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Shekhar asked: What is ‘nine-dash line’ and China's policy with regard to it?

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  • Abhijit Singh replies: The ‘nine-dash line’ is a demarcation line used by China to delineate its territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS). The contested areas include the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and various other areas such as the Pratas Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and the Scarborough Shoal. China claims all features and adjacent waters within the ‘nine-dash line’, but it does not specify what it really represents, and whether its underlying principle is historical or legal – an important distinction under international law. While Beijing offers assurance that its claims do not prevent the passage of commercial vessels in the SCS, it prohibits foreign military ships from conducting operations in the waters it claims.

    The United States (US) and many other Southeast Asian states believe China’s claims are inconsistent with the international law of the sea. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), nautical claims must be derived from land features under the sovereign control of a coastal state. The 'nine-dash line’, however, is not based on land features and therefore seemingly incompatible with the international law. In order to bolster its claims, China is involved in massive reclamation of submerged features in the SCS – an act many regional states believe is both illegal and unprincipled.

    The problem is exacerbated by the US claims that its warships and aircrafts have a right to conduct military operations in the SCS – a maritime space Washington sees as international waters. Not only do the US forces frequently carry out surveillance and other missions close to China’s coast, its naval ships also regularly carry out navigation patrols. This is unacceptable to Beijing that believes Washington is crossing a red line by sending warships to a region under China's lawful jurisdiction. Yet, the Chinese have been vague about the exact nature of their claims, and that gives the US the reason to accuse Beijing of seeking to restrict general access to the SCS.

    Posted on January 25, 2016