Yoroku: China wields archeological research as weapon in territorial spats
Underwater archeology is the wet subset of archeology concerned with excavating sunken ships and submerged ruins. One famous example in Japan was the excavation of a ship that had been part of the attempted Mongol invasion of Japan, discovered last year at the bottom of Takashima Bay in Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture. The sea bed around the wreck has since yielded a veritable treasure trove of artifacts.
However, underwater research and artifact recovery is a very expensive business and needs government financial support. On July 10 this year, the Chinese government's State Administration of Cultural Heritage announced that it would begin pouring very significant resources into undersea archeology in the South China Sea, including the construction of an island research base and a dedicated research vessel.
The South China Sea was for centuries the pivotal point of the "Silk Road of the ocean"; a vital trade link between China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Ships loaded with china and other manufactured goods plied the waves of this body of water lined with trading ports in modern day China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Beyond was the Bay of Bengal, and further west the Arabian Sea and Middle Eastern harbors beckoned. Vessels out of Quanzhou and Guangzhou, two major Chinese ports, had to pick their way through the treacherous reefs in the waters around the Spratly and Paracel islands on their journeys south. Many did not make it, their bellies torn open by rocks and coral hidden beneath the surface at high tide.
There are many wrecks sleeping at the bottom of the South China Sea. China has recently declared four areas in the sea aquatic reserves, including the waters near the Paracel Islands where an 800-year-old merchant vessel dubbed the Huaguang Reef No. 1 shipwreck was found in 1996. This is also the area where China plans to build its archeological research station sometime this year.
So, why the rush?
The Chinese government has also recently grouped the Macclesfield Bank and the Spratly and Paracel islands into a municipality called Sansha, and on July 23 the new city's first mayor took office. Both the Philippines and Vietnam also claim some of the islands as their own and filed a protest. China, however, insists the island groups are traditionally part of China.
There have been many artifacts of Chinese origin recovered from the sunken ships discovered around the islands. The oldest so far is an early first century coin from around the time that Wang Mang overthrew the Early Han Dynasty; a discovery used to prove how long Chinese ships have been sailing the waters around the islands groups.
And so we see why the Chinese government has been so generous in its funding for underwater archaeology -- to collect as many Chinese antiques from the disputed waters as it can, and establish its claim to the islands. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)
July 30, 2012(Mainichi Japan)