China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi has defended the country's use of a nine-dash line to justify its sprawling claims over the South China Sea, making him the most senior Chinese official to rebut the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague's ruling on this issue.
Mr Yang, a state councillor who oversees foreign policy, said in an interview with state media yesterday that China's claims were formed by its people's practices "throughout millennia" and upheld by successive governments through actions such as an official map in 1948 with the U-shaped line over the South China Sea.
"This is a historical fact beyond any doubt," he said.
Mr Yang, who outranks the foreign minister, added that China's claims in the area "long predate" the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). "They shall by no means be denied by Unclos, still less by an unwarranted and flawed award. China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are protected by both international law and Unclos," he said.
The tribunal on Tuesday ruled that China's rights to resources in waters inside the nine-dash line were extinguished if those waters are within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of other coastal states. It also noted there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources.
CHINA WILL NOT BE DENIED
This is a historical fact beyond any doubt... They shall by no means be denied by Unclos, still less by an unwarranted and flawed award. China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are protected by both international law and Unclos.
CHINA'S TOP DIPLOMAT YANG JIECHI, on upholding its nine-dash line
The tribunal was ruling on a case initiated in 2013 by the Philippines on the legality of China's territorial claims based on the nine-dash line and also its maritime entitlements from the disputed islands.
China refused to take part in the proceedings or accept the ruling, saying the tribunal had no jurisdiction and accusing its five-member panel of acting unfairly and unprofessionally.
The nine-dash line first appeared as an 11-dash line on Chinese maps in the 1940s. Two dashes were removed later to bypass the Gulf of Tonkin as goodwill to Vietnam.
The line gained global notice after it appeared on a map attached to a Chinese official note submitted in May 2009 to the United Nations on the outer limits of its continental shelf under Unclos.
Extending 2,000km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, the line has been used by China to lay claim to most of the waterway. But Beijing has been ambiguous about the line, refusing to define its legal meaning or the extent of its claims.
Experts said Mr Yang's remarks were consistent with the government practice of maintaining ambiguity on the nine-dash line.
"The ambiguity remains, but there was still a need for him to comment because there are fears that China might expand the extent of its claims based on the line," Dr Xu Liping, a Sino-Asean issues expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Straits Times.
Jinan University analyst Zhang Mingliang said the importance lies more in the timing of the comments coming after the ruling.
"Mr Yang is also likely the most senior Chinese official to talk about the nine-dash line, which shows the government's resolve to persist with it despite the ruling," he said.
Mr Yang struck a conciliatory tone in the interview, saying how China is aware, as a major country in the region, of the importance of upholding regional peace and stability.
Besides settling disputes through peaceful negotiation with claimant states, he said China is also "ready to discuss with countries concerned about temporary arrangements", which include joint development in the South China Sea.
Talk of Chinese plans to launch as many as 20 mobile nuclear power plants in the area also surfaced yesterday, based on a social media posting by the China National Nuclear Corporation, though media reports were later deleted.