Archive | U-shaped line

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China’s “U-shaped Line” in the South China Sea – by Huy Duong | Asia Sentinel

19 September 2012

(C) Huy Duong | Asia Sentinel

China’s four possible positions

China’s claims to the disputed islands in the South China Sea and their inclusion on a map that depicts a U-shaped line that comes perilously close to the coastal waters of the countries that abut the sea, have given rise to concern and debate about the line’s meaning. At stake are billions of dollars in fishing and mineral rights that all of the parties to the debate each claim as their own.

Although the dispute over the Paracels started as long ago as 1909 between China and colonial Vietnam, then represented by France, and that over the Spratlys started in the 1930s between France and Japan, the arguments over the maritime space beyond 12 nautical miles from these islands are relatively recent.

In the 1960s Indonesia and Malaysia began to make claims to the continental shelf in the southern part of the South China Sea and in 1969 the two countries signed a demarcation agreement. In 1971 the then Republic of Vietnam, i.e., South Vietnam, declared a continental shelf claim that overlapped with those of Malaysia and Indonesia.

China — that is, the pre-1949 Kuomintang government — advanced a claim to the Spratlys from the end of the Second World War, and published a map in 1948 showing the now-well-known U-shaped line. Although the area inside that line overlaps the continental shelf claims of Indonesia, Malaysia and South Vietnam, neither the People’s Republic of China in Beijing nor the Nationalists now camped in Taipei objected to these claims, nor to the 1969 Indonesia-Malaysia agreement, nor did they advance any claims of their own.
In the 1990s, however, the government in Beijing started to protest against Vietnam’s oil and gas activities in the Nam Con Son and Vanguard Bank areas, and in 1992 it awarded an area of 25,000 sq km in the Vanguard Bank area to a US company. Since then, China’s words and actions in claiming maritime space far beyond 12 nautical miles from the disputed islands have been increasingly assertive.

In this context, China’s inclusion of a map that depicts the U-shaped line in unsigned diplomatic notes sent to the Commission on The Limit of the Continental Shelf in 2009, without explanation of the line’s meaning, has given rise to much discussion. Experts and diplomats ponder what China intends to claim inside that line and how China might use that line to support its claims.

Four potential meanings of the U-shaped line have been advanced and will be considered here.


  1. China’s Foreign Ministry has stated that China claims the islands inside the U-shaped line. By international law, this would include the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and any EXCLUSIVE ZONE and continental shelf that these islands generate. If this is all what China is claiming, with no implication that this line represents a claim to rights over maritime space right up to it, then this would be the most reasonable and legally valid interpretation of the U-shaped line. If the U-shaped line represents such claims, it is no more controversial than the claims to islands by other states. However, China has not stated that this is all what the U-shaped line represents.
  2. The government of the Republic of China (i.e., the Taiwan authorities), which is not recognized as a sovereign state, has described the area inside the U-shaped line as historical waters. This view is shared by some mainland scholars. However, international law has never recognized claims of historical waters that extend so far out to sea and cover such a vast area. In any case, there is no evidence that China has historically exercised sovereignty over the area enclosed by the U-shaped line. Therefore the interpretation of the area inside the U-shaped line as historical waters is overwhelmingly rejected by international law and evidence. Furthermore, given that historical waters are normally enclosed by baselines rather than lie outside them, such interpretation would be inconsistent with baseline declarations made by the PRC.
  3. China’s diplomatic note to the CLCS in 2009 in relation to Vietnam and Malaysia’s unilateral and joint CLCS submissions claim sovereignty over the “adjacent waters” of the islands in the South China Sea and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over “relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof”, referring to a map on which the U-shaped line is depicted, but without declaring that this line demarcates any of these areas. In 2011, China submitted a further asserting that “China’s Nansha Islands is fully entitled to Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelf”. These notes seem to support a third interpretation: that China intends to claim the area inside the U-shaped line as an exclusive zone and continental shelf generated by the disputed Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Reef. However, while this is a possible speculation, there has been no official statement from China to confirm it. Further, given that the U-shaped line for the most part lies closer to undisputed territories than to the disputed Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Reef, it would be impossible for China to justify it as a boundary for the exclusive zone and continental shelf generated by these features.
  4. Since China is not ready to settle for the first interpretation, and since the second and third are clearly indefensible under international law, in recent years Chinese scholars have advanced a fourth interpretation. According to this interpretation, China’s claims in the South China Sea are composed of three layers. In the first, China claims the disputed islands. In the second, it claims the exclusive zone and continental shelf generated by those islands, which might not extend as far as the U-shaped line. In the third layer, China claims “historic rights” over maritime space beyond 12 nautical miles from the islands, with the U-shaped line being either the limit or both the basis and the limit for this claim.

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High-Stakes Drama: The South China Sea Disputes – by Mark J. Valencia | Global Asia

06 September 2012

by Mark J. Valencia | Global Asia – The latest act in the long-running saga of the South China Sea has seen China moving aggressively to enforce its claim to most of the features of the potentially oil-rich sea while the US ‘rebalanced’ its defense and foreign policy toward Asia. As a partial result of US-China rivalry, ASEAN’s unity and its centrality to security issues are facing a severe crisis. The drama is far from over, writes Mark J. Valencia, and the road to a satisfactory management of the South China Sea conflicts is fraught with peril. 

THERE HAVE BEEN numerous significant developments in the South China Sea disputes over the past year.1 At the end of 2011 there was in place a weak and leaking Declaration on Conduct (DoC) for activities in the sea as well as vague and general guidelines for its implementation. The bilateral/multilateral conundrum regarding the process of negotiations between China and ASEAN loomed large. The Philippines was mounting a campaign to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claim (see map on page 60) and pushing a proposal for a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Co-operation designed to separate “disputed” from “non-disputed” areas in the South China Sea. China had warned Vietnam, the Philippines and India (its national oil company ONGC was operating in the sea under license from Vietnam) against exploring for hydrocarbons within its claim line. Yet both ONGC and Forum Energy/Philex Petroleum had announced plans to drill in 2012 in areas claimed by China — the latter on Reed Bank. India had entered the mix not only via its national oil company but by insisting that it has a rightful naval interest in the South China Sea.
Most significant, the US-China rivalry in the region was intensifying, sucking ASEAN and its members into its turbulent political wake. Indeed the disputes had become a new cockpit of China-US competition, distorting and overshadowing the intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-China disputes. The US-China rivalry was driving the issues forward and creating pressure on ASEAN and China to make progress or at least put together a temporary arrangement regarding the disputes.

This paper covers developments from the November 2011 Bali summits through the July 2012 Phnom Penh ASEAN meetings and their immediate aftermath. It summarizes the current political and strategic context, significant developments and the current situation, and then sketches several alternative futures.

The Political And Strategic Context

The tectonic plates of the international political system are inexorably grinding against one another, and the US and China are on opposite sides of the divide — and perhaps history. The US is yesterday’s and today’s sole superpower, but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to enforce its will are fast eroding.2 China’s leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, China’s leaders believe it is China’s destiny to regain its prominence — if not pre-eminence — in the region and perhaps eventually the world.

In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve the status quo that assures their position at the top of the hierarchy and view emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers feel constrained by the status quo and naturally strive to stretch the sinews of the international system. They fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they become an existential threat. These are the primordial political dynamics of the US-China struggle.

Their rivalry is fast becoming a zero-sum game, and both are extremely suspicious of each other’s intentions. Indeed, both countries “see deep dangers and threatening motivations in the policies of the others.”3 It does not help that leadership transitions are under way in both countries, and no candidate for leadership in either country can afford to be seen as weak on such security issues. Some US analysts even see an incipient Chinese “Monroe Doctrine” that would attempt to push the US out of the region.4 Worse, the US and China are tacitly forcing Asian countries to choose between them.

It would appear that the region is now at several tipping points regarding regional security architecture. Key questions include:

• Can ASEAN maintain unity by resolving its internal differences on these issues or is ASEAN unity in security a myth and an impossible dream in an era of competing big power strategic concepts and capabilities?

• Will ASEAN maintain its centrality in its own creations like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum?5

• Will US-China rivalry dominate these and other ASEAN “Plus” forums?

• Will the US attempt to drive the agenda of these forums and to emphasize negotiations and deliverables as opposed to ASEAN’s more laissez- faire approach?

• Will robust US participation in Asian political and military affairs survive looming defense budget cuts and the coming change of administrations or key personnel?6

The strategic goal of the US in Asia — besides spreading its values and way of life, including to China — is to maintain stability and the status quo by deterring Chinese aggression or coercion against its Asian “allies.” The conceptual intent is to encourage China to buy into existing international law and the order built by the West after World War II. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at the June 2012 Shangri-la Dialogue, “If both of us abide by international rules and international order, if both of us can work together to promote peace and prosperity and resolve disputes in this region, then both of us will benefit.”7

Panetta also has said that “the United States will renew its naval power across the Asia-Pacific region and stay ‘vigilant’ in the face of China’s growing military,”8 adding that “the key to that region is to develop a new era of defense co-operation between our countries, one in which our militaries share security burdens in order to advance peace in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.”

However, US reassurance of its allies and friends may have emboldened some to confront China. Further, US attempts to control regional institutions are likely to be perceived by some Southeast Asian countries as upsetting an already delicate geopolitical balance. For them, how the US behaves regarding the South China Sea disputes will say quite a bit about the future geopolitical environment.

China basically believes that Southeast Asian claimants to various islands are nibbling away at its legacy and rightful ownership of islands and resources in the South China Sea and that they are colluding with the US against China.

Moreover, China is gaining confidence as its economic and military might grow. However, China is facing a strategic dilemma in that its efforts to defend its maritime claims and interests are conflicting with its policy to improve relations with Southeast Asian countries. Its goal is to restore its “tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active US role there.” It recognizes that Western “soft power”9 has an advantage in the region and that it needs to “fight back” in kind.10

But China also continues to hint at its hard power. Indeed, Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng has said that the armed forces have vowed to “fulfill their duty” to safeguard China’s territory, rights and interests in the South China Sea.11 China is rapidly developing the unmanned aerial vehicles and littoral combat ships that it would need to confront the US Navy. Meanwhile, Chinese policy-makers “talk openly about their intent to oppose American unipolarity, revise the global order and command a greater share of global prestige and influence.”12

The current US “rebalancing” in Asia has disturbed Beijing’s military strategic planning.13 One Chinese strategic analyst sees the US balancing as a cover for “forging its alliances into the first island chain … while retreating its own military to the second island chain.” China’s leaders increasingly view the US alliance system in Asia as a relic of the Cold War,14 and they argue that the trend in Asia is toward peace and co-operation, not military alliance-building and the continuation of Cold War thinking.15

Some US conservatives argue that China is seeking to take advantage of the US preoccupation with this November’s elections to push hard in the South China Sea.16 Others say that China seeks to advance its cause incrementally, its policy-makers “extending and strengthening their influence wherever possible, while working quietly to weaken Washington’s position.”17

China clearly realizes that the US is not going to go away on its own nor reduce the pressure of its presence in the region. Indeed, contrary to China’s characterization of it as an “outside power,” the US says it is part of the Pacific family of nations and that it has a valid interest in freedom of navigation and access to the international commons in the South China Sea. The eventual result may be the pitting of China’s “denial of access” against US “assurance of access.” However, some Chinese strategists have warned their government that the South China Sea could become a trap that will divert and waste China’s economic and political capital.

One possibility — though unlikely — is the US and China agreeing to “deal with one another as equals.”18 Some suggest a grand bargain “centered around a Sino-US condominium — with the (tacit) approval of other major powers such as India, Japan and Australia.”19 Such an order would “establish principles or ‘red lines’ that the US and China would agree not to cross — most notably a guarantee not to use force without the other’s permission, or [except] in clear self-defense.” The fundamental challenge for the US is to discourage China’s aggressiveness while convincing China that the US is not its enemy — a rather delicate task. One interesting twist has been to argue that the US presence provides reassurance to smaller nations so that China can continue its rise without appearing to threaten them. Others suggest that China’s increasing dependence on raw material imports will inevitably lead it to challenge the US role in Asia, resulting in security competition.

US-China military relations are already poor and deteriorating. “The PLA is quite transparent about intentions, but opaque about their capabilities. The United States is the reverse … transparent about capabilities but ambiguous about intentions,” as one analyst put it.20 The two have been unable to agree even on an agenda for military talks. China insists that the US stop arms sales to Taiwan, cease “close-in” maritime and aerial surveillance of China, and remove restrictions on exporting American military technology to China.21 Although their May Strategic and Security Dialogue was marred by the case of rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who sought refuge in the US Embassy in Beijing and eventually was allowed to resettle in New York, the defense chiefs of the two countries subsequently met in Washington and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited China.22 It was hoped that these meetings would lead to a lowering of tension between the two powers. But this appears not to have followed.

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South China Sea conflict generates uncertainty and insecurity – by Tuong Nguyen | Global Post

24 August 2012

by Tuong Nguyen | Global Post – PARIS, France — A recent article, “China’s South China Sea jurisdictional claims: when politics and law collide,” published in the East Asia Forum, remarked that the uncertainty and insecurity generated by China’s claims in the South China Sea are reflected in headlines throughout Southeast Asia, even though the claims have no solid legal basis in international law.

China’s Blue Water Navy in the South China Sea. (C)

The insecurity is a consequence of tension in the region and in international relations rising from China’s newly aggressive posture in the South China Sea. The claims are based on a so-called “9-dashed line” map, adapted by the Zhou Enlai government when it took control of China in 1949. It is taken from the original map, known as the “11-dashed line” that was drawn by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government in 1947, a time when the islands of the South China Sea, once said to be a Japanese lake, were being returned to the countries that had possessed them before World War II.

The fundamental difference in the maps is that the Nationalist China map includes the Gulf of Tonkin, the Communist China map does not. The dashes on the maps refer to the demarcation lines used by China for its claim of the South China Sea area that includes the Paracels Island and the Spratly Islands. China occupies the Paracels, which are closest to China and Vietnam, but Vietnam and Taiwan are claiming them. Claims on some or all of the Spratly Islands, which are nearest Indonesia and the Philippines, are being made by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Spratlys are believed to contain important mineral resources, including oil.

The confusion over the legality of claims to the territories begins with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, signed in 1951, that officially ended World War II and Japan’s position as an imperial power. Neither China nor Taiwan were present because countries attending the peace conference could not agree which was the legitimate government of China. The treaty, as signed by the parties, did not specify which countries could legally possess the former Japanese territories in the South China Sea.

Taiwan and China each wanted Japan to return the islands of Paracels and Spratlys to them. This resulted in Taiwan’s version, the “11-dashed line” map, and Communist China’s adaptation that became the “9-dashed line.” The 1952 Treaty of Taipei between Japan and the Republic of China, newly established on the island now known as Taiwan, did not assign possession of Paracels and Spratlys. Communist China unilaterally claimed the right to have the islands.

Thus, the current claims of both China and Taiwan have no basis in international accords and, in effect, are illegal. China is inconsistent in attempting to de-recognize Japan’s World War II territorial claims in the South China Sea while using those claims to assert its sovereignty on former Japanese territories.

Internationally, the political and legal status of Taiwan remains a contentious issue. Consequently, China’s claims to the territories, based on Taiwan’s sovereignty, are among many unresolved issues between the two countries.

Disputes on the sovereignty over the Paracels and Spratlys in the South China Sea existed before the World War II. All unilateral or bilateral agreements or claims on multilateral disputes are invalid.

The United Nations Law of the Sea Convention that concluded in 1982 defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans. Among its provisions are rules for establishing territorial limits and providing means for settling disputes over coastal claims. All of the countries boarding the South China Sea, except North Korea, are among the 162 nations to ratify the treaty. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the treaty.

Under international law, the current crisis should be presented to the Law of the Sea Convention to settle the Chinese challenge to Vietnam, the Philippines and others over claims to more than 40 islands in the South China Sea.

Among the territorial disputes the Law of the Sea Convention might address is to clarify which areas are disputed and which ones are not. In May 2009, for example, Malaysia and Vietnam submitted jointly to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which was established to implement the Law of the Sea Convention.

Also in May 2009, China submitted for the first time its “9-dashed line” map attached to a Note Verbale to Secretary-General of the United Nation seeking to refute the claims of Vietnam and Malaysia and to clarify its claims. Although the claim in China’s map was unclear, its submission was considered a major milestone in the South China Sea disputes.

Because that was the first time the international community knew officially of the Chinese claims designated on the map, Vietnam immediately sent a diplomatic note to the Secretary-General to refute China’s claims. These submissions did not identify clearly the disputed areas, but they are legal and valuable documents for the settlement procedure.

Philippines, a leading voice in the resolution of South China Sea issues, has recently proposed a solution based on a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation. It requires a clear delimitation of disputed and undisputed areas in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea before peacefully pursuing joint development as outlined in China’s proposal.

The Philippine proposal segregates the undisputed areas from disputed ones. Vietnam supports the Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation while China has rejected it and pressed others Association of South East Asian Nations not to participate in discussions about it.

Not surprisingly, since China has never made clear its claims by using the so-called “9-dashed line” covering virtually more than 90 percent of the South China Sea, this rule-based concept breaks through the imprecision of China’s approach. China’s assertive posture has raised concerns among the international community about the potential for conflict in the South China Sea area. Beijing’s steps in the South China Sea are more determined and aggressive than ever, creating the worrisome prospect of escalating tension in the area. The first step toward settling these disputes through peaceful negotiations based on international law would be for all to claimants to state their claims with clarity.

Tuong Nguyen is a computer science postdoctoral fellow in Paris, France and free commentator on maritime affairs. 

(Original version is available at Global Post

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Uncharted territory – by Editorial | Nature

20 October 2011

 by Editorial | Nature  – Political maps that seek to advance disputed territorial claims have no place in scientific papers. Researchers should keep relationships cordial by depoliticizing their work.

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Muhammad Ali observed that the wars of nations are fought to change maps — and he was a man who knew how to fight. Yet there are more subtle ways to change maps. Take the South China Sea: Chinese officials insist that much of its waters belong to China, and Chinese maps tend to include a dotted line that makes the same point. Yet there is no international agreement that China should have possession, and other countries have overlapping claims.

What has this to do with science and Nature? Nothing — except that territorial disputes, including that over the South China Sea, are leaking into the pages of scientific journals such as this one. In a disturbing trend, an increasing number of maps included in scientific articles by Chinese researchers feature a dotted line that envelops almost the entire South China Sea, to indicate Chinese possession (see page 293). Scientists and citizens of surrounding countries are understandably peeved by the maps, which in most cases are completely unrelated to the subjects of the papers in which they are published. The inclusion of the line is not a scientific statement — it is a political one, apparently ordered by the Chinese government. It’s a territorial claim, and it’s being made in the wrong place.

“Where research and politics mix, science should be a tool of diplomacy, not territorial aggression.”

Where research and politics mix, science should be a tool of diplomacy, not territorial aggression. Even politically hostile environments can prove fertile ground for scientific collaborations. An increasing number of researchers from Taiwan are teaming up with colleagues in mainland China, even as Beijing and Taipei continue to fundamentally disagree over their relationship. According to data provided by Lou-Chuang Lee, the head of Taiwan’s National Science Council, the number of research papers resulting from cross-strait collaborations rose from 521 in 2005 to 1,207 last year.

Such collaborations set the stage for the realization of common interests and, one might hope, resolution of political differences. At the least, they could help to restrain aggression.

Still, politics does often find a way to intrude. In August, for example, Ann-Shyn Chiang, director of the Brain Research Center at the National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, Taiwan, was surprised by a request from Yi Rao, a neuroscientist at Peking University in Beijing, with whom he was writing a paper. Rao wanted to put down Chiang’s affiliation as ‘Taiwan, China’, the appellation preferred by Beijing. Chiang told Rao either to use Taiwan or Taiwan ROC (Republic of China), or to drop his name from the author list.

Eventually the two found a compromise, agreeing that they would use Taiwan, Republic of China. The dispute over the South China Sea, with its resources and geopolitical significance, won’t be so easily ironed out.

With regard to this and other international disputes, Nature takes the position that scientists should stick to the science. Authors should try to depoliticize their articles as much as possible by avoiding inflammatory remarks, contentious statements and controversial map designations. If such things can’t be avoided, for example if a study of a country’s resources requires taking account of whether a certain island belongs to it, the map should be marked as ‘under dispute’ or something to that effect. In papers in Nature, editors reserve the right to insert such a label if authors fail to do so. By avoiding controversy, researchers who keep politics from contaminating their science will keep the doors of collaboration open, and their studies will benefit. Researchers could also, as a by-product, help to defuse political tensions, show the way to mutual benefit and perform a diplomatic service.

Researchers on all sides have much in common, as many scientists in parts of the world made unstable by conflict can appreciate. It makes no sense to undermine this solidarity through irrelevant political and territorial posturing.

 (Original version is available at Nature)

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Concern over the South China Sea – by Tuan Quang Pham et al. | Science

27 September 2011

by Tuan Quang Pham et al. | Science – In “China’s demographic history and future challenges” (special section on Population, Review, X. Peng, 29 July 2011, p. 581), the maps of China show a U-shaped curve enclosing most of the South China Sea and its islands (the Paracels and Spratlys), clearly implying that the colored area within the curve belongs to China. However, these islands are subject to territorial disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. To show these islands unambiguously as Chinese territory is therefore questionable, especially when they are almost uninhabited and irrelevant to the population study in the Review.

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The U-shaped curve in the map is even less justifiable. It appears only in Chinese maps and has been claimed by Chinese authors to represent China’s traditional maritime boundaries (1). It was used officially by China (2) to claim “sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the resources of the South China Sea. Wherever it appears, such as in Figure 1 from (2), this curve blatantly infringes other countries’ 200–nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) as recognized by international law (3). It extends beyond the mid-line between the disputed islands and other countries’ coastlines, and thus constitutes a much wider claim than the waters associated with these islands.

China’s unilateral claim over vast expanses of ocean is unprecedented in world history and violates the United Nations Law of the Sea (3), which all nations surrounding the South China Sea, including China, have ratified. That China pushes this claim seriously is not in doubt, as evidenced by recent incidents in which Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese oil exploration ships well inside Vietnam’s EEZ (4).

No other nation recognizes China’s U-shaped maritime border. Indonesia and the Philippines have officially expressed concern (5, 6). The U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution deploring China’s actions (7). There is no justification for such a controversial, and, in terms of international law, illegal feature in a scholarly paper. One can only hope that its presence was not due to political pressure.

 (Original version is available at Science)

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China’s U-Shaped Claims – by Huy Duong | The Diplomat Blog

09 June 2011

by Huy Duong | The Diplomat Blog – Late last month, tension in the South China Sea was ratcheted up a further when three Chinese marine surveillance ships threatened the Vietnamese seismic survey ship Binh Minh 02 and sabotaged its seismic equipment. The incident took place 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s mainland coast and 340 nautical miles from China’s Hainan Island, well inside Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

China's U-Shaped ClaimsFor anyone wondering if this incident is somehow tied to the Paracels and Spratlys disputes, then the answer is no. The Binh Minh incident took place closer to the Vietnamese coast than the Paracels or the Spratlys. According to international law and state practice, the Spratlys and Paracels’ islands and rocks are only entitled to either a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles or, at most, a territorial sea plus an EEZ that doesn’t extend much beyond 12 nautical miles. By no stretch of the imagination, then, could their EEZs extend to or past the midlines between them and the coastlines surrounding the South China Sea.

With this in mind, it has been interesting to follow the ensuing war of words between Vietnam and China.

On May 27, Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Ambassador in Hanoi accusing China of violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Vietnam’s sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

The following day, China retorted that what it did was ‘completely normal marine law enforcement and surveillance activities in China’s jurisdictional sea area.’

But as ‘jurisdictional sea area’ isn’t one of the maritime zones defined in the UNCLOS, it remains unclear what exactly China meant by that term, and what might be the legal basis for it.

The exchange of barbs continued on May 29, when Vietnam retaliated by saying that it was conducting its exploration entirely within its 200-nautical-mile EEZ and continental shelf, ‘in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is neither a disputed area nor is it an area “managed by China.” China has deliberately misled the public into thinking that it is a disputed area.’

Effectively, Vietnam was saying that the area wasn’t part of the Paracels and Spratlys disputes.

Two days later, China hit back, claiming that its action was, ‘law enforcement activities by Chinese maritime surveillance ships against Vietnam’s illegally operating ships are completely justified.’ It urged Vietnam to ‘immediately stop infringement activities and refrain from creating new troubles.’

Once again, China failed to state its claim in terms of UNCLOS maritime zones. Nor did it specify any limit or cite international law to support its claim.

This latest development bears a striking resemblance to the Reed Bank incident in March, when two Chinese patrol boats threatened a seismic survey ship operating on behalf of the Philippines. That incident also took place nearer to the Philippines’ Palawan coast than to the contested Spratlys. In both cases, China asserted its claims without any limit or justification based on the UNCLOS or international law. The Philippines’ riposte was that the Reed Bank isn’t part of the Spratlys and therefore isn’t subject to the Spratlys dispute.

In the past, China has made similar claims against Malaysia at James’ Shoal, against Indonesia over the waters near the Natuna Islands, and against Vietnam in the Vanguard Bank and Blue Dragon areas. These claims, together with the Reed Bank and Binh Minh incidents, should dispel any doubts that China is trying to expand its control well beyond the disputed Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Reef, and their associated waters.

A common feature with all these claims and clashes is that they all involve areas inside the mysterious ‘;U-shaped line’ that, some time during the last century, China started putting on its maps. Over the years, this U-shaped line gradually expanded until it covered most of the South China Sea, to within less than a hundred nautical miles of other countries’ coastlines, without any justification based on international law or customs.

Although the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are all directly affected by this expansionist policy, the first two, being the countries that are nearest to China, will bear the brunt of Chinese expansion, for a number of reasons.

First, these two nations’ maritime spaces will clearly be affected the most. Second, if China doesn’t try to claim the Philippines and Vietnam’s maritime spaces, its claims over Malaysia’s, Indonesia’s and Brunei’s will disintegrate. This means that while China might make compromises at the southern tip of its notorious U-shaped line to keep Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei quiet while it deals with the Philippines and Vietnam first, it can’t do the reverse and give up its claims in the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s maritime spaces in order to gain the southern tip. Of course, if China is successful in getting its way against the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia’s, Indonesia’s and Brunei’s turns will come.

As a result, both the Philippines and Vietnam have been put in a situation where they need to resolutely protect their legitimate maritime spaces. At stake are more than economic interests: they also have reasons to fear that their security and national independence are threatened.

Although there remain differences between the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratlys, there’s much more scope for the two nations to co-operate in defending their respective maritime spaces that don’t belong to the Spratlys. Given China’s extensive claims, these maritime spaces may be far more significant than those belonging to the disputed Spratlys.

The Philippines’ note verbale to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf after the Reed Bank incident highlights how the country is using UNCLOS to defend its rights in the South China Sea. With Vietnam relying on the same body of law, the two nations have a common framework for co-operation.

For example, if Vietnam and the Philippines could voice their diplomatic support for each other in incidents such as the Reed Bank and Binh Minh ones, it would benefit both nations. More fundamentally, though, analysts and diplomats from the two nations should get together with their counterparts from Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia to decide what exactly the Spratlys consist of and how much maritime space can be attributed to them, which would lead to a collective agreement on the extent of the contested areas in the South China Sea. This will help these nations in individually and collectively opposing China’s attempts to expand the South China Sea dispute into previously uncontested areas. It will also help to convince the world of the merit of their case.

Another path that the Philippines and Vietnam could explore is making joint submissions of their continental shelf claims to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, possibly with the participation of Malaysia and Brunei.

Either of these actions would be without prejudice to the question of sovereignty over the Spratlys, and would benefit the Philippines and Vietnam enormously in counteracting China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

Huy Duong contributes articles on the South China Sea to several news outlets including the BBC and Vietnam’s online publication VietNamNet.


(Original version is available at The Diplomat Blog)

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