SINO Files has covered the growing tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea on several occasions. Those issues were brought to a different kind of head this week when a group of about ten Chinese tourists landed at Cam Ranh International Airport in Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam, wearing T-shirts featuring a map of China, and the illicit ‘nine-dash line’ that violates Vietnam’s sovereignty.
What is the nine-dash line?
The South China Sea encompasses several hundred small islands, reefs, and atolls, almost all uninhabited and uninhabitable, within a 1.4 million square mile area. The PRC inherited from the former Kuomintang government of China (which fled to Taiwan) the nine-dash line, which draws a line around these islands, asserts sovereignty over all of them, and makes ambiguous claims about rights to waters within the line.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s, countries can claim exclusive rights to the fish and mineral resources within Exclusive Economic Zones, which can extend 200 nautical miles from a continental shore line or around islands that can support habitation. There is no provision in the convention granting rights to waters, such as in the South China Sea, without regard to land-based sovereign rights. So, it has long been implicit in the U.S. interpretation of UNCLOS that claims to the mineral and fish resources of the South China Sea, unless they are linked to specific inhabitable islands, are invalid.
In 2014, the United States came out publicly for the first time with an explicit statement that the nine-dash line violates international law. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at that time said,
Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
Though the U.S. has no territorial claims of its own in the South China Sea, it does have important interests such as ensuring freedom of navigation and ensuring that all countries, including the U.S., have the right to exploit the mineral and fish resources outside of legitimate Exclusive Economic Zones.
Why is the line so important?
It serves as the basis of China’s claim to “historical rights” in the region, as neither Beijing nor Taipei ever held effective control over the entire region. Other claimants such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei root their claim in geographical proximity, while Vietnam, which occupies the largest number of islands and reefs in the Spratlys, at 29, stresses it actively administers the area.
The Philippines launched a challenge with The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands —who ruled in 2016 that China’s claims of historical rights over South China Sea has no legal basis, thereby violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
Why is the South China Sea so important?
The South China Sea is a busy international waterway — one of the main arteries of the global economy and trade. More than $5 trillion of world trade ships pass through the area every year and it is also extremely resource rich, with numerous offshore oil and gas blocks.
As for Vietnam
China originally laid claim to the South China Sea back in 1947 — demarcating its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map. After the Chinese Communist Party took control in 1949, it removed the Gulf of Tonkin portion in 1953, erasing two of the dashes to make it a nine-dash line. China claims some 2000 years of historical control over the region.
Vietnam rejects the Chinese arguments outright, justifying its own claims, based on written records, which, in its view, establishes its administration over the area since the 17th century. Beijing and Manila also clash regularly over the jurisdiction of the Scarborough shoal, which is 160 kilometers from the Philippines.
So, the T-shirts were a no-go
The Chinese tourists were traveling to Vietnam on a tour operated by Aladin Co. Ltd, a travel and trading company based in Khanh Hoa’s resort city of Nha Trang, about 35 kilometers from the Cam Ranh airport. Bui Quoc Tuan, an Aladin manager, said it was not until the Chinese tourists had passed immigration that the company’s tour guide realized their clothes featured the controversial map. For the Vietnamese, the t-shirts were a slap in the face.
“We asked them to get changed and seized all the T-shirts for submission to relevant authorities,” Tuan said.
In 2014, a Chinese couple were also caught trying to bring many world maps showing the illicit ‘nine-dash line’ into Vietnam through the Moc Bai Border Gate in the southern province of Tay Ninh.
Featured image courtesy of the Philippine Defense Forces