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Insights into Editorial: Beijing in choppy waters

Insights into Editorial: Beijing in choppy waters

15 July 2016

China’s maritime claims, its reclamation projects and its attempts to control South China Sea were rendered illegal recently by the UN international court of arbitration. In a historic ruling, the Tribunal said China had no legal basis for its famed ‘Nine-Dash Line’; that it had interfered with the Philippines’ fishing rights and it had no right to claim a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

What was the case?

Manila complained in 2013 after Beijing seized a reef about 225km from the Philippine coast. Manila rejected Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over waters within a “nine-dash line” appearing on Chinese maps. These dashes encircle 90% of South China Sea, an area the size of Mexico vital to global trade, rich in natural resources.

Where is the South China Sea?

The South China Sea is located at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, to Asia’s southeast. It encompasses an area of about 1.4 million square miles and contains a collection of reefs, islands and atolls, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal.

China’s claims:insights ias upsc

Beijing claims 90% of the South China Sea, a maritime region believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and gas reserves and through which roughly $4.5tn of ship-borne trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also contest China’s claims to islands and reef systems closer to their territory than Beijing’s.

  • China says it follows a historical precedent set by the “nine-dash line” that Beijing drew in 1947 following the surrender of Japan. The line has been included in subsequent maps issued under Communist rule.

What does international law say on this?

Manila complained under the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ratified by both nations.

  • It says a country has sovereignty over waters 12 nautical miles from its coast, control over economic activities in waters on its continental shelf and up to 200 nautical miles from its coast.
  • China’s nine-dash line includes waters beyond these zones.

Significance of this case:

Besides China and the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam claim parts of South China Sea. This ruling sets a precedent on such disputes. China had the most at stake, for it has transformed reefs into artificial islands with military runways and naval harbours.

Importance of South China Sea:

  • It is a 3.5m sq km waterway.
  • One of the world’s most strategically vital maritime spaces.
  • More oil passes through here than the Suez Canal.
  • More than $5 trillion in trade flows through its waters each year. That is a third of all global maritime commerce.
  • The Strait of Malacca that links Indian and Pacific Oceans handles four times as much oil as Suez Canal.

Why South China Sea is important for India?

More than 55% of India’s trade passes through the Straits of Malacca which opens into the South China Sea. India has a huge stake in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.

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.

Nine Dash line:

The line drawn by China says it demarcates its maritime borders which means virtually the entire South China Sea belongs to China and its sovereignty over the islands within the line & surrounding waters within 12 nautical miles.

Origin of the line: Appeared on Chinese maps as 11-dash line in 1947 as Chinese navy took control of islands occupied by Japan during World War II. After communist China was formed in 1949, govt inherited all national maritime claims. Two dashes removed in 1950s bypassing Gulf of Tonkin as gesture to North Vietnam.

China’s response:

China has boycotted the tribunal saying it has no jurisdiction because sovereignty of reefs, rocks and islands in South China Sea is disputed. It has said it will not accept a ruling against it in a key international legal case over strategic reefs and atolls that Beijing claims would give it control over disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, said China’s “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” in the seas would not be affected by the ruling, which declared large areas of the sea to be neutral international waters or the exclusive economic zones of other countries. He insisted China was still “committed to resolving disputes” with its neighbours.

Why does all this matter to the U.S.?

The U.S. has no claims to the South China Sea, but has economic and political interests in the region. About $1.2 trillion of U.S.-traded goods travel through the South China Sea each year. Washington is also bound to a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, in which it committed to provide defense assistance to the island nation. The Philippines and China are locked in a diplomatic spat over Mischief Reef, over which both countries claim ownership.

What happens next?

While the findings are legally binding, UNCLOS has no enforcement body and legal experts say it remains unclear what can be done when China ignores the ruling.

  • Also, Chinese officials have not ruled out future military action to enforce their claims, including construction on the Scarborough Shoal or the imposition of an air defence zone over the area. They have warned against further expansion of the U.S. military presence in the area.
  • Other claimants, particularly Vietnam, are being closely watched to see whether they will launch their own action against China. Hanoi has sought legal opinions on a possible case and its officials have yet to rule out such action.


Unclos is a treaty which outlines a system of territorial and economic zones that can be claimed from continental shelfs, islands, islets, shoals, reefs, atolls, cays, sandbars, and other rocky outcrops.

Unclos allows a nation to:

  • Exercise sovereignty over waters 12 nautical miles from its coast;
  • Exercise economic rights over waters on a nation’s continental shelf, and up to 200 nautical miles from its coast, that is the EEZ.

Unclos cannot be used to determine who owns what land; in other words, it cannot determine sovereignty.


For years now China has been creating artificial islands in the SCS, and sparked worldwide tensions when it unilaterally set up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in 2013. In the post-ruling scenario, there is a risk that the hawks prevail in Beijing and Chinese maritime operations of this sort will escalate tensions further, risking a flashpoint. The fallout of this could be severe in the region, especially considering that in recent months the U.S. has sailed a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, as well as guided-missile destroyers into the South China Sea. It is also possible that the ruling is an inflection point for strategic reset as it increases pressure on Beijing to engage bilaterally with the Philippines and others, and begin the hard work of untangling the dangerous mess of overlapping territorial claims.