If a picture is worth a thousand words, then China’s new “Standard Map 2023,” which has angered and alienated many of China’s neighbors, speaks volumes. So far, however, the international audience appears to have missed its most interesting message.
Some of the furious international reaction has to do with disputes over territory. China’s map includes as “Chinese” both Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, angering India; Taiwan, angering Taiwan; the Paracel Islands, angering Vietnam; Scarborough Shoal, angering the Philippines; and all of the Spratly Islands, angering Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. These disputes are all old hat. Nothing in the map suggests that China is making a novel territorial claim.
Some of the kerfuffle has to do with maritime jurisdiction. The Philippines dismissed the map as an attempt “to legitimize China’s purported sovereignty and jurisdiction” over Philippine “maritime zones”; Malaysia denounced its “unilateral claim” to “Malaysian maritime areas in Sabah and Sarawak”; Vietnam claimed it violated “sovereignty, sovereignty rights and jurisdiction rights over Vietnam’s sea regions.”
The remainder of the fuss has to do with China’s apparent lack of respect for international law. Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have all vocally objected to the map’s use of a dashed U-shaped line – reminiscent of the infamous “nine-dash line” rejected in 2016 by the Philippine-requested Arbitration Tribunal, convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as “without lawful effect.”
All of these concerns are understandable. But does the map actually indicate everything that people seem to think it does?
In our view, it does not. Both the map itself and China’s defense of it indicate something else entirely.
Perhaps the map’s most contentious feature is its U-shaped line, which could mean one or both of two very different things. First, it could mean that China claims as sovereign territory all of the claimable land features encompassed by the dashed line. This use would be unobjectionable in principle, though not, of course, politically, as far as rival claimants are concerned. Territorial disputes are common, and all states engaged in them draw lines on maps to indicate what they believe is theirs. Indeed, the original U-shaped line, first drawn by the government of the Republic of China in 1946 on a map titled, “The Location Sketch Map of the South China Sea Islands,” was a simple “islands attribution boundary.”
A second possible meaning is a maritime jurisdiction delineation of some kind – a claim to authority not only over the land features within the line, but the waters as well. This was the meaning that the UNCLOS Arbitration Tribunal rejected.
Notably, the government of the People’s Republic of China has never explicitly declared that this is what the dashed line represents, although prominent Chinese legal scholars have come close to doing so, arguing that “historic title provides the basis for China’s possession of certain historic rights” [emphasis ours] within the line, “in addition to the rights granted under UNCLOS.” It is fair to say that the dominant belief among the Chinese public is that the nine-dash line does indeed delimit an area of maritime jurisdiction based on China’s “historic rights.”
Notably, the U-shaped line on China’s new standard map does not map precisely (so to speak) onto the nine-dash line submitted by the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations in 2009. Nor does it use nine dashes; it uses ten. While this is not completely unprecedented (a 2013 map did likewise), the placement of the tenth dash to the east of Taiwan is significant because it lies outside the South China Sea in an area where China has never even hinted at having an unconventional historic waters claim.
Nor, at approximately 85 nautical miles from Taiwan’s coast, does the tenth dash lie anywhere near any UNCLOS-recognized maritime boundary (UNCLOS recognizes only a 12-nm territorial sea, a further 12-nm contiguous zone for certain law enforcement purposes, and a 200-nm Exclusive Economic Zone).
Finally, according to Chinese law, maritime entitlements project from baselines as determined by specified fixed geographical points. China has (dubiously) specified points and baselines for the Paracel Islands, but not for any of the other features in the South China Sea, and certainly none that would correspond to any nine- or ten-dash line. Logically, then, this U-shaped line cannot denote a maritime entitlement. Contrary to what rival claimant states appear to believe, it is not the 2009 nine-dash line.
Why has the Chinese government not made clear that this ten-dash line is an islands attribution boundary? Quite simply because it cannot afford to do so. This would be to confess to a highly mobilized, intensely nationalistic domestic audience that China does not have the full slate of sovereign rights in the South China Sea that it previously behaved as though it had had. This would be seen as a climbdown and a major loss of face. For a regime whose domestic legitimacy decreasingly relies on ideology or high year-over-year economic growth rates and increasingly on its claim to be able to defend China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and honor, this would be too much of a risk to bear.
What, then, has the Chinese government done in response to the international outcry? It has essentially told everyone to calm down and view the map in an “objective and rational way.” It has offered no substantive defense of any particular interpretation whatsoever. The aim, clearly, is to maintain a studied ambiguity and two-way plausible deniability.
Our research suggests that, since 2016, China has been trying to walk a tightrope between domestic pressures not to yield on widely and sincerely held (if insupportable) beliefs about China’s rights in the South China Sea on the one hand, and international pressures to comply with international law (including its own commitments under UNCLOS) on the other. The result is a policy that we call “stealthy compliance,” in which China seeks not to be seen as in technical violation of the UNCLOS Arbitration Tribunal ruling without acknowledging its legitimacy.
The new standard map and the Chinese government’s response to criticism of it are both fully consistent with this playbook. They are inconsistent with a robust defense of “maximalist” maritime claims, which is clearly the dominant interpretation.
Whether stealthy compliance is sustainable for long remains to be seen. Its success depends crucially on other countries not doing things that would make it obvious to the Chinese public that China does not have the sovereign rights in the South China Sea that they thought it had. If the strident international reaction to a mere map is anything to go by, the forbearance of rival claimants may be running out.