Continuous boundary line proposed for China's claims in South China Sea

Warships and aircraft from the People's Liberation Army Navy taking part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018.
Warships and aircraft from the People's Liberation Army Navy taking part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - A new boundary in the South China Sea has been proposed and it might add weight to Beijing's claims over the disputed waters, the South China Morning Post reported.

The proposed boundary would be in the form of a precise continuous line that joins up the current U-shaped "nine-dash line" which marks the vast area claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea said to be rich in energy and mineral deposits.

That would give a clearer definition of China's claims, said a senior scientist involved in a government-funded project to study natural science in the contested region, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.

The nine lines extend 2,000km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

A continuous line would include all contested waters, such as the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, James Shoal and Scarborough Shoal. And doing so would allow China to claim the right to activities such as fishing, prospecting and mining for energy or mineral resources, as well as the building of military bases, SCMP reported.

In a July 2016 decision, a United Nations tribunal ruled that China had no legal basis to claim the area within the "nine-dash line". One reason the tribunal cited was that China, with the nine broken lines, could not define the territory precisely.

A continuous line, therefore, would determine for the first time the precise area that China claims to own with historic rights, said SCMP, quoting the senior scientist, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the study.

Analysts, however, said that Beijing is unlikely to officially replace the "nine-dash line" with a continuous line soon. Doing so could harm the region's stability, said Dr Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

"If China does indicate its claims in the South China Sea by a continuous line which joins up the nine dashes, it would represent a complete repudiation of the July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling," said SCMP, quoting Dr Storey, an expert in maritime security in the Asia-Pacific and South-east Asia's relations with China.

China claims most of the South China Sea, a key trade route and home to areas that are believed to hold large quantities of oil and natural gas. Along with China, parts of the South China Sea are subject to competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, according to Reuters.

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 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In recent years, China's navy and air force frequently carry out drills in the South China Sea, where the government has been building man-made islands as well as airstrips and other facilities, unnerving the region, Reuters reported.

The proposed continuous boundary was also based on historical evidence - an official map approved by the central government of China in 1951, said the senior scientist.

In the map, the area in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing was marked with two continuous lines: an inner black line that indicated China's sovereign boundary and an outer red line that showed where China could exercise its administrative power, SCMP reported.

Details of the map were published by the team of scientists in academic journal China Science Bulletin last month (March).

However, the Chinese government is highly unlikely to print the continuous line on an official map, said an expert.

"To my knowledge, the Chinese government currently has no plan to change the dash lines," said the expert, who declined to be named. "Most diplomats and ocean law experts will oppose joining the dashes."

And countries with competing claims can be assured that China's strategy for the South China Sea remains "open and clear", said Professor Yu Minyou, director of the China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies at Wuhan University.

"China wants to achieve peace, stability, harmony and prosperity in the region," he said, as quoted by SCMP. "We are willing to share natural resources with other countries and leave the disputes to be solved in the future."