It is illustrated in this article of Bill Hayton in The South China Morning Post. Hayton explains that a translation error, some 80 years ago, helped the Chinese to conquer a non-existing island, officially the southernmost point of the Middle Kingdom, the James Shoal. It lies 22 metres below sea!
Then, the Indian way.
It was the work of K.M. Panikkar, the first Indian Ambassador to China who changed the relationship between China and Tibet from 'suzerainty' to 'sovereignty', offering Tibet, a de-facto independent nation to Communist China and changing the course of history.
I quote here from my book, Tibet, the Lost Frontier.
The following incident more than anything else demonstrates Panikkar’s character.For the Chinese, it was more than enough.
On 26 August 1950, in an aide-memoire, Panikkar defined India's policy vis-à-vis Tibet as "autonomy within framework of Chinese sovereignty". Following this note, discussions with the Chinese authorities were based on the same terminology which was a radical change in India’s Tibet policy. In fact, many believed that it helped China justify its military action in Tibet.
Though an Indian note of November 1, 1950 tried to rectify the ‘oversight’, it was too late and hereafter China kept on using ‘sovereignty’ for ‘suzerainty’. It went a step further when Beijing attributed the rectification (of November 1) to ‘outside influence’.
The Statesman in Calcutta reported its own version of the incident: according to them, it was the result of a careless slip in transcribing a coded message in the diplomatic communication from New Delhi to Beijing in 1950:
A corrigendum did follow after the mistake (or mischief) had been detected, and was traced to inadvertence in transmission of a coded message. It was K.M. Panikkar, then Indian Ambassador to China, who held back the correction on the ground that it would mean discomfiture for the Indian Government. As the matter stands now because of this blunder, (a permanently sad commentary on the functioning of the Foreign Service), India remains committed to ‘Chinese sovereignty’ over Tibet.The Statesman may have not known that a ‘correction’ was eventually sent, but the fact that more than two months passed before the Chinese received it, was translated by Beijing more as an encouragement to go ahead with their ‘liberation’ of Tibet.
…For all that Nehru wondered from whom Tibet was being ‘liberated’, it passes understanding how his government could write ‘Chinese sovereignty’ when it meant ‘Chinese suzerainty’ in a reply to Beijing, and then not bother to inform the Chinese formally that the mistake had been spotted and corrected.
But the truth is that it was certainly not an ‘oversight’.
John Lall, a former Diwan of Sikkim (1949-1954) and ex-ICS officer, wrote in his book, Aksai Chin and the Sino-Indian Conflict that he had been told by a ‘senior member’ of the Indian Embassy in Beijing that the change to ‘sovereignty’ had been deliberately introduced by Panikkar.
A few months later, the deliberate ‘lapsus’ landed in the Indian Parliament with Nehru stating in a light vein: “Prof. Ranga seems to have been displeased at my occasional reference to Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. Please note that I used the word suzerainty, not sovereignty. There is a slight difference, though not much.”
It is certain that Panikkar had a lot of influence on Nehru with regard to Chinese affairs.
How a non-existent island became China's southernmost territory
The South China Morning Post
February 7, 2013
Bill Hayton says records show that a translation error some 80 years ago may be to blame
Where is the "southernmost point of Chinese territory"? It's a controversial question and the least controversial answer might be Hainan Island . More controversial options would be the Paracel (Xisha) islands or the Spratlys (Nansha). But officially the southernmost point is even further south - as far south as the James Shoal, about 100 kilometres from the coast of Borneo. What's more surprising is that this piece of the motherland is actually invisible. There's nothing there to see, unless you have diving equipment.
The James Shoal lies 22 metres below sea. Yet this inconvenience doesn't prevent PLA Navy ships visiting the shoal from time to time to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty over it. This ritual involves heaving a large piece of engraved stone over the side of the ship. There is now a small collection of Chinese stelae gathering organic encrustations on the sea floor, more than 1,000 kilometres from Hainan.
How did the Chinese state come to regard this obscure feature, so far from home, as its southernmost point? I've been researching the question for some time while writing a book on the South China Sea. The most likely answer seems to be that it was probably the result of a translation error.
In the 1930s, China was engulfed in waves of nationalist anxiety. The predation of the Western powers and imperial Japan, and the inability of the Republic of China to do anything meaningful to stop them, caused anger both in the streets and the corridors of power. In 1933, the republic created the "Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps" to formally list, describe and map every part of Chinese territory. It was an attempt to assert sovereignty over the republic's vast territory.
The major problem facing the committee, at least in the South China Sea, was that it had no means of actually surveying any of the features it wanted to claim. Instead, the committee simply copied the existing British charts and changed the names of the islands to make them sound Chinese. We know they did this because the committee's map included about 20 mistakes that appeared on the British map - features that in later, better surveys were found not to actually exist.
The committee gave some of the Spratly islands Chinese names. North Danger Reef became Beixian (the Chinese translation of "north danger"), Antelope Reef became Lingyang (the Chinese word for antelope). Other names were just transliterated so, for example, Spratly Island became Sipulateli and James Shoal became Zengmu. And this seems to be where the mistakes crept in.
But how to translate "shoal"? It's a nautical word meaning an area of shallow sea where waves "shoal" up. Sailors would see a strange area of choppy water in the middle of the ocean and know the area was shallow and therefore dangerous. James Shoal is one of many similar features in the Spratlys.
But the committee didn't seem to understand this obscure English term because they translated "shoal" as " tan" - the Chinese word for beach or sandbank - a feature which is usually above water. The committee, never having visited the area, seems to have declared James Shoal/Zengmu Tan to be a piece of land and therefore a piece of China.
In 1947, the republic's cartographers revisited the question of China's ocean frontier, drawing up what would become known as the "U-shaped line". It seems that they looked at the list of Chinese names, assumed that Zengmu Tan was above water and included it within the line. A non-existent island became the country's southernmost territory.
But in a parallel process around the same time, the republic government gave new names to many of the sea features. Spratly Islands became Nanwei (the noble south), for example, and James Shoal was changed from a sandbank ( tan) into a reef ( ansha). Perhaps, by this time, the authorities had realised their mistake. Nonetheless Zengmu Ansha retained its official southernmost status.
By now, the translation error had become a fact, setting the region on course for conflict 80 years later.
This is more than a piece of historical trivia; James Shoal is a test of whether Beijing really is committed to the rule of international law in the South China Sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, no state can claim sovereignty over an underwater feature unless it lies within 12 nautical miles of its land. James Shoal is over 1,000 kilometres from undisputed Chinese territory.
Last month, the Philippines government announced it would seek a ruling from an international tribunal about whether China's claims in the sea were compatible with the UN convention. James Shoal would be a clear example of a claim that is not compatible. Perhaps this might be a good moment for Beijing to review how it came to claim this obscure piece of submarine territory in the first place.
Bill Hayton is writing a book on the South China Sea for publication later this year