Pinyin nomenclature as an instrument of diplomacy

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Ever since China began aggressively to assert territorial claims over the seas south of its southernmost border all the way to Indonesia, disregarding the arbitral ruling of the international tribunal in favor of the Philippines on July 12, 2016, it has increasingly resorted to Pinyin naming practices to stake its claims to specific geographical features.

Alyssa Chen, "South China Sea: how Beijing uses pinyin translations to double down on territorial claims", SCMP (2/4/24):

  • Chinese foreign ministry and state media articles have increased their use of pinyin for place names in the contested area
  • It follows a growing number of flare-ups between Beijing and Manila, including one run-in just a week ago

Beijing has ramped up efforts to use pinyin – the romanisation of Mandarin script – when referring to disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea in English, seeking to bolster its territorial claims to the waterway.</p

It comes amid worsening relations between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, particularly the Philippines, following a run-in between the Chinese coastguard and four Filipino nationals on a fishing boat last week.

In statements and articles, the Chinese foreign ministry and state media have dramatically increased their use of pinyin. For instance, they have replaced “Nansha Islands” with “Nansha Qundao” to refer to the Spratly Islands.

Similarly, throughout 2023, Second Thomas Shoal, which has been the focal point of the tensions between China and the Philippines, was increasingly called “Renai Jiao” instead of “Renai Reef”. The reef is referred to as Ayungin Shoal by the Philippines.

Ding Duo, an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said the change in English names was “a technical adjustment” by Beijing to further assert its claims over the South China Sea. […]

Ray Powell, director of SeaLight, a Stanford University project focused on grey zone activities in the South China Sea, said the growing use of the pinyin terms fitted into Beijing’s long-term strategy of normalising the idea of Chinese sovereignty over its maritime claims. But, he added, it was unlikely to make any difference to its South China Sea rivals.

“At present, China’s neighbours have resisted adopting Beijing’s terms, and perhaps even more assiduously have kept to their own local terms as a means of countering China’s expansionism,” Powell said.

Since territorial tensions between the Philippines and China flared up more than a decade ago, Manila has almost entirely stopped referring to the waterway as the South China Sea. Instead, it regularly refers to it as the West Philippine Sea. Meanwhile, Vietnam and Indonesia have also adopted their own terms. Vietnam calls it the East Sea while Indonesia refers to it as the North Natuna Sea.

Guess what China calls it?

Nán Hǎi 南海 ("South Sea")

And I call it Southeast Asia Sea.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]


  1. AntC said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 9:16 am

    Quite a while ago I suggested 'North Borneo Sea'. On grounds 'Borneo' is a geographical name, not tied to any polity.

    Seriously, who does the PRC think it is fooling? The attempted mindshare is so brazen.

  2. Mark S. said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 10:05 am

    That should be "Ren'ai Jiao" (ren + ai), not "Renai Jiao" (re + nai). (In Hanzi: 仁爱礁) But it's hard to know for sure if the sloppy Pinyin was from Beijing or just the SCMP.

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