Did China just clarify the nine-dash line?

Locations of China's 2011-2012 coercive operations against foreign energy surveys

Locations of China’s 2011-2012 coercive operations against foreign energy surveys. As far as i’m aware, no similar incidents have been reported in these areas since that time. Also shown in green is the maximum EEZ area the PRC might have claimed in the SCS under UNCLOS before the arbitral tribunal ruled that there are no proper islands in the Spratly archipelago. This reduced China’s maximum legal claim under UNCLOS to the sprinkling of 24 nautical mile-wide circles roughly indicated on the map. (Compiled using Google Earth, incident coordinates found in official materials, and Greg Poling’s CSIS report.)

I’m going to make this very quick because i should get back to reading a 501-page piece-by-piece dismantling of maybe 95% of China’s maritime claim south of the Paracels.

Unless i’m mistaken (again), i think the official Statement of the Government of the People’s Republic of China in response to the arbitration result might just have made an important and long-awaited clarification of the meaning of the nine-dash line.

The status of a PRC Government Statement is about as high as a statement’s status can get in the the PRC system. This one contains five numbered points, each explaining a different aspect of the PRC’s position.

  1. China’s historical claim to territorial sovereignty and “relevant rights and interests” over islands in the SCS
  2. The PRC government’s actions to uphold said sovereign rights and interests since 1949
  3. Four elements of the PRC’s rights and interests in the SCS:
    • Sovereignty over SCS islands,
    • Internal waters, territorial seas & contiguous zones based on SCS islands
    • EEZ & Continental Shelf based on SCS islands
    • Historic rights
  4. China’s opposition to other countries’ occupation of some of the Spratly archipelago
  5. China’s commitment to freedom of navigation for international shipping

I’m pretty sure this is the most comprehensive encapsulation of China’s claims in the South China Sea ever made. None of the elements are new, but i don’t think they’ve all appeared side-by-side in one document before. The claim to “historic rights”, for example, is included in the PRC’s 1998 EEZ & Continental Shelf  law, but that document doesn’t refer to the nine-dash line. A diplomatic note to the UN in 2009 included the nine-dash line map for the first time officially, but didn’t mention historic rights. And another 2011 note to the UN specified that the Spratlys were entitled to EEZ and Continental Shelf, but didn’t include the nine-dash line map or “historic rights”.

Of particular note is the Statement’s treatment of the nine-dash line. The first paragraph of point 1 begins by referring to its sovereignty over the territories of the Spratlys, Paracels, etc., states that China’s activities there date back 2,000 years, and then concludes that this established “territorial sovereignty and relevant rights and interests.” What’s especially interesting is that an explanation of the nine-dash line is presented separately in a second paragraph (also under point 1) that reads:

“Following the end of the Second World War, China recovered and resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Nanhai Zhudao which had been illegally occupied by Japan during its war of aggression against China. To strengthen the administration over Nanhai Zhudao, the Chinese government in 1947 reviewed and updated the geographical names of Nanhai Zhudao, compiled Nan Hai Zhu Dao Di Li Zhi Lue (A Brief Account of the Geography of the South China Sea Islands), and drew Nan Hai Zhu Dao Wei Zhi Tu (Location Map of the South China Sea Islands) on which the dotted line is marked. This map was officially published and made known to the world by the Chinese government in February 1948.”

The nine-dash line, according to this authoritative statement, was created to “to strengthen the administration over” the Chinese-claimed islands of the South China Sea. No mention of “historic rights.”

The omission of a link between the nine-dash line and China’s “historic rights” wouldn’t, on its own, mean much, if they weren’t mentioned elsewhere in the statement. But they are: they are on the list of 4 elements that comprise the PRC’s maritime claims, where they are once again listed separately from the territorial claims represented by the nine-dash line.

This seems to imply very strongly that the nine-dash denotes the extent of the area within which China claims sovereignty over islands, and does not demarcate the extent of the area within which China maintains a claim to “historic rights,” which had been one of the most likely readings.

The separate treatment of the nine-dash line strongly implies that the nine-dash line does not depict the geographical extent of the PRC maritime rights claim.

If this implication was intended, it should be apparent in China’s behaviour. One sign in favour of this reading is that the PRC’s “cable-cutting” operations against Vietnamese survey ships around the edge of the nine-dash line area in 2011 and 2012 seem to have ceased since that time (see above map).

Going forward, if this is correct, we might also expect to see a winding back of China’s opposition to other countries’ activities near the edges of the nine-dash line, such as Vietnam’s oil and gas projects in the Nam Con Son Basin. And the path of the PRC Coast Guard’s “regular rights defense patrols” should no longer hug the nine-dash line. Where fishing in the “traditional fishing grounds” off the Natuna Islands (mostly outside the nine-dash line) might fit in, i’ve no idea.

And with the nine-dash line appearing decoupled from “historic rights” in a Statement of the PRC Government, this should mandate the same treatment to be repeated in future statements by lower-level authorities like individual leaders, the MFA and its spokespersons.

Time to get back to work, long and fascinating night ahead….please share any thoughts and corrections. I can only hope my hasty read of this present statement might turn out a little closer to the mark than my prediction of the arbitration outcome.

 


5 Comments on “Did China just clarify the nine-dash line?”

  1. bill293 says:

    I love it when you provide actual evidence to justify my unscientific hunches!

    >

  2. […] The statement of the Chinese government, released in direct response to the arbitration, strongly implied that China does not in fact claim historic rights over the whole area of the nine-dash line. This expansionist reading of the nine-dash line was never an official policy position. But it has underpinned a great deal of the most worrying Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea, especially its program of patrols and coercive actions along the outer edge of the nine-dash line. […]

  3. […] statement of the Chinese government, released in direct response to the arbitration, strongly implied that […]

  4. […] The statement of the Chinese government, released in direct response to the arbitration, strongly implied that China does not in fact claim historic rights over the whole area of the nine-dash line. This expansionist reading of the nine-dash line was never an official policy position. But it has underpinned a great deal of the most worrying Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea, especially its program of patrols and coercive actions along the outer edge of the nine-dash line. […]

  5. […] article offers a more complex clarification of the line’s meaning than my optimistic reading of last week’s PRC Government Statement: whereas i read the Statement as […]


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