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China’s nine-dashed line in the South China Sea

On 6 May, 2009 Vietnam and Malaysia made a joint submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in accordance with Article 76 of UNCLOS seeking to extend their continental shelves beyond the standard 200 nautical miles.[1] The Chinese responded with a Note Verbale asserting “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters”[2] and attached a map depicting a nine-dashed line (also the U-shaped line) as reference to its claims over the majority of the South China Sea.


Chinese map attached to UN Note Verbale depicting nine-dashed line

Chinese map attached to UN Note Verbale depicting nine-dashed line


As a central component of Chinese claims to the region, the nine-dashed line necessitates a detailed analysis. It encompasses the main island features of the South China Sea: the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank, the Spratly Islands and extends as far south as James Shoal at 4 degrees north latitude. The genesis of the map goes back to 1947-48 when the Land and Water Maps Inspection Committee was created to overcome perceived deficiencies of Chinese maps which were full of errors and primarily copies of western maps.[3] Initially depicted as an eleven dashed line during the Kuomintang period, the two dotted-line portion in the Gulf of Tonkin was removed in 1953 after Premier Zhou Enlai’s approval.[4] Beijing has consistently refused to clarify most of its claims to the resource rich South China Sea and taken full advantage of the flexibility of ambiguity. China has used 2000 year old records of habitation dating back to the Song dynasty, fishing activities and centuries old survey records to advance their ‘historical’ claims to the region. Although China advances historical claims, there appears to be no historical basis to the nine-dashes itself. Geographic coordinates for the dashes have never been published either.

However, historical claims do not find any backing in the UNCLOS. Most international legal experts tend to agree that China’s legal claims to the entirety of the South China Sea are baseless and invalid. China has whipped up nationalist sentiments in the mainland and used revisionist history to revive images of the glory its ancient empires as the centre of the universe, laying claim to any territory conquered in the past, irrespective of when the conquest may have occurred.[5] Mohan Malik states that China has, historically speaking, as much claim to the South China Sea, as Mexico has to the Gulf of Mexico or Iran to the Persian Gulf.[6]

There exists considerable debate among scholars as to whether the nine dashed line is a claim only limited to the territorial islands or reflects a maritime boundary asserting Chinese sovereignty over the waters as well. [7] The reference to ‘adjacent waters’ in the Chinese note verbale referred to above had raised significant concern among nations with a stake in the region. However, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman later seemed to clarify Chinese claims drawing a distinction between “territorial sovereignty of the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands” and disputes over maritime demarcation.[8] This suggests that the nine-dashed line isn’t a claim to the waters of the entire sea but a claim to the islands and reefs (also disputed by various nations) and the massive EEZs that they would spawn. It would also seem to substantiate Chinese claims of advancing maritime rights consistent with UNCLOS.[9] A Vietnamese scholar points out that the “obvious fact is that States within and without this region have navigated freely in the region’s waters for a long time” thus precluding any coherent Chinese claim over the waters based on historical rights.[10]

Nevertheless, ambiguity over the territorial nature of the claims persists, especially given the assertions of many Chinese scholars to the contrary[11] and aggressive action taken by Chinese vessels in international waters, a case in point being the incident involving the INS Arihant in Dec 2011. Based on the above evidence, it seems difficult to come to a conclusion as to whether to analyse the dispute as a territorial or maritime one. China’s forcible de-facto occupation of reefs and islands such as Scarborough Shoal (after the Philippines was forced to back down in the face of Chinese show of force) could be part of a long-term strategy to prove sovereignty over the structures in the sea and gain rights to the resulting EEZ. However, their intentional ambiguity in statements indicates that China wishes to leave open the option to publicly assert a maritime boundary at a more opportune time.


Note: A recent map published by the SinoMap Press, which is under the jurisdiction of the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping published a 10-dashed line, with an extra dash around Taiwan. The primary effect of the extra dash appears to be a symbolic attempt to diminish differences with Taiwan and “realign claims along a common nationalist axis”[12] without altering the main 9 dashes.


[1] Malaysia-Socialist Republic of Vietnam Joint Sub-mission to the Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf”,

May 2009

[2] Chinese Note Verbale, CML/17/2009 7 May 2009

[3] Li Jinming, Li Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note”, Ocean Development and International Law, 34:287-295, 2003

[4] ibid

[5] Historical Fiction: China’s South China Sea Claims, Mohan Malik

[6] Ibid

[7] Li & Li

[8] Clarification for China’s Claim, The Diplomat

[9] Ibid.

[10] (Vietnam) Zhi Mei (translated by Dai Kelai), “Yige wuli de ‘lishi zhuquan’ yaoqiu” [An

Unreasonable Claim of the “Historic Sovereignty”], [Journal

of China’s Southeast Asian Studies], Vol. 4 (1995)

[11] Li & Li

[12] “China’s new map: just another dash?”, aspistrategist.org,

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