China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea
Limits in the Sea No. 143
United States Department of State
This study analyzes the maritime claims of the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea, specifically its “dashed-line” claim encircling islands and waters of the South China Sea. In May 2009, the Chinese Government communicated two Notes Verbales to the UN Secretary General requesting that they be circulated to all UN Member States. The 2009 Notes, which contained China’s objections to the submissions by Vietnam and Malaysia (jointly) and Vietnam (individually) to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, stated the following: China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof (see attached map). The above position is consistently held by the Chinese government, and is widely known by the international community. The map referred to in China’s Notes, which is reproduced as Map 1 to this study, depicted nine line segments (dashes) encircling waters, islands, and other features of the South China Sea. Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines subsequently objected to the contents of China’s 2009 Notes, including by asserting that China’s claims reflected in the dashed-line map are without basis under the international law of the sea. In 2011, China requested that another Note Verbale be communicated to UN Member States, which reiterated the first sentence excerpted above, and added that “China’s sovereignty and related rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea are supported by abundant historical and legal evidence.”
China has not clarified through legislation, proclamation, or other official statements the legal basis or nature of its claim associated with the dashed – line map. Accordingly, th is Limits in the Seas study examines several possible interpretations of the dashed – line claim and the extent to which those interpretations are consistent with the international law of the sea.
China has not clarified its maritime claims associated with the dashed-line maps in a manner consistent with international law. China’s laws, declarations, official acts, and official statements present conflicting evidence regarding the nature and scope of China’s claims. The available evidence suggests at least three different interpretations that China might intend, including that the dashes are (1) lines within which China claims sovereignty over the islands, along with the maritime zones those islands would generate under the LOS Convention; (2) national boundary lines; or (3) the limits of so-called historic maritime claims of varying types. As to the first interpretation, if the dashes on Chinese maps are intended to indicate only the islands over which China claims sovereignty then, to be consistent with the law of the sea, China’s maritime claims within the dashed line would be those set forth in the LOS Convention,namely a territorial sea, contiguous zone, EEZ, and continental shelf, drawn in accordance with the LOS Convention from China’s mainland coast and land features that meet the definition of an “island” under Article 121 of the Convention. Because sovereignty over South China Sea islands is disputed, the maritime zones associated with these islands would also be disputed. In addition, even if China possessed sovereignty of the islands, any maritime zones generated by those islands in accordance with Article 121 would be subject to maritime boundary delimitation with neighboring States. As to the second interpretation, if the dashes on Chinese maps are intended to indicate national boundary lines, then those lines would not have a proper legal basis under the law of the sea. Under international law, maritime boundaries are created by agreement between neighboring States; one country may not unilaterally establish a maritime boundary with another country. Further, such a boundary would not be consistent with State practice and international jurisprudence, which have not accorded very small isolated islands like those in the South China Sea more weight in determining the position of a maritime boundary than opposing coastlines that are long and continuous. Moreover, dashes 2, 3, and 8 that appear on China’s 2009 map are not only relatively close to the mainland shores of other States, but all or part of them are also beyond 200 nm from any Chinese-claimed land feature. Finally, if the dashes on Chinese maps are intended to indicate the area in which China claims so-called “historic waters” or “historic rights” to waters that are exclusive to China, such claims are not within the narrow category of historic claims recognized in Articles 10 and 15 of the LOS Convention. The South China Sea is a large semi-enclosed sea in which numerous coastal States have entitlements to EEZ and continental shelf, consistent with the LOS Convention; the law of the sea does not permit those entitlements to be overridden by an other State’s maritime claims that are based on “history.” To the contrary, a major purpose and accomplishment of the Convention is to bring clarity and uniformity to the maritime zones to which coastal States are entitled. In addition, even if the legal test for historic waters were applicable, the dashed-line claim would fail each element of that test. For these reasons, unless China clarifies that the dashed-line claim reflects only a claim to islands within that line and any maritime zones that are generated from those land features in accordance with the international law of the sea, as reflected in the LOS Convention, its dashed-line claim does not accord with the international law of the sea.
Download the full anaysis with footnotes at US Department of State’s analysis of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea