HONG KONG >> The shoal has no fresh water, human population or even any land to speak of – its highest point is less than 6 feet above water at high tide. But it has multiple claimants, and they have given it many names: Scarborough Shoal, Huangyan Island, Democracy Reef, Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc.
It is in the South China Sea (or the East Sea or the West Philippine Sea), where the names are even more numerous than the rocks, it seems, and just as perilous judging by the frequent territorial disputes.
But enough with the politics. Let’s say you just want to calculate the distance from the shoal to Beijing, or Manila, or Taiwan, and need a place name; so you turn to Google Maps. What is a digital cartographer to do?
At first, Google Maps went with Scarborough Shoal, a long-standing name taken from a ship that smashed against it in 1784. Then it dropped Scarborough and described the outcropping as part of the Zhongsha island chain of China.
Many people in the Philippines, another claimant, complained, and a week ago a petition was posted on Change.org calling on Google to stop implying that the shoal was Chinese territory.
In response, Google said on Tuesday that it had reverted to the name Scarborough Shoal. "We made the fix in line with our long-standing global policy on depicting disputed regions in a way that does not endorse or affirm the position taken by any side," said a Google spokesman, Taj Meadows.
Google Maps relies on third-party data providers, and while the company says it tries to maintain neutral names and boundaries, sometimes information and labels from outside sources that are not fully vetted can lead to complaints.
The service must also meet local laws that can result in different maps for Google’s different country sites. The map of the South China Sea at Google’s China site, Google.cn, shows China’s nine-dash line (Google’s version actually has 10 dashes), which demarcates most of the sea, including Scarborough Shoal, as its territory. The version on Google.com does not show the line.
A tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, is now considering a request from the Philippines that China’s South China Sea claims be invalidated. China has argued that the court does not have jurisdiction, and on Tuesday, it repeated its call for the Philippines to drop its pursuit of arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In 2012, China and the Philippines had a monthslong standoff over access to the shoal, which is about 140 miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon and sits amid rich fishing grounds.
The name Scarborough is not the preferred choice of either side. China calls the shoal Huangyan Island, while the Philippines uses the names Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc.
Still, Alf Amp, the name used by the organizer of the petition, declared victory upon learning that Google Maps had switched back to Scarborough.
"Now, whenever we view the Philippines in Google Maps, there will not be a thorn stabbing our hearts knowing why there has not been an action to correct such a mistake," he wrote.