Tag Archives: United States

US Department of State Seeks to Clarify Meaning of China’s 9-Dash Line Part 3

By Alex Calvo

This is the third installment in a five-part series summarizing and commenting the 5 December 2014 US Department of State “Limits in the Seas” issue explaining the different ways in which one may interpret Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. It is a long-standing US policy to try to get China to frame her maritime claims in terms of UNCLOS. Read part one, part two

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Let us move to the three interpretations put forward by the US Department of State.

1.- “Dashed Line as Claim to Islands”

This would mean that all Beijing was claiming were the islands within the dashed lines, and that any resulting maritime spaces would be restricted to those recognized under UNCLOS and arising from Chinese sovereignty over these islands. The text notes that “It is not unusual to draw lines at sea on a map as an efficient and practical means to identify a group of islands”. In support of this interpretation one could take the map attached to the 2009 Notes Verbales and the accompanying text, which reads “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof (see attached map)”. The text notes that the references in the paragraph above to “sovereignty” over “adjacent” waters” may be interpreted as referring to a 12-nm belt of territorial sea, since international law recognizes territorial waters as being a sovereignty zone. In a similar vein, references to “sovereign rights and jurisdiction”, “relevant waters”, and “seabed and subsoil thereof”, would then be taken to concern the legal regime of the EEZ and the continental shelf, as defined by UNCLOS.

As possible evidence for this interpretation, the study cites some Chinese legislation, cartography, and statements. The former includes Article 2 of the 1992 territorial sea law, which claims a 12-nm territorial sea belt around the “Dongsha [Pratas] Islands, Xisha [Paracel] Islands, Nansha (Spratly) Islands and other islands that belong to the People’s Republic of China”. This article reads “The PRC’s territorial sea refers to the waters adjacent to its territorial land. The PRC’s territorial land includes the mainland and its offshore islands, Taiwan and the various affiliated islands including Diaoyu Island, Penghu Islands, Dongsha Islands, Xisha Islands, Nansha (Spratly) Islands and other islands that belong to the People’s Republic of China. The PRC’s internal waters refer to the waters along the baseline of the territorial sea facing the land”. The Department of State also stresses that China’s 2011 Note Verbale states that “China’s Nansha Islands is fully entitled to Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and Continental Shelf”, without laying down any other maritime claim. Concerning cartography, the study cites as an example the title of “the original 1930s dashed-line map, on which subsequent dashed-line maps were based”, which reads, “Map of the Chinese Islands in the South China Sea” (emphasis in the DOS study). With regard to Chinese statements, the study cites the country’s 1958 declaration on her territorial sea, which reads “and all other islands belonging to China which are separated from the mainland and its coastal islands by the high seas” (emphasis in the DOS study). The text argues that this reference to “high seas” means that China could not be claiming the entirety of the South China Sea, since should that have been the case there would have been no international waters between the Chinese mainland and her different islands in the region. This is a conclusion with which it is difficult to disagree, although we should not forget that it was 1958, with China having barely more than a coastal force rather than the present growing navy. Therefore, while the study’s conclusion seems correct, and precedent is indeed important in international law, it is also common to see countries change their stance as their relative power and capabilities evolve. Thus, if China had declared the whole of the South China Sea to be her national territory in 1958 this would have amounted to little more than wishful thinking, given among others the soon to expand US naval presence in the region and extensive basing arrangements. Now, 50 years later, with China developing a blue water navy, and the regional balance of power having evolved despite the US retaining a significant presence, Beijing can harbor greater ambitions.

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Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her Filipino counterpart, Albert del Rosario, in June 2011. Washington supports Manila’s arbitration bid and rearmament, but takes no official position on her territorial claims, despite involving former American territory.

This section ends with the DOS study stating that should this interpretation be correct, then “the maritime claims provided for in China’s domestic laws could generally be interpreted to be consistent with the international law of the sea”. This is subject to two caveats, territorial claims by other coastal states over these islands, and Chinese ambiguity concerning the nature of certain geographical features, Beijing not having “clarified which features in the South China Sea it considers to be ‘islands’ (or, alternatively, submerged features) and also which, if any, ‘islands’ it considers to be ‘rocks’ that are not entitled to an EEZ or a continental shelf under paragraph 3 of Article 121 of the LOS Convention”. Some of these features, Scarborough Reef for example, are part of the arbitration proceedings initiated by the Philippines.

2.- “Dashed Line as a National Boundary”

This would mean that Beijing’s intention with the dashed line was to “indicate a national boundary between China and neighboring States”. As supporting evidence for this interpretation, the DOS report explains that “modern Chinese maps and atlases use a boundary symbol to depict the dashed line in the South China Sea”, adding that “the symbology on Chinese maps for land boundaries is the same as the symbology used for the dashes”. Map legends translate boundary symbols as “either ‘national boundary’ or ‘international boundary’ (国界, romanized as guojie)”. Chinese maps also employ “another boundary symbol, which is translated as ‘undefined’ national or international boundary (未定国界, weiding guojie)” but this is never employed for the dashed line.

The report stresses that, under international law, maritime boundaries must be laid down “by agreement (or judicial decision) between neighboring States”, unilateral determination not being acceptable. The text also notes that the “dashes also lack other important hallmarks of a maritime boundary, such as a published list of geographic coordinates and a continuous, unbroken line that separates the maritime space of two countries”. The latter is indeed a noteworthy point, since border lines would indeed seem to need to be continuous by their very nature, rather than just be made up of a number of dashes. This is one of the aspects making it difficult to fit Beijing’s claims with existing categories in the law of the sea. In addition, the report notes that they cannot be a limit to Chinese territorial waters, since they extend beyond 12 nautical miles, and neither can they be a claim to an EEZ, since “dashes 2, 3, and 8” are “beyond 200 nm from any Chinese-claimed land feature”. These last two aspects also make it difficult to see the dashed line as marking one of the categories recognized by UNCLOS. Moving beyond the law, however, and this is something that the DOS report does not address, a certain degree of ambiguity may be seen as beneficial by a state seeking to gradually secure a given maritime territory. Some voices have noted this may have been the US calculus in the San Francisco Treaty. Thus, the technical faults, from an international legal perspective, in China’s dotted line are not necessarily an obstacle to Beijing’s claims, from a practical perspective.

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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US Department of State Seeks to Clarify Meaning of China’s 9-Dash Line Part 2

By Alex Calvo

This is the second installment in a five-part series summarizing and commenting the 5 December 2014 US Department of State “Limits in the Seas” issue explaining the different ways in which one may interpret Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. It is a long-standing US policy to try to get China to frame her maritime claims in terms of UNCLOS. Read part one.  

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Reviewing maritime zones and historic claims. The paper’s second section basically consists of a summary explanation of “Maritime Zones,” “Maritime Boundaries,” and “’Historic’ Bays and Title” according to UNCLOS. Three aspects are of particular significance. First of all, that the interpretation provided is not necessarily that considered correct by China. Although this is not always squarely addressed, when discussing whether Chinese claims in the South China Sea are or are not in accordance with international law we should first define international law, and there is the possibility that as China returns to a position of preeminence she may interpret some of its key provisions in a different way. Second, as the paper itself notes, while China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, the United States has not, although she “considers the substantive provisions of the LOS Convention cited in this study to reflect customary international law, as do international courts and tribunals.” Not all voices take such a straightforward view of Washington’s failure to ratify the convention while claiming that it is mostly a restatement of customary law and therefore applicable anyway.

The DOS paper includes a page devoted to “’Historic’ Bays and Title,” which text stresses that “The burden of establishing the existence of a historic bay or historic title is on the claimant,” adding that the US position is that in order to do this the country in question must “demonstrate (1) open, notorious, and effective exercise of authority over the body of water in question; (2) continuous exercise of that authority; and (3) acquiescence by foreign States in the exercise of that authority.” This passage reflects the US traditional position, as noted by J. Ashley Roach and Robert W. Smith (Editors) “In December 1986, the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, published ‘Navigation Rights and the Gulf of Sidra,’ in GIST, a reference aid on U.S. foreign relations. The study discussed the history of U.S. responses, dating to the 18th century, to attempts by North African States to restrict navigation in these waters. The GIST stated, in part, that: Current law and customs: By custom, nations may lay historic claim to those bays and gulfs over which they have exhibited such a degree of open, notorious, continuous, and unchallenged control for an extended period of time as to preclude traditional high seas freedoms within such waters. Those waters (closed off by straight baselines) are treated as if they were part of the nation’s land mass, and the navigation of foreign vessels is generally subject to complete control by the nation.”

The text explains that this traditional American perspective is in line with the International Court of Justice and “the 1962 study on the ‘Juridical Regime of Historic Waters, Including Historic Bays,’ commissioned by the Conference that adopted the 1958 Geneva Conventions on the law of the sea.” It cites a number of cases, among them the 1951 Fisheries Case (U.K. v. Norway). It then turns its attention to the regulation of historic claims in Articles 10 and 15 of UNCLOS, saying that they are “strictly limited geographically and substantively” and apply “only with respect to bays and similar near-shore coastal configurations, not in areas of EEZ, continental shelf, or high seas.” Just like, when examining China’s posture we must take into account, as discussed later, the country’s history, and in particular the Opium Wars and their aftermath, American history has also shaped Washington’s perceptions and principles. The Barbary Wars were widely seen as laying down fundamental principles of national policy such as rejection of blackmail, freedom of navigation, and the right and duty to intervene far from American shores whenever the country’s interests, principles, and prestige were at stake. In the words of Jason Zeledon “The United States’s conflicts with the Barbary States (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis) from 1784-1815 gripped the young nation, featured bold attempts by American policymakers to defend U.S. trade in the Mediterranean region and assert leadership in international affairs, set important precedents in American foreign relations (including the first U.S.-supported coup attempt that generated the line ‘to the shores of Tripoli’ in the Marine Corps Hymn), provided vital naval training for the War of 1812, and helped create an early sense of American exceptionalism.”

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South China Sea map first published in January 2013 by China’s state mapping authority Sinomap Press, featureing 10 dashes instead of the previous nine.

Thus, while China’s position concerning the South China Sea may end up resting at least in part, on the concept of historic waters, even if this is not the case history and perceptions of history will surely still play an important role in determining Beijing’s policy. This, however, is not something only taking place within China, since no regional or extra-regional actor is immune to the phenomenon, adding to the already tense situation in South East Asia. In particular, a couple of centuries later, both the Barbary Wars and the Opium Wars remain powerful factors projecting their shadow on American and Chinese foreign and defense policy.

Trying to make Chinese claims fit with UNCLOS: three possible interpretations. The Department of State report then turns its attention to what constitutes the core of the paper, that is three possible interpretations of Chinese claims in the South China Sea and their compatibility or otherwise with International Law. Even without the need to fully agree with the paper’s views, it responds to a widely heard demand for clarification of China’s posture. In this regard, before we sum up the three perspectives, we should remember that while it is an interesting and useful exercise to try to fit Beijing’s (not always consistent) claims within the framework of UNCLOS and customary international law, China may have its own interpretations of the law, or seek to promote a different one. Since international law to a great extent reflects power realities on the ground, this should not come as a surprise, in particular given that in the view of China’s leaders many aspects of international law, and in particular the law of the sea, result from the same power dynamics that led to the country’s fragmentation and subservience from the mid XIX Century.

The paper also stresses that it is only in “maritime claims” (emphasis in the original) where “China’s position is unclear.” On the other hand, while some other countries do not accept them, Chinese claims on land are unequivocal, Beijing claiming “sovereignty over the islands within the dashed line”. The assertion in China’s 2009 Notes Verbales that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea” is consistent with previous statements, and means that there is no doubt that Beijing considers all such islands to be national territory of the PRC.

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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US Department of State Seeks to Clarify Meaning of China’s 9-Dash Line Part 1

By Alex Calvo

Introduction

Despite repeatedly stating that it will not take sides in territorial disputes in East Asia, Washington remains keenly interested in the ultimate fate of the South China Sea. In addition to perennial calls to settle disputes peacefully, regular reminders of the importance of freedom of navigation, military aid to regional actors like the Philippines, and support for a more active policy by non-littoral maritime democracies like India and Japan, the US Department of State (DOS) took a further step late last year by issuing a document, part of its “Limits in the Seas” series. The text seeks to explain the different ways in which one may interpret Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea (“that the dashes are (1) lines within which China claims sovereignty over the islands, along with the maritime zones those islands would generate under the LOS Convention; (2) national boundary lines; or (3) the limits of so-called historic maritime claims of varying types”). It concludes that the “dashed-line claim does not accord with the international law of the sea” unless “China clarifies that” it “reflects only a claim to islands within that line and any maritime zones.” The text includes supporting Chinese official views, without attributing “to China the views of analysis of non-government sources, such as legal or other Chinese academics.” Concerning this latter restriction, although it is of course official sources which may be considered to be most authoritative when it comes to interpreting a government’s position, we should not forget that administrations in different countries will often resort to “two-track diplomacy” or employ semi or non-official back channels to test the waters and lay the groundwork for future formal negotiations.

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The object of this five-part series is to summarize the DOS document, while commenting on some of its most relevant features, and where appropriate going beyond the text and examining related aspects of the South China Sea conflict.

Tyranny of History: Can Washington claim not to take sides on Filipino territorial claims?

Before summarizing the “Limits in the Seas” document, we should note that the American policy of not taking sides concerning the ultimate issue of sovereignty could be challenged given Washington’s past sovereignty over the Philippine Archipelago. While this has not been publicly stressed by Manila to date, it could enter the debate as a means of putting more pressure on Washington to adopt a more robust posture.

Chinese Claims and Possible Interpretations According to International Law

In line with long-standing US demands that Beijing clarify the ultimate nature of her South China Sea claims, the DOS document analyzes those figures within UNCLOS and customary international law which may provide cover to Beijing’s claims. Issued on 5 December 2014, the Department of State paper begins by stressing that “China has not clarified through legislation, proclamation, or other official statements the legal basis or nature of its claim associated with the dashed-line map”, explains the “origins and evolution” of the dashed-line maps, provides a summary of the different maritime zones recognized and regulated by UNCLOS, and then proceeds to explain and discuss three possible interpretations of that claim “and the extent to which those interpretations are consistent with the international law of the sea.” The document contains a number of maps, including (Map 1) that referred to in China’s two May 2009 notes verbales to the UN Secretary General, which stated that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof. The above position is consistently held by the Chinese government, and is widely known by the international community.”

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Nine-dash map attached to China’s two 2009 Notes Verbales.

A Look at Chinese Map Quality and Accuracy

The text first outlines the history of China’s maps of the South China Sea containing dashed lines, starting with a 1947 map published by the Nationalist government, noting that later PRC maps “appear to follow the old maps” (see L. Jinming and L. Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note”, Ocean Dev’t & Int’l L., Volume 34, 2003, pp. 287-95, p. 289-290) with two significant changes: the removal of two dashes inside the Gulf of Tonkin (in an area partly delimited by Vietnam and the PRC in 2000) and the addition of a tenth dash to the East of Taiwan. These two changes can be interpreted in different ways, to some degree contradictory. On the one hand, the partial delimitation agreement with Vietnam could be seen as evidence of Chinese pragmatism and flexibility, and proof that it is possible for countries in the region to at least partly settle their disputes by diplomacy. On the other, explicitly encompassing Taiwan with an extra dash may be seen as a reinforcement of Chinese claims on the island not necessarily based on the will of her population. Alternatively, it could simply be a way to more comprehensively encompass the waters and features that Beijing (either directly or via Taipei) wishes to master.

The paper then examines successive Chinese maps from a cartographic perspective, stressing that “China has not published geographic coordinates specifying the location of the dashes. Therefore, all calculations in this study relating to the dashed line are approximate.” A similar criticism has sometimes been made of the San Francisco Treaty. The text also notes that “China does not assign numbers to the dashes,” and therefore those in the study are for “descriptive purposes only.” They “are not uniformly distributed,” being “separated from one another by between 106 (dashes 7 and 8) and 274 (dashes 3 and 4) nautical miles (nm).” This section of the paper stresses that “Nothing in this study is intended to take a definitive position regarding which features in the South China Sea are ‘islands’ under Article 121 of the LOS Convention or whether any such islands are ‘rocks’ under Article 121(3).” This is in line with Washington’s refusal to take sides concerning the ultimate sovereignty disputes in the region. The text notes that the “dashes are located in relatively close proximity to the mainland coasts and coastal islands of the littoral States surrounding the South China Sea,” and explains that, for example, Dash 4 is 24 nm from Borneo’s coast, part of Malaysia. Generally speaking, “the dashes are generally closer to the surrounding coasts of neighboring States than they are to the closest islands within the South China Sea,” and as explained later this is significant when it comes to interpreting the possible meaning of China’s dashed line, since one of the principles of the Law of the Sea is that land dominates the sea, and thus maritime boundaries tend as a general rule to be equidistant. That is, maritime boundaries tend to be roughly half way between two shores belonging to different states.

To hammer home this point, the study includes a set of six maps illustrating this. The report criticizes the technical quality of the PRC maps, saying that they are inconsistent, thus making it “complicated” to describe the dashed line, whose dashes are depicted in different maps “in varying sizes and locations.” Again, this is important in light of possible interpretations of Chinese claims, since this lack of consistency and quality not only obfuscates Chinese claims, introducing an additional measure of ambiguity, but also makes it more difficult to ascertain whether historical claims are being made and whether they are acceptable in light of international law.

The dashes change from map to map, with those “from the 2009 map” being “generally shorter and closer to the coasts of neighboring States” than those in the 1947 map. The dashed lines in these two maps are illustrated and compared in Map 5 of the document. The section concludes noting that the 2009 map, which Beijing distributed to the international community “is also cartographically inconsistent with other published Chinese maps.”

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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A Few Notes on FONOPS In the South China Sea

By Scott Cheney-Peters


After months of speculation and signaling the U.S. has undertaken Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to protest the claimed rights of Chinese-occupied “artificial islands” in the South China Sea at Subi and Mischief Reef by sending the USS Lassen within 12nm of the reefs. Several of our colleagues and members have written recently about the context, the legal aspects, the recent history, and response to the FONOPS. I recommend reading them all but wanted to offer a few additional thoughts below:

File photo of the US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen underway in the Pacific OceanThis was a necessary move to both reassure America’s allies and partners in the region of America’s commitment and to uphold common sense interpretations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). What many pieces of analysis gloss over is that even though UNCLOS is pretty clear that the reclamation doesn’t turn reefs into islands or give them the rights of islands, interpretations of international law – if contested – must be backed up by words and actions. Otherwise the counter-vailing view gains acceptance as customary international law.

The reported several-years’ pause in conducting these types of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea may have been done to try and convince the Chinese to stand-down from their position. Not being privy to the internal administration deliberations I’m not sure if there was a good reason why it took so long to change course and resume FONOPS, but the delay created the risk that the resumption would create a major incident. This is why shortly before it occurred it appeared that the US was trying to prevent surprise from contributing to the risk of an incident by not only warning of the pending FONOPS but very specifically identifying which ship would conduct it and where.

While necessary for the reasons stated above, these FONOPS are unlikely to change the situation unless the Chinese overreact, something I don’t expect to happen. This doesn’t mean China will do nothing, however, and their response may consist of one or more approaches. One thing Chinese officials have long hinted at before the FONOPS occurred was that they would be used as justification for pre-planned actions, such as declaring an ADIZ over the South China Sea or the “militarization” of the reclaimed islands. Another possible action is mirroring the supposed provocation of the American FONOPS by conducting something perceived by the Chinese to be similar – such as additional transits near Alaska. Direct responses to further FONOPS will likely include shadowing of US naval vessels by Chinese naval vessels, as occurred with the LASSEN, and could include electronic or physical interference, as indicated by Chinese media – both much more dangerous and likely to escalate the situation.

Lastly, U.S. officials reportedly indicate that additional FONOPS will be conducted to protest Vietnamese and Philippines excessive claims in the coming weeks. These are not new protests, nor are FON activities in various forms limited to the region but in fact are used to protest claimed excessive maritime rights around the world, from Ecuador to India.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founder and Chairman of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, a member of the Truman National Security Project, and a CNAS Next-Generation National Security Fellow.