The Fallacy of China's “9-Dash-Line” Claims over the South China Sea

In the “Report of the 13th Central Committee to the 14th National Congress” held last November 7, the PKP-1930 reiterated its position that maritime claims over the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully, based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS is a product of extensive deliberations among all states within the UN system since 1958, and is now the international law governing the seas. UNCLOS laid to rest all “historic claims” to seas and oceans based on ancient discovery, conquest and occupation during the past centuries. UNCLOS adopted a compulsory mechanism for the settlement of maritime claims and disputes, and designated a final authoritative body to interpret and apply its provisions.

UNCLOS redefined the extent of maritime zones of coastal states based on the following : defined baselines ; internal waters (waters on the landward side of the baselines, such as indented bays) ; territorial sea (12 nautical miles of sovereign territory from the baselines) ; contiguous zone (a limited enforcement zone of another 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial sea) ; exclusive economic zone (EEZ beyond the territorial sea, extending up to 200 nautical miles from the baselines) ; extended continental shelf (ECS, extending up to 150 nautical miles beyond the EEZ) ; and the high seas area beyond the ECS which is reserved as the common heritage of mankind, completely belonging to all states whether coastal or landlocked. When the Philippines ratified UNCLOS, Philippine maritime boundaries changed in contour and shrank from the former area defined in the 1898 Treaty of Paris (and the subsequent 1900 Treaty of Washington) under which the losing Spanish empire “sold” the Philippine colony to the victorious US imperialists.

The forging of UNCLOS was specifically aimed at extinguishing unjustified claims similar to China’s claim of “historic rights” over 90% of the South China Sea, extending well beyond its own EEZ and encroaching upon the EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. China claims “historic rights” based on alleged ancient explorations, the alleged extent of which have been put together in a “9-Dash-Line” map that China first officially submitted to the UN in May 2009. (Note : The “9-Dash-Line” appears as a tongue-shaped protrusion from mainland China covering almost the whole of the South China Sea, and has thus earned the local monickers of “Glutton’s Tongue” or even “Devil’s Tongue”.)

Incidentally, this map emanated from an “11-dash-line” map produced by the Kuomintang government for an unknown reason in 1947, where the “dashes” have no exact coordinates. For an unknown reason, the “dashes” were reduced to 9, but in January of last year a 10th “dash” was added east of Formosa Island (Taiwan). The “dashes” in China’s “9-dash-line” map still lack exact coordinates, and do not in any way emanate from any baseline on Chinese shores ; China’s claim over almost the whole of the South China Sea based on this map is therefore a gross violation of UNCLOS. If it were not only for China’s bullying might, the absurdity of this “Glutton’s Tongue”  or “Devil’s Tongue” claim would have been the butt of regional and international ridicule and derision. 

The PKP-1930 supports the UNCLOS concept that each coastal state should enjoy exclusive sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf within its own EEZ, as well as sovereign rights over the continental shelf within its own Extended Continental Shelf or ECS. The area beyond the ECS should remain the common heritage of mankind, completely belonging to all states, whether coastal or landlocked. Where the EEZ or ECS of 2 or more countries overlap, these countries should negotiate in good faith an equitable maritime boundary, or an agreement for common or shared rights over the waters and/or continental shelf in the overlap area.

Between Vietnam and China, there is some overlapping of their ECSs and EEZs. Between the Philippines and China/Taiwan, there is also some overlapping of their ECSs and EEZs. But between Malaysia and Brunei (on the one hand) and China (on the other hand), there is no overlapping at all of their ECSs and EEZs. Thru its “9-dash-line” map, it is China which has made unjustifiable and even ridiculous claims upon the ECSs and EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, in many areas so far removed from China’s own coasts.

China now alleges that her “9-dash-line” map represents explorations made during her dynastic past --- starting from the Song dynasty of 960-1279 AD, and up to the exploratory expeditions of the Ming dynasty’s “Treasure Fleets” led by Admiral Cheng Ho [or Zheng He] from 1405 to 1433. At that time, maritime explorations were marked with many errors and miscalculations, report exaggerations and even the weaving of myths about mystical sea creatures and powers. Visual sightings unaided by scientific instruments resulted in the drawing up of unreliable maps which differ in so many ways from the precise maps of the past decades. Locating sea points described in ancient maritime expeditions is more open to conjecture, compared with the task of locating places described in ancient land-based travel accounts such as that of Marco Polo.

Those ancient Chinese maritime explorations did not result in any claim of sovereignty or of colony then. And even if those explorations led to any conquest, such can never be the basis for any present-day territorial or maritime claim. For the same reason, Spain cannot “reclaim” the lands and waters of the Philippines, Guam, the Marianas, or countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, on the basis of “discovery” or even conquest. Since the 16th century, warships of European powers have controlled the oceans of the colonial world, including the South China Sea where Chinese vessels have stopped plying. It is a historical truth that China herself was colonized by European powers and the USA since the 19th century, ushering a long period of national humiliation similar to what the Philippines and other colonial countries suffered.

Provisions of UNCLOS are directly opposed to “historic claims”. To accept any concept of “historic claim” under UNCLOS would be to allow havoc in international relations. Like China, Spain and Portugal could also pose ridiculous historic claims on the basis of several supposedly “infallible” Papal Bulls issued by Pope Alexander VI (Roderic de Borja) from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 16th century, dividing the world between these 2 countries. Indonesia could pose her own territorial claims on the basis of the ancient extent of the Majapahit and Sri Vijayan empires. Greece can lay claim to Alexander the Great’s empire, while Turkey can reclaim the Ottoman empire. Other nations or ethnic groups could then call for the revival of their own extinct empires, kingdoms, emirates and caliphates, including in Tibet and Xinjiang. Then what could stop Mongolia from claiming China itself on the basis of conquest by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty ? And what if, on the basis also of the “historical truth” of past conquest, subjugation and humiliation, western empires and the USA would also pose territorial and maritime claims upon China? Of course “historic claims” can only revive ancient conflicts and wars of mankind’s barbaric past. So, enough of “historic” absurdities.

China’s “9-dash-line” map is a recent invention which no country in the world recognizes, respects or tolerates. This is only similar to other post-revolution geography textbook maps claiming the extent of China’s alleged suzerainty or tributary influence over Kamchatka and large swaths of Siberia, and the whole of the Korean peninsula, Indochina and up to Myanmar, at different times in the ancient past. In one such school textbook map, the Philippines’ Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelagos are also included under China’s suzerainty, reflecting the historical fact that the muslim Sultanate of Sulu was a vassal of, and was paying tribute to, the Ming emperors sometime during the 15th century. Sultan Paduka Pahala of Sulu was even buried in China when he died there in 1417 after paying tribute to Emperor Zhu Di.

In a lecture at the De la Salle University on the 6th of this month, Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio further demolished China’s alleged “historical facts” underlying her “9-dash-line” claims. (Note : This lecture may be downloaded from the internet.) Carpio presented 15 maps drawn by Chinese authorities or individuals from 1136 to around 1933 --- including the last (1896) official map of the Qing Empire --- all showing that Hainan Island is the southernmost territory of China. The “9-dash-line” map is therefore exposed as a recent invention which finds no basis in China’s own ancient maps. Carpio also presented 3 maps of China drawn by Dutch and French cartographers between 1700 and 1833, similarly showing Hainan Island as China’s southernmost territory.

As regards the West Philippine Sea, Carpio presented 34 maps drawn by Philippine authorities and foreigners between 1636 and 1933, all showing Scarborough Shoal (whether unnamed, or alternately named as Punto de Mandato, Panacot or Bajo de Masinloc) as part of the Philippines. Special attention was given to Scarborough Shoal because this area was invaded by China in April 2012, and occupied (guarded by warships and fishing vessels) since then.  

Carpio quoted from 5 constitutions of China since the fall of the Qing Empire in 1912, which reiterated that its territory remained the same as the territory of the Qing Empire (which considered Hainan Island as its southernmost territory). Carpio further quotes from a note verbale issued on September 29, 1933, by the Chinese Legation in France, addressed to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, stating that the Paracels, which lie 145 nautical miles from Hainan Island, form the southernmost part of Chinese territory. 

Carpio further exposed some historical lies which make China’s “9-dash-line” claim a gigantic historical fraud. For one, China now claims that its southernmost “territory” is James Shoal, around 50 nautical miles from Bintulu in Sarawak, which is within Malaysia’s EEZ. James Shoal is more than 950 nautical miles from Hainan Island, and was apparently designated as China’s southernmost “dash” without any Chinese official having previously visited the place. This is because James Shoal is not a rock partly submerged in shallow waters, but a reef permanently submerged in 22 meters of water. Without land where one can go ashore, how can James Shoal (which is only 50 nautical miles from Malaysian shores) be China’s “territory” ?

Another anomaly in the “9-dash-line” map that Carpio exposed is China’s claim of sovereign rights over Macclesfield Bank, a group of fully submerged atolls, which China claims are “islands” that it calls as “Zhongsa Islands”. The highest point of these atolls is around 9.2 meters below sea level. With an area of around 6,448 square kilometers, Macclesfield Bank is actually part of the high seas beyond any country’s EEZ or ECS, and cannot be appropriated by China or any other country. By insisting that Macclesfield Bank consists of “islands”, China is trying to remove this area from its actual high seas maritime zone category. UNCLOS clearly prohibits states from subjecting the high seas to their sovereignty.

Finally, Carpio also demolished China’s claim that Scarborough Shoal (part of the Philippine EEZ) is the fabled “Nanhai Island” where the Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing allegedly installed an observatory in 1279. A few barren rocks barely protrude above water at high tide at Scarborough Shoal, with not enough space to accommodate even an expedition party. Thus it was physically impossible for Guo Shoujing to have gone ashore to visit, and to have built an astronomical observatory at, Scarborough Shoal.

In the same way that communists have always condemned the imperialist invasion and colonization of the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the PKP-1930 condemns Chinese hegemonism and bullying in the South China Sea. The PKP-1930 is of the position that communists should never approve of any territorial or maritime claim based on the ancient (feudal and pre-feudal) past. China’s “9-dash-line” claim over 90% of the whole South China Sea, on the basis of her dynastic past, is clearly a display of Great Han chauvinism. China’s invasion of Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and its continued occupation of the same since then, are acts of aggression considering that these 2 areas are within the Philippine EEZ. China’s stationing of warships since last year in the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), another area within the Philippine EEZ, is a clear threat to the Philippines.

China’s stationing of forces on islands and waters within the EEZ of other countries in the South China Sea may be likened to the UK’s colonial control over the Malvinas Islands and Gibraltar, the US colonial control over Puerto Rico and the Guantanamo military base in Cuba, and France’s colonial control over some territories in the Pacific. Significantly, this may also be likened to Japan’s continued control over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands in the East China Sea. These islands should have been ceded to China after the Second World War, not due to some “historic right” on the part of China, but based on the decisions of the Allied Powers (which included the Chiang Kai-shek government in wartime China) at the Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam summits regarding the scope of Japan’s post-war territory.

To the PKP-1930, the pursuance of the absurd “9-dash-line” claim by China --- a supposed socialist state led by a communist party --- is certainly frustrating, but not surprising. China’s abandonment of proletarian internationalism, and its strategic partnership with imperialism and reactionary forces (as against the USSR, the socialist community and even the liberation movements in Southern Africa) during the maoist past, remains unlamented by China’s rulers. China’s past role in supporting maoist factions and terrorist activities to divide and weaken the international communist movement, has never even been deplored. And China’s role in the decimation of the Cambodian people by the maoist Pol Pot regime, had simply been shrugged off. In fact, proletarian internationalism still appears quite alien to the Communist Party of China (CPC), which continues to strengthen relationships with reactionary parties.

China’s economic partnership with imperialism, as the main manufacturing base for transnational corporations, remains constant. Its propping up of the US dollar, considering its large trade hoard of the same, is even no reason for shame. The expansion of the thrust of Chinese finance capital, and even of its labor force, to penetrate neocolonial countries, goes against the libertarian struggles of the working masses in such countries.

Its drive to secure resources, strengthen its own transnational corporations and build up private wealth thru the exploitative capitalist path is putting China on a collision course with the international working class. The rise to national power of capitalist-oriented Special-Economic-Zone managers, and the wholesale entry of the capitalist class (“professionals who possess or manage capital”) into the CPC, threaten whatever remains of the socialist nature of China’s state power. The slogan of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has turned into a process leading to the dilution of socialism and the rise of free-market capitalism, to corruption, steep social inequality, great-Han chauvinism and hegemonism.

China’s pursuance of its “9-dash-line” claim is a reflection of its newly-found capitalist appetite for expansionism and the bullying of small neighbors, calculating that these neighbors (and even the USA) can do little about it. In the case of the Philipines, the PNoy Aquino regime even continues to award big-ticket projects to Chinese companies (such as the supply of locomotives and coaches for the light railway system), despite the growing trend among Filipino consumers to boycott Chinese products in response to the growing presence of Chinese forces within the Philippine EEZ.

Those who expect the USA to put pressure upon China to abandon its hegemonist swagger in the South China Sea, are in for a surprise. The US government had already declared that the dispute in the West Philippine Sea is outside the purview of the 1951 USA-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). And despite the planned US military “pivot” towards Asia and the Pacific, the US-China economic partnership remains strong, and is even being reinforced by US invitations for China to join naval exercises in the Pacific. (Note : For information on the position of the PKP-1930 against US meddling in the South China Sea dispute, please see the relevant articles in the September 2013 and March 2014 issues of “SULONG!”.)

In this situation, affected ASEAN countries should be united in their opposition to China’s “9-dash-line” claims over the South China Sea. It would do well if, similar to the Philippines, the other affected ASEAN countries would likewise formally file compulsory arbitration cases against China under UNCLOS rules. Affected ASEAN countries should also initiate agreements among themselves to delineate the maritime boundaries of their respective ECSs and EEZs, and/or to set procedures to ensure the peaceful and joint exploration (or “joint use”) of resources wherever their ECSs and EEZs may overlap.

As regards China, a return to communist principles among its people, and especially within the CPC, is necessary for China to abandon its present laissez- faire policies and direction, to mitigate social inequality and truly empower the Chinese working class, to end its capitalist exploitation of other countries, to stop its expansionist drive in the South China Sea, to fully respect UNCLOS and international law, to shelve ancient claims and bury its “Glutton’s Tongue” or “Devil’s Tongue” map.