Chinese general vague on extent of claims

PUSHED at a security forum to clarify China's nine-dash line claiming almost the whole of the South China Sea, a senior Chinese military official would only say how it came about but avoided spelling out the extent of the claim.

Some observers suggested that this ambiguity on China's part is deliberate as it wants to keep its options open about its eventual claims.

Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, who led the People's Liberation Army (PLA) delegation to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue this year, was peppered with several questions on the nine-dash line when he took to the podium yesterday.

Some wanted to know what the line meant exactly, while others questioned its validity.

The Philippines went to the international tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands in March, asking the court to invalidate the line.

China has refused to participate in the case, saying the dispute was excluded from arbitration because of a declaration it made when it ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea (Unclos) in 2006.

Asia Report dispute islands special report

In his answer, Lt-Gen Wang recounted how China discovered and began imposing administration and management over islands in the South China Sea, including the disputed Paracels and Spratlys, from as early as the Han dynasty (206BC to 220AD).

When Japan invaded China during World War II, it also occupied the islands, which were recovered by China in 1946 in accordance with the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation. In 1948, the Chinese government drew and declared the nine-dash line. He added that China's sovereignty over the islands predated Unclos, which came into being only in 1994, and that the law has no retrospective effect.

Lt-Gen Wang's answer left many in the audience dissatisfied as he did not clarify what precisely China was laying claim to in the South China Sea.

However, Professor Jin Canrong from Renmin University in Beijing, a delegate at the forum, said China should be given more time to make clear what the nine-dash line means.

For one thing, there is still a debate going on within China about what the line denotes, with some insisting that it is an international boundary while others say that it is a "historical rights" boundary. Yet others say it indicates the boundary between islands.

Second, once China clarifies its claims under the nine-dash line, it will face domestic political pressure to act.

"Give China some time, it will change its stance in the future," said Prof Jin.

"China will also become a maritime power. It will have the same interests as the US, and it will want more common space to move about," he added.

China, however, is under growing pressure, particularly from the United States, to explain its nine-dash line claim.

In February, Mr Danny Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told lawmakers that "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".

Asked why the US and other countries are stepping up the pressure on China, National Institute for South China Sea Studies president Wu Shicun said: "They worry that when China becomes strong one day, and is able to define the nine-dash line as it wishes, they are powerless to do anything about it."