What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea? (2024)

At the heart of the South China Sea dispute is the “nine-dash line”, Beijing’s claim that encircles as much as 90 per cent of the ­contested waters. The line runs as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Beijing maintains it owns any land or features contained within the line, which confers vaguely defined “historical maritime rights”.

The Philippines is contesting the claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, with a ruling expected to be delivered on Tuesday. In its submissions, Manila argues the line exceeds the limits of maritime entitlements permitted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea? (1)

The Philippines also asked the tribunal to classify whether a number of disputed areas are islands, low-tide coral outcrops or submerged banks to determine the stretch of territorial waters they are entitled to under the ­convention. The convention does not deal with sovereignty questions, which the Philippine government says it did not raise.

What is the origin of the line?
It appeared on a Chinese map as an 11-dash line in 1947 as the then Republic of China’s navy took control of some islands in the South China Sea that had been ­occupied by Japan during the second world war. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 and Kuomintang forces fled to Taiwan, the communist government declared itself the sole ­legitimate representative of China and inherited all the nation’s maritime claims in the region.

But two “dashes” were removed in the early 1950s to bypass the Gulf of Tonkin as a gesture to communist comrades in North Vietnam.

Beijing intensified its hold in the northern part of the waters in the mid-1970s when it expelled the South Vietnamese navy from the Paracel Islands after a clash that saw dozens killed.

Seven out of about 200 reefs in the Spratly Islands came under Chinese control in the 1980s and 1990s and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Taiwan still maintains its maritime claims in the region and has kept a military garrison on Pratas Islands and the largest ­natural feature in the Spratlys, ­Taiping.
Why is the line so important?
It serves as the basis of China’s claim to “historical rights” in the region, as neither Beijing nor Taipei ever held effective control over the entire region encompassing more than 2 million sq km. Other claimants such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei root their claim in geographical proximity, while Vietnam, which occupies the largest number of islands and reefs in the Spratlys, at 29, stresses it actively administers the area. The Philippines is challenging the legality of the line at the international tribunal under Unclos.

What will guide China’s response to the South China Sea tribunal ruling?

According to the treaty, a nation has sovereignty over waters ­extending 12 nautical miles from its land and exclusive control over economic activities 200 nautical miles out. Beijing maintains it has historical evidence proving its control of territory further out to sea. If the Philippines wins, China’s claims would be seriously undermined and neighbouring states would have a legal endorsem*nt for their position.

What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea? (2)

Beijing argues the nine-dash line emerged in the new world ­order after the second world war and came well before the 1982 Unclos. Beijing says China accepted the Japanese surrender and reclaimed the region with legal backing and the authorisation of the Allies. Other claimants in the region and the US expressed no objections at the time, it argues.

What is Beijing’s strategy with the nine-dash line?

Beijing is a signatory to Unclos, but it has intentionally never ­defined the legal meaning of the nine-dash line or what its “rights” are within the boundary. This ambiguity has led to the idea among many ordinary Chinese people that it marks the nation’s maritime boundary, but again, Beijing has never made this explicit.

Others say it encircles the area where China demands economic rights. Another interpretation is the line marks the islands and reefs China wants to control rather than the waters inside its boundaries. ­Beijing has long favoured a strategy of ambiguity. It does not openly go against international law, but prefers to leave space for its more ambitious claims.
What happens if the tribunal rules against China?
The consensus among legal experts is that the court is unlikely to rule specifically on the nine-dash line. The court has said earlier it will not offer a judgment on territorial disputes, but there is a small chance it may rule on whether there is a legal basis for the line under the UN convention. If it rules against China, the government may face increased international pressure to clarify its position on the line’s legal justification. But what is virtually certain is China will not remove the line from its maps, especially given growing nationalism.

Beijing has also repeatedly said it will ignore any rulings by the tribunal. Taiwan has said it stands by its position that all South China Sea islands are its territory. The island’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has not mentioned the nine or 11-dash line and has emphasised it will adhere to international law. If she were to give up the nine-dash line claims following the ruling, cross-strait relations would likely be further strained.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea? (3)

What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea? (2024)


What's China's nine-dash line and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea? ›

The nine-dash line, also referred to as the eleven-dash line by Taiwan, is a set of line segments on various maps that accompanied the claims of the People's Republic of China (PRC, "mainland China") and the Republic of China (ROC, "Taiwan") in the South China Sea.

Why is there tension in the South China Sea? ›

China's sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea—and the sea's estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonized competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Why is the South China Sea so important for the rest of the world? ›

The South China Sea (SCS) is not only important to China. It is important to every nation surrounding it because: The SCS is one of the world's most busy maritime trade route. One-third of the world's maritime shipping passes through it, bringing financial prosperity to all surrounding nations.

Which countries are affected by China's nine-dash line? ›

The nine-dash line area claimed by the Republic of China (1912–1949), later the People's Republic of China (PRC), which covers most of the South China Sea and overlaps with the exclusive economic zone claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Why is there so much tension between China and the US? ›

In recent years, tensions between the United States and China have introduced new challenges—especially related to economic and defense issues. China is a major trading partner for the United States but it is also developing its military capabilities, which poses challenges to the U.S. military.

What is the meaning of dash line? ›

a line of dots or dashes on a form or document. sign on the dotted line. to agree formally, esp by signing one's name on a document.

What is the South China Sea Disputes Summary? ›

The dispute is ostensibly over the jurisdiction and administration of the maritime features—shoals, reefs, rocks, and islands—territorial waters, and exclusive economic zones of the South China Sea. China (as well as Taiwan) vaguely claims jurisdiction, but not necessarily territorial control, over the entire Sea.

What have been the environmental impacts of the tensions in the south and east China seas? ›

Reef Destruction in the South China Sea. To build outposts that support their competing claims in the South China Sea, claimants have engaged in dredging and land fill across the region. This has destroyed vast areas of the South China Sea's coral reef ecosystems over the last 10 years.

What country is China trying to claim? ›

"Taiwan, China", "Taiwan, Province of China", and "Taipei, China" are controversial political terms that claim Taiwan and its associated territories as a province or territory of the People's Republic of China.

What is the United States interest in the South China Sea? ›

The United States makes no territorial claim in the SCS and takes no position on sovereignty over any of the geographic features in the SCS, but U.S. officials have urged that disputes be settled without coercion and on the basis of international law.

Who owns the Spratly Islands? ›

Background. The Spratly Islands consist of more than 100 small islands or reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds -- and potentially by gas and oil deposits. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim the islands in their entirety, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines.

Why did Barbie include the nine-dash line? ›

It demonstrates a fierce resistance to any legitimacy that China's ongoing South China Sea nine-dash line claims may generate, even in Barbie's fictional world.

Which country has no borderline with China? ›

Cambodia does not share a border with China. It is a Southeast Asian nation that shares its border with Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Thailand.

What is China's fault line? ›

The Longmenshan Fault (Chinese: 龙门山断层) is a thrust fault which runs along the base of the Longmen Mountains in Sichuan province in southwestern China. The strike of the fault plane is approximately NE.

Why is there tension between China and Japan? ›

In spite of the close economic relationship, Sino-Japanese relations are diplomatically mired in geopolitical disagreements. According to the Chinese government, the relationship between China and Japan has been strained at times by Japan's refusal to acknowledge its wartime crimes to the satisfaction of China.

Why did China build islands in the South China Sea? ›

In late 2013, the PRC embarked on very large scale reclamations at seven locations in order to strengthen territorial claims to the region demarcated by the nine-dash line. The artificial islands were created by dredging sand onto reefs which were then concreted to make permanent structures.

Why are China and the Philippines fighting about Spratly island? ›

China has asserted that its claim to the Spratlys dates back centuries. The Chinese government has stated that almost the entire South China Sea, including the Spratlys and other island groups, is within its sphere of influence. Those claims have been strongly disputed by the Philippines and Vietnam in particular.

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