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July 20, 2021 Tuesday 11:47:36 AM IST

The Nine Dash Line

Expert Counsel

Wars have traditionally been fought for control over parcels of land considered to be of strategic importance or thought to be of significant worth on account of natural resources. It is only seldom that nations have fallen foul of each other over ownership of water bodies, and in particular seas and oceans. The dispute over South China and the small islands scattered there forms one of the rare instances where tensions have arisen between countries on this score.

To understand the nature of the dispute, one must first understand the terms “territorial waters” and “exclusive economic zone”. Territorial waters refers to the area in the sea contiguous to the land mass of a nation where it has full sovereignty. Exclusive economic zone, on the other hand, is the area in the sea contiguous to the land mass of a nation where it exercises right over natural and marine resources. As per the United National Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) territorial waters extend for a distance of 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) from the shore, while exclusive economic zone stretches up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres). In other words, no outside vessel can enter the territorial waters without permission of the host country, while within the exclusive economic zone, there will not be restriction on passage of ships. However the host country alone will have access to the resources beneath the water in the exclusive economic zone. When there is overlap between the exclusive economic zones of two nations, they are free to draw up an actual wartime boundary. 

South China Sea has been marked as a potential trouble spot in the world ever since China started asserting their claims over this parcel of water and the islands located therein from the turn of this century. Located towards the southern coast of China, this sea assumes strategic relevance on account of the large quantum of trade that passes through it every year (estimated at almost USD 5 trillion) and the huge natural reserves in the form of oil and natural gas believed to be contained beneath its waters, besides the commercial importance due to tremendous potential for fishing through deep sea dredging. While China has laid claims to most of the islands, other countries in the region as Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan consider a portion of the sea and many of the land bodies as belonging to them. This also means that Chinese claims for exclusive economic zone extend to almost 80% of this sea, preventing other countries from accessing the resources available therein. Not surprisingly, this claim is hotly contested by the other countries.

Military Structures

During the period of World War II, Japan controlled the islands and the transportation through this sea. After the end of this war, Japan renounced all rights over them, while other countries started making claims over the land parcels in this sea. China’s claim line is what is officially known as the “nine dash line”, which as originally created by the Kuomintang regime, but accepted later by the Communist government as well. While China lays claim to all islands within this line, Paracel islands are claimed by Vietnam, Scarborough Shoal by Philippines and Taiwan, Brunei, Philippines and Vietnam seek ownership of Spratly islands. Presently, Protas islands are administered by Taiwan and Paracel islands and Scarborough Shoal are under China. When it comes to Spratly islands, Vietnam occupies 21 land features, followed by Philippines (8), China (7), Malaysia (5) and Taiwan (1).

More than the claims to ownership or its actual possession of these islands, which are mostly without human inhabitation, it is the establishment of military structures on them that stands out as a cause of worry for the rest of the world. Further, China has embarked on a massive programme of reclamation of these islands, adding to the existing land mass through extensive landfills. A new Sansha city built by China in Paracel islands covers an area about 17 times the size of New York city!. They have also linked various islands through landfills and built on them air strips and military stations capable of launching ballistic missiles and housing battle ready troops.

Another issue that has created deep consternation amongst the countries in this region is the aggressive, unregulated and, at times, illegal fishing indulged in by Chinese fishermen in these waters. China has embarked on a policy of encouraging their fishermen to procure their catch from the deep seas through giving them subsidies for fuel and grants for renovation of fishing vessels. Fishermen are also given training to use weapons and electronic tracking devices to help them tackle any contingencies that may arise in the high seas. Christened as People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM), these fishermen have gone on a rampage in the seas, reaching even into the exclusive economic zones of faraway countries as Indonesia and Australia. PAFMM is able to operate with such impunity only because of the overt support they get from Chinese Coast Guard and naval wing of People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) who are always at close hand to support their operations.

Damage to Coral Reefs

China also stands accused of widespread and irreversible damages to coral reefs that populate this sea in their drive for reclaiming more land to set up military bases. It has been reported that these coral reefs act as breeding ground for a variety of marine flora and fauna and their disappearance will have huge long term impact on the quality of marine life in these waters. It were these reasons that compelled Philippines to file a case before an arbitral tribunal set up at Hague under UNCLOS. Though the order of this tribunal in 2016 effectively rejected China’s claims, this did not have any impact on the ground as Beijing chose to ignore it completely. The only change was that China stopped using “nine dash line” and coined a new term “four sha doctrine”!

However, China’s intransigence forced United States of America (USA) and other countries of the western world to start taking more interest in the happenings in this area. USA started sending their battleships to South China sea under the pretext of conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) from October 2015 onwards. The increase in the number of FONOP’s annoyed China so much so that in 2018 a Chinese destroyer came very close to USS Decatur sending alarm bells ringing about a possible armed conflict in the sea. Though this was averted, this close call did not deter Trump administration who responded by increasing the umber of FONOP’s.


Thus, South China Sea has emerged as a proverbial tinderbox where the present day great powers are engaged in a standoff with each other at close quarters. Though both China and USA have scaled down on the rhetoric in the aftermath of change of guard in Washington, the relationship between the two nations has not reverted to normalcy. A settlement which provides a fair deal to all contesting parties appear far-fetched for the present, especially with Beijing showing more keenness to flex their muscles than seeking recourse to discussions and deliberations.

History has taught us that wars happen when diplomacy fails as then the onus falls on Generals, who are trained to resolve issues only through use of arms. Hence there is an urgent need for the diplomats of not only the affected countries, but from all over the world, including multilateral organisations such United Nations, to engage themselves to find a solution to this problem. China, on their part should realise that super power status comes not through show of military might alone but by acting as a responsible nation alive to the interests of other states and display of strong commitment to protect the environment.    

Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is Chairman and Executive Director Of Rubber Board. 
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