Ambiguity about the extent of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea has been a key source of concern in this dispute. In the 1990s, China issued a series of domestic laws detailing its maritime claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, including 12 nautical mile territorial seas and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Nevertheless, Chinese maps continue to contain a “nine-dashed line” around the South China Sea. The line first appeared on an official map produced by the Republic of China in 1947. After 1949, China continued to use the line on its official maps, but never defined what the line included or excluded.
In a recent press conference, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to take an important step towards clarifying China’s claims in the South China Sea – and suggesting what the line might not mean.
First, the spokesperson, Hong Lei, distinguished between disputes over “territorial sovereignty of the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands” and disputes over maritime demarcation. This affirms past statements, including a note to the United Nations in May 2011, that China will advance maritime claims that are consistent and compliant with UNCLOS. Under UNCLOS, states may only claim maritime rights such as an EEZ from land features like a nation’s coastline or its islands.
Second, and more importantly, the spokesperson further stated that “No country including China has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.” By making such a statement, this phrase suggests that the “nine-dashed line” doesn’t represent a claim to maritime rights (such as historic rights), much less a claim to sovereignty over the water space enclose by the line. More likely, the line indicates a claim to the islands, reefs and other features that lie inside.
To be sure, China could advance a large claim to maritime rights in the South China Sea from the islands and other features in the Spratly Islands. Although UNCLOS only permits states to claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ from islands that can sustain permanent human habitation, sovereignty over a single island can generate an EEZ of approximately 125,000 nautical miles.
Nevertheless, even articulation of a large but UNCLOS-compliant claim would offer several advantages in terms of dispute resolution. It would clarify where China’s EEZ claims from islands in the South China Sea overlap with the claims of littoral states from their coastlines. As a result, disputed and undisputed areas would be clearly identified. It would also allow states to invoke the dispute settlement mechanisms of UNCLOS, Part XV, which would a negotiated settlement to overlapping claims.
Of course, this recent statement doesn’t represent a full and complete definition of the nine-dashed line. Nevertheless, it does at least rule out one possible definition and provide an opportunity for other states to press China to further clarify its position.
M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.