China’s unilateral nine-dash line

Amelia H. C. Ylagan-125

“China unleashes another deadly virus…” retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio called out in his column in the Inquirer, that slow Thursday, Jan. 28. Another deadly virus after the Wuhan virus or COVID-19? That surely gripped the readers’ attention, in this tremulous time of the persistent pandemic.

Justice Carpio explained his metaphor: “… this time, a legal virus that can only roil even more the seething dispute in the South China Sea. Last week China approved a new law, to take effect Feb. 1, 2021, authorizing its Coast Guard to use armed force to secure its notorious nine-dash line claim to almost the entire South China Sea.”

China’s unilaterally drawn territorial demarcation: the nine-dash line. Its definition of Chinese sovereignty and economic borders must really be the deadly pandemic that has malingered over 70 years after World War II, home-grown by the re-awakening China in its obsession to regain its former political and economic position in the world.


History tells of China’s claims on territories in the South China Sea as spoils of war after the surrender of Japan in 1946. An article in Time Magazine (July 2016) by Hannah Beech said that the nine-dash line was originally an 11-dash line (from a 1935 Chinese land and water administration map) first drawn by the then Republic of China in December 1947 to justify its claims in the South China Sea. In 1949, the newly established People’s Republic of China (Communist Party) dropped claims in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the 11 dashes were revised to nine.

China’s nine-dash line claim encloses 85.7% of the entire South China Sea. This is equivalent to 3 million square kilometers out of the 3.5 million square kilometers surface area of the South China Sea, according to Justice Carpio, who has indefatigably fought against China’s outrageous and illegal claims. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been protesting China’s claim.

“What is at stake for the Philippines are: a.) 80% of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), comprising 381,000 square kilometers of maritime space, and, b.) 100% of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf (ECS), estimated at over 150,000 square kilometers of maritime space, aggregating a huge maritime area of over 531,000 square kilometers, larger than the total land area of the Philippines of 300,000 square kilometers,” Justice Carpio said at a lecture on Feb. 25, 2016, at the Philippine Social Science Center.

In January 2013, the Philippines formally initiated arbitration proceedings against China’s territorial claim, the “nine-dash line,” which it said was unlawful under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In July 2016, the formal arbitral award in favor of the Philippines stated that “there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources, hence there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over the nine-dash line (The Economist, July 12, 2016). The tribunal also judged that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” (The New York Times, July 12, 2016). China has repeatedly and adamantly rejected the UNCLOS ruling, vocally by its President Xi Jin Ping, and by aggressive action insisting upon the nine-dash line demarcation.

China has continuously been expanding its facilities in the South China Sea (SCS, called the “West Philippine Sea” by the Philippines), reclaiming land to effectively extend boundaries, creating military facilities including a three-km (1.86-mile) military-grade runway, barracks, and radars on Mischief Reef, which is within the Philippine EEZ, a July 2020 Aljazeera report noted.

“Maritime incidents have also escalated, with a Vietnamese boat being sunk, an incident blamed on a Chinese surveillance vessel. All eight fishermen survived. In June 2019, at least 22 Filipino fishermen were left to drown when their fishing boat was rammed under suspicious circumstances by an alleged Chinese militia boat. They were later rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.”

“We can never win a war with China,” President Rodrigo Duterte said after the Chinese hit-and-run incident with the 22 fishermen. But it was known early on in Duterte’s governance that he would not fight China over “incidents” nor would he call on the UN Arbitral ruling lest it calls up a war with China. Let sleeping dogs lie. But what now, with this new law of a very awake and raring China, directing its Coast Guard to kill on sight “transgressors” of its unilateral nine-dash line?

At first, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin, Jr. said it was “none of our business” that China passed a new law telling its Coast Guard to fire on foreign ships in Chinese-claimed waters (PDI, Jan. 28, 2021). But China’s Coast Guard is the largest blue water coast guard fleet in the world, with more coast guard vessels than Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines combined. It has at least two 10,000-ton coast guard vessels in the SCS waters, the world’s largest coast guard vessels. This is on top of having the world’s largest Navy, with 240,000 active personnel (est.) as of 2018; 537+ ships as of 2018 (excluding auxiliaries); 594+ aircraft as of 2018; and the largest and most warships in the world. And according to Justice Carpio, China’s “Third Navy” is a maritime militia consisting of hundreds of thousands of fishermen who are well-trained to spy on foreign warships, harass foreign fishing vessels, and act as eyes and ears for the navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Their fishing vessels, numbering about 20,000, are equipped with China’s Beidou satellite navigation and communications system. The PLA’s official newspaper declared: “Putting on camouflage these fishermen qualify as soldiers, taking off the camouflage they become law abiding fishermen.” The total PLA is the largest in the world, with 2,035,000 (2020) active personnel, 510,000 (2020) reserve, and 660,000 paramilitary.

Secretary Locsin reflected, retracted his “none of our business” first reaction, and fired off a diplomatic protest to China about its new Coast Guard Law. The immediately precedent Philippine diplomatic protest filed against China was in August 2020, three months after the Chinese Coast Guard’s brazen confiscation in May of fish aggregating devices from Filipino fishermen near Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal, some 120 nautical miles off Zambales, and within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

But why are we so timid, and cowering against the deliberate malice and mischief of a foreign government and trespassers in our own territory? Have we no dignity, no pride as victims of a bully who has intimidated with superior strength and false “friendship”? Alas, what seems to be the problem is the personal self-pride and stubbornness of some, who are, unfortunately, the ones who must be the face and heart of the hapless, helpless collective masses, the common people who take all the consequential suffering from wrong responses to such frontal attack of foreign bullies.

“In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague unanimously ruled in favor of the country and rejected China’s sweeping claims over virtually the entire sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line.'” The tribunal also found that China had caused “severe harm” to the marine environment because of its land reclamation. Despite the milestone ruling, Beijing still refuses to acknowledge the Philippines’ victory” (CNN Philippines, July 12, 2020).

Our leaders must defend our hard-won victory over China’s grand theft of our territory and rights.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.


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