Fuzzy boundaries

Part of the problem with the nine-dash line, however, is that Beijing has never made a specifically defined claim about it. What remains ambiguous, says Ku, is whether its assertion of “sovereign rights” refers to all of the waters inside the nine-dash line, or just the waters within 12 nautical miles of its islands (or what China believes to be its islands).

South China Sea
A contested sea.
Image: Wikipedia/US Central Intelligence Agency, public domain

This calculated ambiguity allows Beijing to strike a balance between antagonizing other countries and maintaining an appearance of patriotic fervor to its domestic audience. It has also helped China with what’s often called its “salami-slicing” strategy—the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which merits a major reaction from other countries, but which over time add up to a major strategic change.

Finally, this fuzziness allows Beijing to keep its options open. In its modern maps China includes a 10th dash east of Taiwan (pdf, page 5). That puts Taiwan within China’s vaguely defined territory. Beijing insists Taiwan is a renegade province. Taiwan considers itself an independent nation, and earlier this year it elected to president Tsai Ing-wen, a pro-independence candidate who prevailed over a Beijing-friendly predecessor.

The trigger point

China reiterated its nine-dash claim in a submission to the UN in 2011 (pdf). But 2012 was when tensions began to ratchet up, says Ku. That was when China effectively annexed the Scarborough Shoal, which falls within the Philippines’ EEZ.

After a standoff between Chinese and Philippine forces, the US mediated a deal in which both sides were to pull back while the dispute was negotiated. The Philippine forces left but the Chinese ones remained, gaining control (paywall) that they still have today.

The Peace Palace in the Hague, home to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice.
The Peace Palace in the Hague, home to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice.
Image: Reuters/Jerry Lampen

So in 2013 the Philippines filed a case with the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague. It asked the tribunal to rule on various aspects of China’s sweeping claims—in particular, whether the artificial islands and other features China occupies in the South China Sea, such as Fiery Cross Reef and the Scarborough Shoal, are entitled to EEZs or territorial waters under Unclos. This is expected to be addressed in the ruling next week.

The moment of truth—or just more uncertainty?

James Kraska, an expert in international law at the US Naval War College, has written that the PCA probably won’t rule against the nine-dash line directly. In part, that’s because Beijing’s deliberate vagueness about what the line represents makes it hard to legally challenge.

But, he wrote, the tribunal will most likely say that the features China occupies don’t have EEZs under Unclos, and in some cases not territorial waters either. That makes them much less strategically valuable to China. It might give other nations the confidence to conduct their own freedom-of-navigation operations or join US ones, to reassert their rights to the sea. It might also, Ku says, encourage other countries bring their own cases against China to the tribunal.

The fear is about how China will respond. Beijing, which has worked strenuously to discredit the tribunal and refused to participate in the hearings, has insisted it will ignore the ruling—and indeed, there is no international police entity that can enforce it. But China might also feel compelled to demonstrate that it won’t be constrained by the outcome. Here are three things it might do to up the stakes:

  1. Take control of a shoal in the Spratlys called Second Thomas Shoal, a.k.a. Ren’ai Reef in China and Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines. The Philippines grounded a rusty old warship there in 1999 and staffed it with a few troops as a way of staking a claim. On July 1 a spokesman for China’s defense ministry said China has the ability tow the ship away.
  2. Start island-building atop Scarborough Shoal. The reef is about 200 km (125 m) from a US naval base in the Philippines, and not much further from Manila. The US and the Philippines have suggested the reef represents a red line, and that any island-building by China there would be prevented with force.
  3. Set up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, as it’s already done in the East China Sea, where it has competing island claims with Japan. In such a zone, unidentified aircraft would be interrogated and possibly intercepted. The US has indicated it will ignore such a zone.

Any of these would be “a real escalation,” notes Corr.

Another possibility, which China has threatened, is to simply pull out of Unclos altogether. Ku says he’d be surprised: “China is seeking to gain international recognition for its delimitation of its continental shelf, and future maritime delimitations with Korea and Japan. It would not be able to use the UN processes for that if it withdrew.”

Corr, on the other hand, believes China could easily withdraw from Unclos. When it signed the treaty in 1996, he notes, it had a much smaller military and more reason to fear bullying from other nations. Now, leaving the system “actually advantages them because they can bully their way into more territory,” he says. “I think they’re now understanding that.” In that case, there’d be nothing at all to stop China muscling its way into more territory in the sea, other than a full-on military showdown.

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