of China’s sovereign domain.
The "relinquishing" of Sakhalin Island to Russia, occurring at the Convention of Peking and signed 18 October 1860, and act which also ratified the Treaty of Tienstin (1858), remaining suspect in terms of legitimate Chinese control and administration. For the nature of the occupants, to the historical non cartographic integration of the territory, Sakhalin remaining non recognized on all but the most contemporaneous official Qing Chao 清朝 (Qing Dynasty) maps, to having not ever showing from historical writings to be within and or part of the continuous Chinese political domain, highly suspect in terms of actually having "title".
The entire “transaction” and political gains achieved by Prince Kung 恭親王 (Yixin) relative to Sakhalin Island peculiarly more reminiscent of an opportunistic act of deceptive performed by China. The end results being China receiving misplaced benefit for yielding lands for which China never demonstrated with much clarity as to having ever been in Chinese control, nonetheless having competent indigenous knowledge of the Sakhalin Island coast, and supportive indication as to having definable claims upon a geographic region.
The ca. 1897 map of Qing Chao 清朝 (Qing Dynasty) by Reverend Thomas Milner in his book "Gallery of Geography" titled "Eighteen Provinces, China Proper" being non inclusive of Taiwan 臺灣 (Formosa) or any other archipelagoes and or maritime realm beyond Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island) as being part of China’s sovereign domain.
The 1899 edition of the Huangyu Quantu 皇輿全圖 (Complete Map of the Empire) map printed in Qinding Da Qing huidian tushili 欽定大清會典圖事例 (Imperial Commission, Collected Statures of the Great Qing), spanning from 47o degrees east to 47o degrees west of Beijing and from 18o degrees north to 61o degrees north, being completely dismissive or give any indication as to a valid claim for any maritime space south of Hainan Dao 海南島 (Hainan Island). This being one of the first high precision grid based conical projection map to be inclusive of maritime regions to be produced in China. The Huangyu Quantu 皇輿全圖 (Complete Map of the Empire) map not making any Chinese administrative claims to islands in the East China Sea other than Penghu Qundao 澎湖群島 (Penghu Archipelago / Pescadores) and Taiwan 臺灣 (Formosa).
Hence, the unprecedented projection of forward military activity in far reaching maritime regions of the east and south China Seas being a uniquely 20th century pursuit by the Chinese, and series of extravert acts that are without precedence relative to the historical administration of distant areas by China.
As for other historical territorial disputes, China’s entanglement with Tibet and over 700 years old, speaking volumes. The attempted Yuen Chao 元朝 (Yuen Dynasty)(1280-1368) naval invasion of Kamakura Jidai 鎌倉時代 (Kamakura Period)(1185–1333) Japan, with the Goryeo Empire 高麗帝國 (918–1392) Koreans being enlisted to build the Chinese fleet, having festered for nearly 1,500 years from the time of the Qin Chao 秦朝 (Qin Dynasty) emperor Shi Huángdì 始皇帝 (259-210 BCE).
The writings in Sun Tzu 孫武 (Sunzi) along with the Chinese glorifying of such practices, in particular the ill repute act of "perfecting deceit combined with lying in waiting", being all the warning and red flag a conscientiously lead nation needs to remain vigilant of Chinese foreign policy and geographical desires.
A pdf document of this post with maps is available at:
Park McGraw

Kim's Uncle
January 30, 2013 at 04:28

I think all Chinatowns belong to china because the word china is in it! LOL. Maybe this why people make fun of sino nazi state so much! With thinking like that no wonder they are not respected by civilized world! John chan = Baghdad bob!

January 12, 2013 at 02:57

If you don't want to respect & honor all the current international law & norms , then please immediately  get out of  all those international institutions such as the UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank, & especially the UNCLOS to which China is a signatory. Your country is  the only one in  a total of 198 nations currently in the world that wants to redefine/change  the present world order, status quo, &  all global standards & institutions in its favor! What a shameless  unscrupulous rogue country!

January 12, 2013 at 01:42

Yep, the message is clear: "Asia for Asian".  We've heard of that message before.  It came from pre WW2 Japan.

Kangmin Zheng
January 12, 2013 at 00:09

@SC Lai

"China doesn’t want any land or sea outside its boundaries"
I think you are sincere bro.   Then tell CCP free Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.   China simply invaded those countries.


joseph enry
January 12, 2013 at 00:03

John Chan- So quick to state party line response. Have you any of these maps? How do you they are doctored? How do you know that they did not identify Vietnam as a nation? Next time, pretend to be a little more sophisticated and smart !

david teng
January 11, 2013 at 23:49

John Chan- Nobody knows what the Chinese claim is, including you… so don't even try to explain! It's an ancient thousand years old Chinese secret… Put down a few dashes and call its a claim. Typical Chinese mentality.

January 11, 2013 at 16:38

@Loony Chan
Why does not China make a 360 dotted line and claim the whole world to be part of China?

Shady Sands
January 11, 2013 at 16:18


A nautical suzerain can be benign and self-denying, as I believe the United States has been since 1945 and India will be once it consummates its naval project. Few stay up nights worrying about the U.S. or Indian naval juggernauts’ trampling their interests.
But power can be abused. That seems to be Prime Minister Abe’s message vis-à-vis China. Abe frets that Beijing will misuse its naval might within Lake Beijing, to the detriment of Japan and other seagoing nations. It cannot be trusted to use its power responsibly. Chinese leaders have done little to allay such concerns. Just the opposite.

I disagree that US or Indian naval hegemony can be seen as benign relative to Chinese naval hegemony.  Current perceptions of Chinese malign interest in the Asia-Pac are mainly due to skillful PSYOPs conducted by select elements of the US and Japanese national security establishments.  As soon as China figures out a good way to defeat the PSYOPs, then the true nature of whose hegemony is malign and whose is benign will be revealed.

John Chan
January 11, 2013 at 14:00

UK, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and France all suffered terribly in the Japanese hands, their troops, warships and air forces were all got humiliated by the Japanese, and their soldiers and citizens were tortured, beheaded and abused by the Japanese too.
It would be interested to see how each of them will react when the victims face their perpetrator, the barbaric Japanese. Will the UK and Co will put Japan under the thumb to even the score, or Japan continues to despise the UK and Co as the conquered and demands their subordination.
Japan is an unapologetic war criminals, Cairo and Potsdam Declarations must be implemented to make Japan pay for the crimes it committed.

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