China is withholding details on the boundaries of its vast claims to a resource-rich sea contested by five other governments because it distrusts international law and wants to ensure control over tracts of water that it considers crucial, maritime scholars say.
Exactly what Beijing claims in the South China Sea surfaced as in issue March 7, when Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on the Communist leadership to define its “so-called ownership.” Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan contest all or parts China’s sovereignty claims over the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea.
China today uses a nine-dash line to define its claims to about 90 percent of the sea that stretches from Hong Kong to Borneo. It has upset other claimants over the past decade by creating artificial islands for military use within that line and passing coast guard vessels through foreign exclusive economic zones.
To be more specific would let international organizations or other countries set boundaries for China, a threat to any design to expand at sea, political analysts say.
“China has had this calculated ambiguity for years. They claim all the land features in their adjacent waters,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “That’s not a legal term,” he added. “China’s a permanent presence everywhere.”
Quest for clarity
Malaysia among others wants to know China’s endgame because Chinese coast guard vessels ply the sea’s Spratly Islands where all six claimant governments hold tiny islets. China keeps a “permanent watch” near Malaysian-held Laconia Shoal and “challenges” the movements of vessels sent by the Malaysian state-owned energy corporation PETRONAS, Thayer said.
In 2012 China took control of a shoal in the Philippine ocean exclusive economic zone, angering Manila. Two years later the placement of a Chinese oil rig in a tract claimed by Vietnam touched off deadly anti-China riots near Ho Chi Minh City.
For countries such as Malaysia, “there’s a kind of fear that one day you wake up and find China has landed to help set up a thatched hut for fishermen,” Thayer said.
China had been pressed for details of its claims before Mahathir asked. The U.S. State Department said in 2014, for example, that a position paper from China that year had failed to clarify the nine-dash line.
One point of contention is control of waters inside the line but overlapping another country’s 370-mile-wide exclusive economic zone. China’s authority between the dashes causes confusion, too. In August, Vietnamese oil exploration firm PetroVietnam joined two foreign partners to develop natural gas blocks under the sea near the line, a zone that Chinese officials might consider their own.
The Beijing government has “never defined what the nine-dash line included or excluded,” Zheng Zhihua, director of the Joint Institute for Maritime Law and History at East China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in a 2015 study.
China in some cases disputes international standards for meting out maritime rights, Zheng said. The country often cites historic records to show long-term Chinese use of the sea, supporting its claims over most of the sea’s tiny islands.
China backs its nine-dash line with survey expeditions, fishing activities and naval patrols as far back as the fifteenth century, clashing with United Nations convention boundaries enforced since 1994, the think tank Council on Foreign Relations says.
China sees no urgency to discuss the details of its maritime claim now because no one else in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is asking at the moment, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.
Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines are among the members. In 2017 China started negotiating with the group to establish a code of conduct that would spell out how to avoid mishaps -- but without touching on sovereignty issues.
“I don’t think China will do anything. The Chinese know they have a pretty good claim. They say ‘well, we are negotiating the code of conduct with ASEAN,’ so anything other than the (code of conduct) isn't going to be on China’s top agenda,” Sun said.
Mahathir may follow up his request by making more public comments, Thayer said. Poking at China helps him distance himself from his predecessor Najib Razak, whose coalition lost parliamentary elections last year to the Mahathir’s camp, some analysts say. Najib seldom criticized China, instead accepting Chinese funding for domestic infrastructure projects.
“Much of what Mahathir could be talking about is in large part likely designed for domestic consumption than anything else,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “I think I would prefer to see what Malaysia is doing (in) actions.”