Managing Director of Risk Cooperative / Co-author of “Global Risk Agility and Decision Making”.
Even after The Hague decision, China’s government continues to vociferously argue that its ‘nine-dash line’ of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea is based on centuries of maritime history, and that China’s claim is air tight. In a letter to The Economist, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous, effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands”. The Chinese government has beaten this drum so hard and for so long, that the Chinese people believe it. The nine-dash line has appeared in school room maps throughout China for decades, in conjunction with the narrative of national humiliation that resulted from tales of imperialist plundering by foreign powers.
The truth is somewhat different, however. As is noted in the book “The South China Sea”, written by veteran journalist Bill Hayton, the first Chinese official ever to set foot on one of the Spratly Islands was a Nationalist naval officer in 1946, the year after Japan’s defeat and its own loss of control of the Sea. He did so from an American ship crewed by Chinese sailors who were trained in Miami. As for the story of the nine-dash line, it began a decade earlier through a Chinese government naming commission. China was not even the first to name the islands; the naming commission borrowed and translated wholesale from British charts and pilots. It is unclear how the Chinese government translated all this into a bill of goods to be sold to the Chinese people, but by now, it is a source of national pride, however misplaced it may be.
The Chinese government, and its people, have essentially backed themselves into a corner. They have been drinking the nine-dash line kool-aid for so long that even despite this year’s Hague ruling that there is no legal basis for China’s claim, and even though the Chinese government has failed to produce evidence of its declaration to back their version of the facts up, national pride will not allow them to admit that what the government is doing in the South China Sea is illegal under the very international maritime law (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas – UNCLOS) to which it first subscribed on the very day in 1982 when the Convention first became a legal instrument.
Although China formally ratified UNCLOS in 1996, in 2006 the Chinese government filed a statement with UNCLOS saying that it “does not accept any of the procedures provided for in Section 2 of Part XV of the Convention with respect to all the categories of disputes referred to in paragraph 1 (a), (b), and (c) of Article 298 of the Convention.” These provisions of the Convention refer to “Compulsory Procedures Entailing Binding Decisions” issued by at least four venues: the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), an “arbitral tribunal” which may refer to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), and a “special arbitral tribunal”.