How The Eleven-Dash Line Became a Nine-Dash Line, And Other Stories

By Wei Pu
SEA-ninedash600.jpg Graphic: RFA

Since last year, China has made a number of big moves in the South China Sea, triggering protests in Vietnam and complaints from the Philippines to an international tribunal and criticism from the U.S. and Japan. Recently, those disagreements have intensified.

Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, China brought out a movie titled "Great Wall in the South China Sea," the screen debut for director Liu Xiaoqing, which was about the Chinese Communist Party versus the so-called "Chiang [Kai-shek] bandit army."

Nowadays, Beijing regards the nationalist government of Taiwan as its ally in protecting the South China Sea. But the extreme position recently delineated by Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou on the South China Sea question seems like a slap in the face for Beijing.

On the issue of the return of sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea, the executive yuan of the [pre-1949] Republic of China ... released a map titled "Position of the South China Sea Islands" which showed an eleven-dash line around a group of islands that belonged to China.

The Republic of China government didn't hold onto this notion after it lost power on the Chinese mainland [and fled to Taiwan], and the Chinese Communist Party allowed the North Vietnamese [communist] regime to build a radar station and goods transit point on one of the South China Sea island chains, in a spirit of "comradeship and brotherhood." In 1957, they even signed a secret agreement ceding Bailongwei island in China's archipelago to the Hanoi government.

That is how the 11-dash line became the nine-dash line.

Of course Taiwan isn't going to support Beijing's actions in ceding an island at the edge of its territorial waters, but Taiwan broadly recognizes Beijing's claim to the rest of the islands within the nine-dash line.

In fact, Taiwan forces have always had a garrison on the largest of the islands in the Spratly, or Nansha, chain, Taiping Island. And yet Beijing still claims sovereignty over the Nansha, or Spratlys, when it is talking to Vietnam or the Philippines.

Extraction and reclamation

Nowadays, the administration of Ma Ying-jeou doesn't support Beijing's policies in the South China Sea, by which it means that it doesn't support the extraction of sand from the sea-bed and the reclamation of land from underwater reefs by the mainland government.

Ma Ying-jeou has said that the dispute should be resolved through international law, and that man-made islands don't form the basis for territorial sovereignty, and that the dark sands and rocks on the sea-bed that are exposed at low tide aren't the territory of any country.

This is precisely the focus of the dispute between the Beijing government and its neighbors in the South China Sea and the Pacific Rim countries.

If it was just this Great Wall in the South China Sea that Beijing has set its sights on, just about the islands within the nine-dash line, then Taiwan would probably take a similar position.

The problem lies in the reasons behind Beijing's massive island reclamation project, and whether they will they be used to site radar stations, military airports, or even a berth for heavy naval vessels.

This sort of development will strengthen Beijing's de facto control over the islands and reefs, and strengthen its military occupation of the South China Sea.

So the dispute continues to heat up and get harsher, with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, and the United States and Japan all simultaneously wading into the war of words against China's policies in the South China Sea.

International maritime law

China is a party to international maritime conventions, and the United States, while it isn't a signatory, acts in accordance with it and with international law.

This is the basis on which the United States is demanding that China stop its island-building activities. International maritime law clearly stipulates that there should be the same freedom of navigation extended within a country's economic exclusion zone as on the high seas.

To put it another way, no neighboring country to the South China Sea has jurisdiction over the high seas or the economic exclusion zones. Other provisions of international law state that, in cases where a country makes artificially reclaimed reefs, that international law doesn't recognize such reefs as extending the territorial sovereignty of that nation.

In doing this, Beijing has sent its neighboring countries in the South China Sea scurrying into the U.S. military camp, because they have no way to oppose China's actions on their own, so they are now asking the U.S. to get involved.

Faced with such an isolated diplomatic situation, Beijing recently announced via a foreign ministry spokesman that part of its Nansha, or Spratly, islands garrison will be withdrawn, and that its artificial landfill project is nearing completion. China would also stop extracting sand from the sea-bed for land reclamation purposes.

"The next phase will be carried out when the relevant functional facilities are required," [the spokesman said].

At the same time, the Global Times newspaper boasted in its sensational and nationalistic tone that it was "gratifying" to hear that the land reclamation project was nearing completion, but it wouldn't make it clear to its readers that the project was being halted under pressure from the international community.

But will a temporary setback get in the way of [President] Xi Jinping's strongman attitude and his Chinese dream?

Just how far Beijing takes its "Great Wall in the South China Sea" will have a decisive effect on the role it comes to play on the world stage in future.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Wei Pu is a U.S.-based economist and a regular contributor to RFA's Cantonese Service.


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