Last week the US State Department released a useful report on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. As M Taylor Fravel tweeted, it is a must-read for anyone interested in maritime security, the law of the sea, or China’s foreign policy.
The report focuses on China’s so-called ‘nine-dashed line‘ and the different interpretations of what China may be seeking to claim through it. What makes this issue particularly difficult is that China hasn’t specified its maritime claims. So the report examines three possible interpretations of the dashed-line claim (as a claim to islands; as a national boundary; as a historic claim) and whether they are consistent with the international law of the sea.
The details of each interpretation are quite technical, but the report is written clearly enough for non-lawyers like myself to get their head around it.
The most interesting part of the report, for me at least, was the third interpretation, the use of the dashed line to indicate a historic claim. If this is indeed the nature of China’s claim, then under international law, China has not actually made a cognizable claim. As the report explains, if you are making a historic claim then you must give international notoriety to the claim. This is usually done through formal notification. China’s various maps depicting the nine-dashed line are not precise or consistent enough to fulfill this. In addition, according to the report, even if the legal test for a historic claim were applicable ‘it would not pass any element of the three-part legal test’, as there is: