As China continues its controversial claim-staking throughout Asia, a corner of the academic world is becoming an unlikely focal point in the dispute: Archaeology. More specifically, the thousands of shipwrecks that litter the South China Sea—which China is aggressively claiming as evidence to back up its right to control the ocean.
China has enthusiastically bolstered its marine archaeology program over the past two decades, which many describe as a foil for the country's political aspirations. By claiming shipwrecks as Chinese, the government is strengthening its claim to the South China Sea, a vital shipping route between many burgeoning Southeast Asian economic hubs.
China wants control of it—and it's going to great lengths to lock it down. According to The Wall Street Journal, that includes running off international archeologists working on digs in the region—for example, at a 13th century shipwreck near the Philippines being examined by a team of French scientists, who were ordered away from the site by the Chinese surveillance ship.
Images: Chinese officials raise an 800-year-old merchant ship, discovered in 1987, from the bottom of the South China Sea, in 2007. Photos by China Photos/Getty Images.
The sea is only one piece of the equation. Only a few days ago, China introduced a new air claim, called the East China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone (or ADIZ), designed to give it control of islands also claimed by Japan. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea have all tested the seriousness of ADIZ over the past week, suggesting that it could be no more than posturing on the part of a country intent on staking claims all over the region.
In comparison to the high-tension ADIZ situation, running off a few marine archaeologists in the South China Sea is hardly news. But it foreshadows the changing nature of how territory is claimed and contested—not only by China, but by nations in general. For example, this week Canada will follow Russia and Denmark in filing a claim to the North Pole, based on a $200 million survey of the arctic seafloor using remote-controlled submarines. And likewise, scientists in the U.S. are carefully mapping the seafloor that it owns rights to, as far as 200 miles out to sea.