China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are made on the basis of a nine-dash line now ruled spurious by an international court. But where did the line originate from and why is Beijing so sensitive about it?
First the dotted line on Chinese maps lost two of its hyphens in 1952, when, in a moment of socialist bonhomie with Vietnam, Chairman Mao Zedong abandoned Chinese claims to the Gulf of Tonkin. Then, on July 12, 2016, an international tribunal ruled that the now nine-dash demarcation could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims to the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by six governments. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, had “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. Beijing reacted with outrage to the judgment, which delegitimized China’s maritime ambitions according to international law.
On July 18, China’s naval chief Wu Shengli told the visiting U.S. chief of naval operations that Beijing would not halt its controversial campaign to turn the contested South China Sea reefs it controls into artificial islands complete with military-ready airstrips. China “will never give up halfway” on its island-building efforts, said Wu, according to Chinese state media. Also on Monday, the Chinese air force announced that it had sent bombers on “normal battle patrols” over Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef that Beijing effectively seized from Manila in 2012. Analysts worry that China could next build on Scarborough Shoal, placing a militarized Chinese island off the Philippine coast. Far from hewing to the international court’s July 12 judgement on the nine-dash line, and contested features within that boundary, Beijing has made clear it considers the award null and void.
Wang Ying, a Chinese marine geographer, also feels aggrieved by the tribunal’s award. “They didn’t respect history,” she says, of the international court. “I totally agree with the response of our government.” The 81-year-old member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences is the disciple of Yang Huairen, a Chinese geographer who, in 1947, helped etch the U-shaped, 11-dash line on Chinese maps to demarcate roughly 90% of the contested South China Sea for his homeland. “All the lines have a scientific basis,” says Wang, who still teaches at Nanjing University in eastern China. “I’m a scientist, not someone in politics.”
Just Where Exactly Did China Get the South China Sea Nine-Dash Line From?