The U.S. and China’s Nine-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity


For the first time, the United States government has come out publicly with an explicit statement that the so-called “nine-dash line,” which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan assert delineates their claims in the South China Sea, is contrary to international law. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 5, said, “Under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”

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The South China Sea encompasses several hundred small islands, reefs, and atolls, almost all uninhabited and uninhabitable, within a 1.4 million square mile area. The PRC inherited from the former Kuomintang government of China the nine-dash line, which draws a line around all of these islands, asserts sovereignty over all of them, and makes ambiguous claims about rights to waters within the line. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), negotiated in the 1970s and 1980s, countries can claim exclusive rights to the fish and mineral resources within Exclusive Economic Zones, which can extend 200 nautical miles from a continental shore line or around islands that can support habitation. There is no provision in the convention granting rights to waters, such as in the South China Sea, without regard to land-based sovereign rights. So it has long been implicit in the U.S. interpretation of UNCLOS that claims to the mineral and fish resources of the South China Sea, unless they are linked to specific inhabitable islands, are invalid. Assistant Secretary Russel’s statement has made that position explicit.


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