The South China Sea is LIT

Parental advisory: Grown-up themes on international politics!

Taiwan’s Chunghwa Post released some lighthouse stamps back in December, and you’ll get a sugar rush just looking at them. Those background colours look like they were printed with fairy floss. It’s like browsing the tubs in an ice cream shop. I can’t decide between the Pineapple Toothrot or the Boysenberry Diabetes.

This issue is a follow-up to similar issues in 2018 and 2019. Despite two of the 2020 lighthouses coming dressed as the Eiffel Tower, this batch are a bit dull… except that one of them is at the center of an international geopolitical conflict. This part of the world is already a tinderbox in which one tiny spark could set off World War III. Well, I have bad news: the stamp collectors are getting involved.

The top-value stamp depicts a lighthouse on an island in the South China Sea. Taiwan has controlled the island since 1956, and calls it Taiping. Vietnam, which also claims the island, calls it Ba Binh. The Philippines also claims what it calls Ligao Island. I’m going to call it by a historical name, Itu Aba, because I’m not taking sides. Well, not yet.

The South China Sea is a world of overlapping sovereignty claims from Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brunei – plus the heap of islands claimed by China. Control of many of those islands is currently split between the People’s Republic of China (aka China) and the Republic of China (aka Taiwan). Taiwan, for those who came in late, is the one bit of China that the Communists never got a hold of. It’s a self-governing province that Chinese president Xi Jinping seems particularly keen to ‘reunify‘ with the mother country.

Spurred on by security issues above the waterline and the riches that lie below it, nations in the region have claimed and counter-claimed every island, rock, and decent-sized wave in the sea. I mean, look at this mess.

Image: VOA

Right in the middle of all this, among the Spratly Islands, lies Itu Aba. On top of Itu Aba sits this lighthouse. And this lighthouse now sits on a stamp. Or, in this case, a whole sheetlet.

This isn’t the first time that a postage stamp has been used by one country to flip off a neighbor, and it won’t be the last. After a member of Ho Chi Minh City’s Viet Stamp Club spotted the insult, the club called upon Vietnamese postal and philatelic authorities to issue a protest:

“The move of Taiwan’s Chunghwa Post has violated international laws, seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over Truong Sa [Spratly] archipelago. It doesn’t come in line with the provisions of the Acts of the Universal Postal Union.”

Viet Stamp Club

Uh oh. Invoking the provisions of UPU Acts? Them’s fightin’ words!

This is familiar territory for Vietnam, pardon the pun. Taiwan has previously issued stamps depicting China’s so-called ‘nine-dash-line’ claim on the South China Sea. And in 2016 it released a whole set of stamps featuring Itu Aba. On top of that, ‘big’ China in 2013 issued stamps depicting the Paracel Islands, which it seized from then South Vietnam in 1974. Vietnam wants them back, too.

The good news here is that at least China and Taiwan themselves aren’t (currently) fighting over this island. A Chinese company even helped Taiwan build new piers on the island not long ago. China probably figures it will take over the joint any day now, so it might as well make sure it’s built properly.

So who SHOULD control the island? Good luck trying to answer that question. You’ll disappear down a historical rabbit-hole of who drew up which map and when. And is it even an island? In 2016, after the Philippines brought a case against China, an international tribunal declared that the island isn’t an ‘island’: it’s a ‘rock’, and therefore not entitled to the exclusion zones that would otherwise apply. (Big China and Taiwan both disagreed.)

At least Itu Aba IS a rock, unlike many of the outposts with which mainland China has lately sought to impose its presence in the southern reaches of the sea. Any slow-moving sea cow currently runs a high risk of having a load of topsoil dumped on it and a Chinese flag planted on top.

So good luck to Vietnam as it clings tenaciously onto its claim on this island. But you get the feeling that it’s like watching a mouse complaining that its cheese has been stolen by a cat which is about to be eaten by a dinosaur.

Personally, I find it hard to take sides in these disputes. As someone who cherishes the freedom to voice my opinion, I can’t support any government that imprisons others who do the same thing. That rules out both China and Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Philippines has lately seen a massive deterioration in human rights, with extra-judicial killings targeting government critics. Around the neighbourhood, Brunei’s laws promulgate death by stoning for consensual acts between unmarried couples, and capital punishment for children as young as 7, Indonesia is racking up ongoing human rights abuses (notably in West Papua), and the new Malaysian government is eager to crack down on media outlets ‘misreporting’ the news. In fact, out of all the players on this stage, Taiwan comes out looking pretty good. Sure, it’s a bit too keen on death by firing squad, it has ongoing issues regarding the conditions of migrant workers and its indigenous peoples, and its media is a mess of shrieking tabloid journalism owned by vested interests and interfered with by China. But if more nations of the region could approach Taiwan’s modern standards in the human rights area, then figuring out who owns the lighthouses will be much less problematic.

Anyway… if you’re digging the lighthouses on stamps, you might want to consider joining the Lighthouse Stamp Society. Its website tracks stamp issues devoted to lighthouses, and even tips you off if a stamp about something else happens to have a lighthouse in the background!

And keep your eye out for this issue: the geographically specific ‘Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses’, to be released in August 2021 by the USA. Human rights status: it doesn’t run internment camps for ethnic minorities, but beyond that… where to even begin?

USA 2021 Mid-Atlantic Lighthouses strip

What beautiful designs, with such a diversity of architecture. My only complaint is that the backgrounds look completely inedible.

Shine a light and show the world that stamp collecting is not on the rocks by sharing this post! Hit Follow to read new posts as soon as they land! You can also find me on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Disclaimer: This article was written in Australia, where refugees who arrive by boat are imprisoned indefinitely offshore, Aboriginal citizens are vastly over-represented in jails, and the national government is in the hands of a party that accepts millions of dollars in funding from the fossil fuel lobby while actively stifling meaningful action on climate change. Also, this article was written on a computer made in China.

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