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Is the Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea Legal?

Mar 06 , 2014
  • Wu Shicun

    President, China Institute of South China Sea Studies

Recently, at a congressional committee hearing, US Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel made some unwarranted remarks on China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea. He alleged that China’s territorial claims based on the nine-dash line was inconsistent with international law and demanded that China clarify its position with respect to the line. His remarks bear a strong resemblance to the Philippine criticism when that country filed a case to UN arbitrators, saying that China’s nine-dash line violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The nine-dash line mentioned here is also called the South China Sea dotted line, the traditional maritime boundary line, the U-shaped line, etc, all referring to the maritime delimitation line set by the Chinese government in 1947 and made officially public the following year. A U-shaped chain of a dotted line (originally with 11 dots dropped to 9 after the Chinese government removed the two in the Beibu Bay area in 1953) outlining China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea has become a regular attachment to the Chinese map, constituting a key legal position of China’s claimed rights and interests in the South China Sea, and standing as an invaluable heritage of China.

During an extended period after the Chinese government officially published its “Locations of the South China Sea Islands,” bearing the above-mentioned dotted line in 1948, the international community, littoral states bordering on the South China Sea included, did not raise any objection, nor did any national government raise any diplomatic issues with China. They all tacitly accepted the existence of the line. In fact, a number of countries and regions in Europe and America have published maps to identify areas of the South China Sea inside the dashed line as territorially belonging to China.

However, since the 1970s, along with massive discoveries of oil and natural gas in the South China Sea, the signing into force of UNCLOS and the shifting geopolitical landscape in the region, both the littoral states and the international community at large have fundamentally altered their attitudes towards and positions on China’s nine-dash line, from one of confirmation, approval and acquiescence to one of suspicion and even denial. Particularly in recent years, certain countries inside and outside the region have worked hand in glove for the escalation and internationalization of the South China Sea issue, with the nine-dash line becoming the principal target of the legal debate. Some countries have gone out their way to challenge and attack the nine-dash line, with the US playing the role of cheer-leader. 

Though claiming to take no side in the South China Sea dispute, the US has allowed a handful of its officials and scholars to toe a completely different line. This cannot but make people disappointed and deeply confused. The recent row created by US officials is just a case in point. First, the nine-dash line predates the 1994 UNCLOS by at least over 40 years. It would be a little off beat to require the former to suit the latter or to use the latter as grounds to negate the former. Because, that would run counter to the basic principle of non-retroactivity of international law.

Secondly, China’s claims over the South China Sea islands and relevant maritime areas are based on its legitimate rights and the fact that it is the first country to discover, name, administer and exercise territorial control over the islands, which is entirely consistent with international law and fully entitled to its protection. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of history knows that it is the Chinese people that after World War II recovered the Xisha and Nansha Islands in the South China Sea from the illegal occupation of Japanese aggressors. The nine-dash line came into being for the very purpose of confirming and consolidating China’s legitimate rights and interests in the South China Sea that had long been established. It was also an important measure of the Chinese people to safeguard the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, a measure that can stand the test of history and jurisprudential practice. It is completely groundless to assume that China will increase its claims in the South China Sea on the basis of the nine-dash line.

What is more, the recent criticism of the nine-dash line by US officials smacks as well orchestrated support for the Philippines and a thinly veiled threat to force China to clarify its position. The trick is that if China complies, it may help remove US concerns over the line’s potential harm to US domination in the South China Sea while minimizing China’s growing capacity to defend its rights in the future, thus eliminating any legal huddles to US “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.

The nine-dash line in the South China Sea is a symbol that crystalizes thousands of years of sovereign acts of the Chinese people in the development, management and effective administration of the area, including efforts to defend it against aggression and colonial domination by outside powers. It reflects and represents the common interests of the entire Chinese nation. The entire regime of international law, which is duty bound to regulate and adjust state-to-state relations, should protect rather than undermine this irrefutable historic right of the Chinese people. Asking China to give up its nine-dash line is an obvious violation of the will of the Chinese people. And expecting China to redefine the legal meaning of the line is equally unrealistic. 

It needs to be emphasized that China has never regarded the South China Sea in its totality as China’s territorial waters. Nor will China seek, as some officials and scholars from certain countries assert, to turn the South China Sea into a “Chinese lake”. But China’s legitimate rights and interests in the South China Sea must be respected and protected by the relevant parties. China has been a staunch defender of peace and stability in the South China Sea, and an active guarantor of freedom of navigation and security there. This is obvious to all. It is my hope that certain countries can refrain from playing a self-styled moral arbitrator, still less becoming selectively blind. 

Wu Shicun, President, China Institute of South China Sea Studies.

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