Many years ago, I was at a World Economic Forum session in Kuala Lumpur listening to the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia detail his country’s plans for the region.
During the question-and-answer session that followed, he was asked why the Chinese felt compelled to view much of the South China Sea as “theirs.”
The reply was so fast it seemed rehearsed: “There is a reason for the sea to be called such.”
This was swiftly followed by a comment from the back, in an American accent: “The Indian Ocean stretches down to Australia and parts of West Africa but you don’t see India claiming those waters.”
When nations begin using history to legitimise their claims – to territory or anything else – the results are generally fraught with peril because the rationale is spurious to begin with. Henry Ford is the one credited with saying: “History is bunk” and while he said a great many egregious things, I think he got that one right.
One is reminded of the cartoon, in which the first box features Donald Trump fretting about the “dangers of unchecked immigration into the US.”
And, in the next, a seriously unhappy Geronimo is agreeing, “Amen to that.”
Whether it’s the Chinese or the US, these claims are unending. When the British first proposed the creation of the state of Malaysia through the union of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, both the Philippines and Indonesia objected on the grounds, yet again, of “history.” Manila claimed “ownership” of Sabah while Jakarta insisted that Sarawak had always been part of the republic.
But the British and the Malayan leadership pit the matter directly to the people of the regions themselves and, in a referendum supervised by the United Nations, the notion of Malaysia was overwhelmingly accepted.
Despite the popular snub, Jakarta took it badly and declared a campaign of “ganyang Malaysia” (Hang Malaysia).
It took another two years of foolishness – and a coup that unseated Indonesia’s then President Sukarno – to restore amity to Southeast Asia. Even so, every eight years or so, Manila threatens to dust off its ancient claim to Sabah which leads to another fruitless round of sabre rattling from both sides.
If one takes history too seriously, you might end up with some utterly strange conclusions.
For example, did you know that present-day England was once ruled by the Romans in an unbroken stretch that lasted for 366 years (43AD to 409AD).
To put it in a modern context, that’s roughly 55 years longer than the current duration of the modern superpower known as the United States of America.
Taking that a step further, how would the people of England feel if Rome were to declare that, because of its ancient claim to England by virtue of historical antiquity, that, henceforth, all Romans and their descendants had a right to become automatic citizens of England. Sorry and all that, and I know it’s hard cheese for you chaps, but it’s history, what?
It would just about sum up the feelings of the Palestinians currently.
And don’t forget the clincher, all ye who treasure history: that the Jewish claim was rooted in no less than divinity, that the land in question was promised to them by God!