Amidst escalating regional tensions, Beijing intensifies the use of pinyin translations

Beijing has intensified its use of pinyin, the romanization of Mandarin script, when referring to disputed islands and reefs in English.

In a strategic move aimed at reinforcing its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing has intensified its use of pinyin, the romanization of Mandarin script, when referring to disputed islands and reefs in English. This development comes at a time of accelerating tensions between China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, particularly the Philippines, following a recent dissension between the Chinese coastguard and Filipino nationals on a fishing boat.

The Foreign Ministry of China and state media have significantly enhanced the use of pinyin in official statements and articles. Marking traditional English names for disputed territories has been replaced with their pinyin equivalents. For instance, the Spratly Islands, formerly referred to as the “Nansha Islands,” are now denoted as “Nansha Qundao.”

Furthermore, throughout 2023, Second Thomas Shoal, a focal point of tensions between China and the Philippines, experienced a shift in nomenclature from “Renai Reef” to “Renai Jiao.” The Philippines, which refers to the area as Ayungin Shoal, has observed this linguistic alteration with concern.

The term “Nansha Qundao” featured prominently in official communications in the year 2023, being mentioned at least nine times out of a total of 29 references. This increase contrasts with previous years when the term was sporadically used, notably in July 2016 when Beijing firmly rejected The Hague’s ruling, stating that China had no historical rights to exploit resources within the disputed “nine-dash line.”

Over 700 results for Nansha Islands were searched as shown on the website of the foreign ministry. But each year the frequency of its use in its statements is declining. In the year 2023, it was used only nine times and has been abandoned since August. On the other hand, ‘Renai Jiao’ experienced a sum of at least 30 entries on the website, 14 of which appeared the previous year. ‘Renai Reef’ had around 50 results however, it only appeared four times in the year 2023. Meanwhile, ‘Nansha Qundao’ and ‘Nansha Islands’ were used interchangeably in the year 2023 as stated by the English Website of People’s Daily. But the use of ‘Nansha Qundao’ out of 30 increased sharply with almost 16 appearances on its search results.

As stated by Ding Duo, who is an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, the English names were a technical adjustment done by Beijing to assert its claims over the South China Sea.

Ding added by saying that more recently the rising use of pinyin for the English translation when addressing islands and reefs could help in reinforcing the sovereign right of China in the South China Sea more cohesively. He further stated that the term ‘Nansha Islands’ was not able to indicate the legal status of the Spratly Islands as a single unit. That is the reason that led to the use of ‘Nansha Qundao’ helping to justify China’s maritime entitlements to the archipelago.

Ray Powell, who is the director of SeaLight, a Stanford University Project majorly focused on the grey zone activities in the South China Sea, stated that the escalating use of the pinyin terms fits into the long-term strategy of Beijing to normalize the idea of the sovereignty of China over its maritime claims. Powell further stated, “At present, China’s neighbours have resisted adopting Beijing’s terms and perhaps even more assiduously have kept to their local terms as a means of countering China’s expressionism.”

Since the territorial tensions that ignited between the Philippines and China almost over a decade ago, Manila refers to the waterway as the West Philippines Sea instead of the South China Sea. Vietnam and Indonesia have adopted their terms, which are East Sea and North Natuna Sea respectively.