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Tension Rises Over China’s Disputed Sea Claims

Sep. 8, 2012 - 12:53PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
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TAIPEI — It goes by several names: Nine Dashed Lines. The U-shaped Line. The Cow Tongue.

But whatever you call it, China’s controversial territorial claim is at the heart of a simmering dispute among the nations that ring the South China Sea.

That dispute was on full display last week, after China rejected calls by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to find agreement on the maritime borders.

Also last week, representatives from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Indonesia and Malaysia voiced their markedly different perspectives on the situation at the Conference on the Practices of the UNCLOS and the Resolution of South China Sea Disputes. UNCLOS refers to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

At the conference, which took place here Sept. 3-4, speakers and delegates from the Asian countries dragged out ancient maps and cited international laws and agreements to justify their claims over the same rocks.

There are six claimants to various atolls, islands, rocks and oil blocks in the South China Sea. But no country has matched the audacity of China, which claimed 80 percent of it, an area the size of India.

The exclusivity of Beijing’s claim even extends to within the 200 nautical mile limit of the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of the Philippines and Vietnam. That tension was evident at the Taipei conference.


China has long argued its claim based on historic waters, historic rights, historic harbors, principle of occupation and jurisdictional/legal mandates.

But according to analysts, China’s real interest is one not of legality or historical pride but pragmatism. The sea is rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and fish. China is a rising global powerhouse with a growing and hungry population. The South China Sea is also a “strategic road” connecting the Pacific and Indian Ocean and a major shipping lane connecting Asia and Oceania, Europe and Africa, said Cheng Yen-chiang, law professor at Shandong University, China.

Clinton’s efforts to get China to defer to the international courts for arbitration will not work.

“Mainland China is not willing to let this issue be judged by a third party, primarily because it has always maintained the South China Sea Islands and the South China Sea are among its inherent territories, which thus cannot be judged,” Cheng said.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, China, known as a policy consultant to the Chinese government, defended China’s claim. Wu admitted there had been problems with the competing Chinese maritime enforcement agencies, called the Nine Dragons, that patrol the South China Sea.

Wu said his institute is advising Beijing to consolidate the Nine Dragons under one agency, like the U.S. Coast Guard. Unifying the Nine Dragons would lessen potential misunderstandings at sea with regional neighbors and clarify China’s position on the South China Sea.

However, unifying the agencies would not mean China is more open to negotiation. The South China Sea Islands and surrounding waters are the property of China, he said, and “the islands and reefs occupied by Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines should be returned to China.” Malaysia controls five, Vietnam has 29 and the Philippines has eight. Taiwan controls two, including the strategically prized Taiping Island.

Wu said China and Taiwan should work together and share Taiping Island’s runway and resources. However, some political problems must be resolved before China and Taiwan can cooperate on strategic issues in the South China Sea, he said.

The island is unique and coveted by China. It is the largest of the Spratly Islands, the only one with an airport and the only one with fresh water. Its strategic location would allow China to project air power farther into the South China Sea without midair refueling.


The Philippine speaker, Jay Batongbacal, from the College of Law, University of the Philippines, repeated concerns that China threatened the use of military force during the Scarborough Shoal incident in April. Large numbers of Chinese fishing boats and maritime enforcement vessels occupied the area, leading to a standoff with the Philippine Navy. The shoal is well within the Philippines’ EEZ, but China continues to claim it.

Batongbacal said Chinese media outlets were reporting that China “should be prepared to engage in a small-scale war at sea with the Philippines.” He pointed to a commentary printed in China’s Liberation Army Daily warning the U.S. and the Philippines to cancel a planned military exercise. The commentary said the exercise “reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force.

“Intuitively, acceptance of the Nine Dashed Lines is a corresponding denial of the very identity and history of the ancestors of the Vietnamese, Filipinos and Malays; it is practically a modern revival of China’s denigration of non-Chinese as ‘barbarians’ not entitled to equal respect and dignity as peoples,” he said.


One Taiwan speaker living in China argued that China’s claim provided opportunities to improve relations across the Taiwan Strait. Since 1994, China and Taiwan have launched a series of exploration cooperation programs for oil and gas. These successful agreements could be extended beyond energy to fishery resources, said Cheng, the law professor at Shandong University.

Cheng, who once served in Taiwan’s Coast Guard, said the two sides can draw lessons from the cooperation on oil and gas exploitation in the Taiwan Strait to develop the South China Sea resources jointly. Lessons learned from this cooperation mechanism could be expanded to other countries in the region, he said. This was not an attempt to divide South China Sea resources between China and Taiwan. This needs to be a “win-win” for the entire region, he said.


Several incidents within Vietnam’s EEZ have raised the ire of Hanoi officials.

In June, the China National Offshore Oil Corp. announced it was opening oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea to foreign bids. The incident enraged Vietnam, which claims the blocks are within its EEZ.

In a YouTube video appearing Nov. 7, a Vietnam Maritime Police vessel rammed a Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessel. Exactly when it occurred is still a mystery, but sources indicate the collision occurred within Vietnam’s EEZ.

On May 26, 2011, three Chinese state-operated vessels reportedly harassed a PetroVietnam vessel, cutting a towed survey cable. Then, on June 9, a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a PetroVietnam vessel. Both incidents occurred within Vietnam’s EEZ.

Vietnam speaker Tran Truong Thuy, director of the Center for East Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, carefully explained that China has no historical or legal justification to support the U-shaped Line.

He said it was obvious that nations encircling the South China Sea would never recognize China’s historical claims to the waters within the U-shaped Line. China argues that ancient Chinese fishing and naval vessels discovered the islands as early as the 2nd Century B.C. China also argues that other countries’ silence over its historical claim amounts to acquiescence, which he said was “unreasonable.” Though China has circulated maps of the U-shaped Line internally since 1953, China did not officially claim the South China Sea until 2009.

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