“Ours before, still today, more so in the future”: who is claiming the whole South China Sea…and why?

China's official nine-dashed line, as attached to numerous documents submitted to the UN. China claims the islands within the 9-dashed line, not the whole maritime area contained within.

China’s official nine-dashed line, as attached to numerous documents submitted to the UN. China claims the islands within the 9-dashed line, not the whole maritime area contained within.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has attracted some heat from the hot heads of China’s internet population, for daring to state [zh] that “no country, including China, has laid claim to the entire South China Sea”.

Apparently seizing upon this domestic criticism of Hong Lei, the Global Times’ English edition has published a piece positing that “public will” is increasingly influencing foreign policy on the sea disputes. While Vietnam and the Philippines have tried to “woo the public” with hawkish stances,

China uses less public will to press other countries and does not seek to present a hard stance to win people over, despite paying the price of occasional fierce criticism.

On the South China Sea issue, I think China’s claims are misunderstood by media employees, many alleged experts and, perhaps most significantly, ordinary people inside China. While opinion-page pundits like Pan Guoping may claim the entire sea for China, and international media can sneer at the outrageous ambiguity of the famous nine-dash line, the PRC’s claim has actually been quite clear for some years. As expressed ad nauseum in official statements and UN submissions over the past few years,

China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters

The islands . . . and the adjacent waters. China, pretty unambiguously, does not claim the whole South China Sea, and the attachment of the above map to diplomatic notes to the UN in 2009 and 2011 indicates further that the nine-dash line does not depict China’s claimed maritime boundaries. The BBC misrepresents the PRC’s position in every report it makes on the South China Sea, to which it attaches this map:

BBC map depicting “China’s claimed territorial waters”

As M. Taylor Fravel, possibly the world’s foremost expert on China’s maritime disputes, points out, the PRC has repeatedly indicated that it “will advance maritime claims that are consistent and compliant with UNCLOS”.

And why wouldn’t it? The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides for 12-nautical-mile territorial seas around the numerous Spratly features (islands, rocks, reefs), plus 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) radiating from any legitimate Spratly Islands – that is, features that can sustain human habitation. There is at least one fairly clear-cut island among the Spratlys (Itu Aba/Taiping), and this would generate an EEZ (not a territorial sea, although the PRC does argue that foreign military surveillance is not allowed inside EEZs) of about 454,000 square kilometres – sizeable indeed. So China has every reason to make its claims accord with UNCLOS. And that is exactly what it has been doing.

So it’s very bad for China’s international image when international media, academic analysts, Vietnam, the Philippines can run the narrative that China claims “the whole sea” as its “historic waters”, disregarding international law. (My local US Consul-General said late last year in a Q&A here at my university that China’s approach was “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine”.)

The idea that the nine-dash line indicates a massive, ambiguous and illegal claim to the entire sea also greatly bolsters the important US rhetorical argument that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is under threat (from China), which gets taken seriously even though it would be completely contrary to China’s most basic interest – its domestic economy – to do so.

However, notwithstanding the CCP’s severe dearth of international communication skills, China’s leaders have thus far have chosen not to refute the claims. Then last Wednesday this happened:

Journalist: Admiral Willard, head of the US Pacific Command reportedly said on February 28 that the American military must remain present in the South China Sea to ensure the security of sea lanes. China has become less confrontational in the South China Sea issue since 2011, but remains the only one among the South China Sea claimant states that lays sovereignty claim to “virtually all” of the South China Sea. How does China respond?

Hong Lei: China’s position on the South China Sea issue is consistent and clear. China has indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea as well as their adjacent waters. There is no such thing as being more or less confrontational [. . .] What should be pointed out is that neither China nor any other country lays claim to the entire South China Sea. We are not sure whether it is because of their unawareness of facts or it is out of their ulterior motives that some people keep making irresponsible remarks on this issue. We believe it needs to be clarified here.

Two things about this strongly suggest that it was premeditated, and not a gaffe by the spokesman. First, Hong Lei voluntarily countered an argument (“the entire South China Sea”) that the journalist had not actually raised. Secondly, the two “we” towards the end indicate a collective decision by Hong’s superiors.

Now, there’s a fine idea: refute a falsehood that is making the country look like a disruptive bully that doesn’t respect international law. Only problem is, the idea that China does not claim the whole sea is news to many Chinese people. The #1 comment on the NetEase story, ‘MFA: China does not claim sovereignty over the whole South China Sea’ [zh] says it all:

The entire SCS and all the islands are ours, they were before, they are now, they will be even more so in the future. [1589 recommends]

Now, this did not exactly mushroom into a super-hot topic, with only 10,000 participants on NetEase’s thread, 19,000 at Sina, 15,000 at Phoenix. But most commenters were angry and/or in disbelief.

If you yearn for Chairman Mao please support! [3231 supports]

Well said, before we didn’t dare strike, now we don’t dare speak. [2877]

What’s China’s is China’s, what use are feeble spokesmen? [1446]

The biggest discussion was over at Tencent (QQ), where about 30,000 got involved:

I don’t advocate war because it brings hardship for the ordinary folks on both sides. It leaves people destitute and desperate. However, I won’t forget the truth of “use the whip on beasts, and knives and guns on enemies”. We will only win by taking the approach of “you harm me, I’ll harm you”. [9483 recommends]

Damn, not even daring to claiming [our] own things, there’s something wrong with that. [4492]

Send the military over to occupy the important islands, why are wasting spit on this argument? [3175]

[. . .]

Don’t the textbooks clearly indicate that the South Sea is China’s? What do we teach the kids now? Useless. [1005]

The textbook reference raises an interesting issue. I don’t normally pay too much attention to Weibo, largely because Weibo users don’t seem to pay much attention to the South China Sea. This story was actually no exception, but there was the following conversation, which i thought quite revealing:

Choihao: [. . .] China does not claim the entire South China Sea? All my life I have recognised that maritime boundary line. Was it just the textbooks all along?

{In reply} 缺觉狮子 “Dopey Lion”: … The waters inside the 9-dash line are what we claim. But the geographical boundaries of the South China Sea might be slightly bigger. Maybe the concepts are muddled because we constantly hear South-Sea-this-South-Sea-that. Western media say we claim power over the whole sea. It seems like they’re sneakily switching concepts to make our normal sovereignty demands look like plunder and pillage, like we’re enemies with our neighbours.

While blaming the West for Vietnam and the Philippines’ non-compliance is unremarkable, the striking thing about this is how utterly inconceivable it is to both users that the 9-dash line might not the actual maritime boundary of China’s territorial waters (haiyu 海域). Any further clarification of China’s claims will be a very hard thing for the government to explain at home.

Is it possible that the reason the CCP doesn’t explicitly refute the historic waters issue and clarify the 9-dash line is fear of a nationalist backlash? Maybe, but there didn’t seem to be much fear of such a backlash in July last year, when they signed a new agreement with ASEAN on implementing the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the same day a group of Philippines MPs made a tour of Pagasa (Zhongye) Island, the Philippines’ largest Spratly outpost, prompting internet commenters to declare “7.20 National Shame Day”. In the past year or so the CCP government appears to have basically ignored Internet opinion on the SCS issue.

More likely, China’s leaders cherish ambiguity, for it keeps a wider range of options open, believing that time is on their side in this dispute.

But this latest episode is puzzling, because here they appear to have both stared down nationalist criticism and reduced the ambiguity of China’s South Sea claims.

The other major websites all ran exactly the same headline which, as far as I can tell, probably means that somebody in Beijing, or some department, wanted it publicised. Whether this would have been the Foreign Ministry itself is not clear (bravely hitting back at its nationalist critics with…concessions?)

Perhaps it could have been hardline elements in the military, propaganda and/or security apparatus attempting to highlight how the present policy is out-of-step with mass opinion. Yet if, as suggested above, this was a carefully considered step aimed at clarifying the PRC’s claims internationally, surely the central leadership would have been paying attention to its treatment in the Chinese mass media; so why invite nationalist criticism by publicising on mass-news portals a statement that looks like a subtle shift when viewed from outside China, but which appears to be a major concession from a Chinese perspective?

It’s especially curious because a rather more rousing story about Vietnam objecting to China’s expulsion of fishermen in the Paracels has barely received any attention.

The Global Times article mentioned at the top, about the criticism of Hong Lei’s statement, could be a piece of the puzzle. After all, as noted above, the online criticism of Hong Lei may have been harsh, but it really wasn’t very widespread by Chinese-internet standards. And of the wealthier, more urban Weibo users, only 500 or so cared enough to even forward the news, let alone comment.

Unlike other countries, the article argued, CCP China doesn’t take hardline stances to rally its people around the flag (it’s far too secure for that) and it cops public criticism as a result. But, it warns, all governments have to “bow to [the public will] in certain circumstances”, and the Chinese government is now paying more and more attention to popular opinion.

I haven’t been able to find any sign of a Chinese-language version of the article. If there isn’t one, that would suggest it was specifically aimed at drawing overseas attention to the criticism that the Chinese government has received over this tiny, tiny concession in the form of a clarification. Now remember that Hong Lei’s comment itself was promoted across all the major news portals under the same provocative headline, MFA: China does not claim sovereignty over the whole South China Sea [zh]. Perhaps the whole episode was intended to demonstrate to rival claimant states that China is beholden to public opinion and cannot possibly be expected to make any further concessions, nor give an inch through this year’s incident season in the Spratlys.


4 Comments on ““Ours before, still today, more so in the future”: who is claiming the whole South China Sea…and why?”

  1. Claudius says:

    Fantastic blog entry. I’d like to see someone add more to the textbook discussion. Specifically, what is taught in school/textbooks regarding the 九段线. Studying here in China, I’ve found even senior professors in China are unaware of the historic multinational use and navigation of these islets, rocks and shoals. (e.g. Malay fisherman, Arab trade vessels, etc)

  2. […] line show that the view of the nine-dashed line as representing China’s territorial waters, far beyond the officially-stated claim to the islands within, continues to be propagated through the official media. The apparent lack of desire to educate the […]

  3. […] public opinion seems generally unaware of (and probably uninterested in) the distinction between sovereignty and maritime rights. […]

  4. […] public opinion seems generally unaware of (and probably uninterested in) the distinction between sovereignty and maritime rights. […]


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