Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal
At the end of August 2023, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources released an updated official map of the geographical territories that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims in 2023. This map, departing from the previous Nine-Dash Line standard, now includes a tenth dash, the placement of which officially encompasses the island of Taiwan into its core territory, reinforcing that and other claims made by the PRC in Southeast Asia.
The previous Nine-Dash Line and related claims are already controversial standards China has attempted to set. According to international law, countries can only claim and use territory within 200 nautical miles of their shores, referred to as their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). This number comes from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It represents the most significant extent of water that can be claimed by different countries, among various other limitations and regulations. As a signatory to these agreements, China cannot technically claim these territories having already agreed to the standard above on national waters. Regardless of this fact, China continues to perpetuate these claims, which conflict with the other claims and EEZs of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
The basis of the Nine-Dash Line claim was initially made by the Republic of China (now Taiwan) on a map published in 1947. After the Republic of China lost the civil war, Mao Zedong chose to continue with the claims made by the map after establishing the PRC. These claims were largely ignored, even after the 1994 UNCLOS agreement, until May 2009, when the PRC released a map with the nine-dashes claiming almost the entirety of the South China Sea.
The claims made by China to the entire South China Sea rest based on supposed ancient claims to the region due to its supposed first exploration under the Song Dynasty. The nature of these claims is questionable even for China, as a leaked diplomatic cable from 2008 shows that senior maritime officials in China did not know of any historical basis to claim these territories.
In 2016, after repeated attempts to enforce these claims, the Philippines brought China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. For almost all of the 15 allegations made during the proceedings, the court ruled unanimously in favor of the Philippines. Despite this, China has continued to build a military presence and artificial islands to reinforce these claims, as well as harassing the commercial and military vessels of any other nation that tries to operate within their territorial waters. This military action also goes against a promise made in 2015 not to militarize these islands.
In 2023, China released a new map featuring a Ten-Dash Line, doubling down on the controversial and illegal claims to the sea. The disputes in the South China Sea are a more miniature reflection of the larger territorial brinkmanship of the PRC in trying to enforce claims that have brought it into conflict with Taiwan, India, Russia, Japan, Bhutan, and Vietnam. As China continues to militarize this area, the possibility of escalating into armed conflict grows steadily. However, the South China Sea encompasses not only some of the most significant shipping routes on Earth, through which 21% of all global trade passes, but also contains vast sums of untapped natural resources, including an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As such, neither side in any of these disputes is likely to surrender their claim to these resources willingly.
Several nations have launched major protests in response to the newly released map. India, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan have all released government statements condemning these claims in one form or another since the new map’s release. This mass condemnation likely won’t stop China from producing maps with this standard going forward, as a national law dictates that any maps produced in China must follow their standard of global geography.
Given the manufacturing importance of China, this means that many of the global maps since 2009 have included the Nine-Dash Line and, from now on, are likely to include the Ten-Dash Line. The issue over the South China Sea is only one of many related territorial disputes that China has with most of its neighbors. Only time will tell, however, if China continues to escalate its civilian and military actions to enforce these claims.