South China Sea and the nine-dash line: what you need to know


The SCS is a busy international waterway, one of the main arteries of global economy and trade. And China claims more than 85% of it.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, has ruled that China’s claims of historical rights over South China Sea (SCS) has no legal basis. The case against China was initiated by the Philippines.

The PCA is not a ‘court’ per se, but organises arbitration tribunals between member countries, should issues arise.

Here’s an explainer on the long-standing issue:

What did the arbitration panel rule?

The Hague-based PCA ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historical rights to islands in the SCS, and has violated Philippines’ sovereign rights.

It said Beijing “had no historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea” and that “such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the Convention.”

Why is South China Sea considered so important?

The SCS is a busy international waterway, being one of the main arteries of the global economy and trade. More than $5 trillion of world trade ships pass through the SCS every year.

The SCS is also resource rich, with numerous offshore oil and gas blocks.

So what is the dispute about?

There are a few hundred small islands in the SCS, a part of the Pacific Ocean. Some of the main ones are Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal — the bone of contention between China and the Philippines.

China claims most of these islands as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims. China has said it will not permit other nations to infringe on what it considers its sovereign rights in the strategically vital area.

The U.S. has no claim in the South China Sea, but has been highly critical of China’s assertiveness and says it will protect freedom of navigation.

When did China start taking this position on SCS?

China laid claim to the SCS back in 1947. It demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map, covering most of the area.

The Communist Party, which took over in 1949, removed the Gulf of Tonkin portion in 1953, erasing two of the dashes to make it a nine-dash line.

What is the ‘nine-dash’ line?

The ‘nine-dash line’ stretches hundreds of kilometers south and east of its southerly Hainan Island, covering the strategic Paracel and Spratly island chains. China buttresses its claims by citing 2,000 years of history when the two island chains were regarded as its integral parts.

(Source: Graphic News)

But Vietnam rejects the Chinese argument, justifying its own claims, on the basis of written records, which, in its view, establishes its administration over the area since the 17th century. Beijing and Manila clash on account of their dispute over the jurisdiction of the Scarborough shoal, which is 160 kilometres from the Philippines.

If the SCS islands are claimed by so many countries, why is the ruling about the Philippines alone?

Back in 2013, the Philippines raised the dispute with China to the PCA, saying China’s claims violated Philippines’ sovereignty under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

A five-member panel of international legal experts was appointed in June 2013 to hear the case. The result of this arbitration was announced on July 12, 2016, with the panel saying China had no “historic rights” over the SCS.

Will this ruling affect China?

Unlikely, because PCA is an intergovernmental organisation and not a ‘court’, hence the ruling is not binding.

The Philippines has asked the tribunal to declare China’s claims and actions invalid under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China has swiftly rejected the ruling, saying it was null and void and that Beijing would not accept it. “China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement read.

What is India’s stance?

India follows the policy of not involving in disputes between sovereign nations. India, too, has commercial interest in the region. Vietnam has offered India seven oil blocks in its territory of SCS, a move that didn’t get down well with China.

India has signed energy deals with Brunei too.

In addition, the Ministry of External Affairs on Tuesday released a statement saying India was “carefully studying” the Hague panel’s ruling. “India has noted the Award of the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the matter concerning the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China and is studying it carefully,” it said.


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