Tag Archives: Paracels

The Paracel Islands and U.S. Interests and Approaches in the South China Sea

Bouchat, Clarence J. The Paracel Islands and U.S. Interests and Approaches in the South China Sea. Carlisle Barracks: United States Army War College Press, 2014, 199pp.

PUB1207By Ching Chang

The Parcel Islands and U.S. Interests and Approaches in the South China Sea is a research report written by Clarence J. Bouchat and published by the U.S. Army War College. Its analysis matches with the recent years’ development of the United States National Security Strategy that has sought to readdress the Asia-Pacific .

Though many events have occurred in the South China Sea, primarily around the Spratly Islands, little attention has been paid to the dispute between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China over the Paracel Islands since the policy resettlement. Bouchat’s analysis fills the gap for U.S. strategic thinkers and policymakers. The geographical location of the Paracel islands make it a suitable forward base for a substantial military maneuver, either targeting on the Indo-China Peninsula or with the intent of dominating maritime transportation through the South China Sea. For those focused on issues regarding the Sea Lanes of Communication in the East Asia or the larger Asia-Pacific region, a strong command of the geostrategic significance of the Paracel Islands is crucial.

This monograph starts with a thorough discussion of customary international law practices associated with various positions held by parties who claim sovereignty over the territories and waters around the Paracel Islands. Rationales based on historic factors or substantial occupation and governance as well as justifications supported by the subsequently established United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are considered and reviewed by the author. 

The maritime jurisdiction attached to the islands or reefs of the Paracel Islands are also examined, though no conclusive judgment is ever given by the author in this text. Nonetheless, the author has successfully provided appropriate information for the strategists to conduct strategic calculations, theoretically prepared for government leadership and various decision makers. Particularly, many arguments and international judiciary facts are fairly noted by the author to clarify myriad missing links in the sovereignty claims originated by various parties involved.

Aerial photograph of the Crescent Group, Paracel Islands. Source: Wikipedia.
Aerial photograph of the Crescent Group, Paracel Islands. Source: Wikipedia.

It is also necessary to mention that Bouchat’s masterpiece has been translated into Chinese and published by the National Defense University in the Republic of China. Undeniably, this fact alone is further confirmation of the value of his research. The Republic of China is the first nation that laid claim to the Parcel Islands (after the World War Two), having published its official maps covering the South China Sea with the famous U-shape line in 1947. If no objection was noted within the translated edition of Bouchat’s analysis report, this implies that Bouchat’s conclusions have high degree of credibility. 

It is obvious that the author has never unconditionally endorsed the official positions insisted by the Republic of China’s government. On the contrary, Bouchat has fairly listed all the factual evidences in this work, including those issues that might not be necessarily favorable to any single claimant. Compared with various other publications released by the U.S. Army War College, this research report has successfully justified its value by earning recognition from a party involved with the territorial disputes of the Paracel Islands and the larger waters of the South China Sea.

Further, an interesting feature of this publication is that it also reflects an implicit joint effort through the following formula: an author with an Air Force background contributed a research report on the maritime affairs  published by the Army War College. It proves that we should have no service sectionalism on national security matters. The author and the publisher did contribute a solid argument that a background in the maritime professions should never be a rigid prerequisite on any matter regarding the maritime disputes.

Last but not the least, the most noteworthy feature emphasized by the author is an impartial description of U.S. policies and positions towards the issue. The author honestly pointed out the two different roles, or more precisely, two strategic options, fundamentally conflicting in various occasions faced by the United States on the South China Sea disputes. It is indeed reflecting the integrity of the author as an analyst. 

The United States would like to retain its influences in the Asia-Pacific region; this is a well-known fact. Many nations in this region must strike a careful balance between China and the U.S. How well the United Sates may serve its own interest without a direct clash or conflict with any party within the region is an imminent challenge in near future. The author has presented several perfect inspirations to strategic thinkers. History will eventually disclose whether these planners will appreciate the author’s teachings.

Chang Ching is a Research Fellow with the Society for Strategic Studies, Republic of China. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Featured Image: Bombay Reef, Paracel Islands. Photo number: ISS004-E-7147. Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

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.

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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China’s Nine-Dashed Line Faces Renewed Assault

By Scott Cheney-Peters

China’s ambiguous claim to the South China Sea, approximately demarcated by a series of hash marks known as the “nine-dashed line,” faced objections from an expanding number of parties over the past two weeks. While a challenge from the United States came from an unsurprising source, actions by Indonesia and Vietnam were unexpected in their tone and timing.

8-e48b8c470eOn December 5th, the U.S. State Department released its analysis of the compatibility of China’s nine-dashed line with international law. The report attempted to set aside the issue of sovereignty and explore “several possible interpretations of the dashed-line claim and the extent to which those interpretations are consistent with the international law of the sea.” The analysis found that as a demarcation of claims to land features within the line and their conferred maritime territory, the least expansive interpretation, the claim is consistent with international law but reiterated that ultimate sovereignty is subject to resolution with the other claimants.

As a national boundary, the report went on, the line “would not have a proper legal basis under the law of the sea,” due to its unilateral nature and its inconsistent distance from land features that could confer maritime territory. Alternately, although many commentators have indicated China bases its claims on “historic” rights pre-dating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982, the report argued that the history China points to does not fit the narrow “category of historic claims recognized” in UNCLOS under which historic rights may be conferred. Lastly, the report noted that as China has filed no formal claim supporting its nine-dashed line, the ambiguity over the exact nature and location of the line itself undermines under international law China’s argument that it possesses maritime rights to the circumscribed waters, concluding:

“For these reasons, unless China clarifies that the dashed-line claim reflects only a claim to islands within that line and any maritime zones that are generated from those land features in accordance with the international law of the sea, as reflected in the LOS Convention, its dashed-line claim does not accord with the international law of the sea.”

Although such analysis reflects prior U.S. policy positions, less expected were the pointed signals from Indonesia, which has built a reputation as a mediator among ASEAN states in dealing with China and striven to downplay the overlap by the nine-dashed line of its own claimed exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea from Natuna Island. On Tuesday at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, senior Indonesian presidential advisor Luhut Binsar Panjaitan emphasized that the country was “very firm” that its “sovereignty cannot be negotiated,” while stressing the importance of dialogue to peacefully manage matters. Further, in response to a question from an audience member, Panjaitan stated (56:00 mark in the video below) that the development of gas fields offshore Natuna in cooperation with Chevron would “give a signal to China, ‘you cannot play a game here because of the presence of the U.S.’” Meanwhile Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti noted that after sinking Vietnamese vessels the Indonesian Navy said it had captured illegally fishing she was considering sinking 5 Thai and 22 Chinese vessels also caught.

As Prashanth Parameswaran notes at The Diplomat, Indonesia is playing a balancing act – seeking at the same time to protect its sovereign interests as it attempts to align new president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s “Maritime Axis”/“Maritime Fulcrum” initiative with Xi Jinping’s “Maritime Silk Road” and play a leading role in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. To some observers, sinking the Thai and Chinese boats is now necessary to preserve Indonesia’s image of impartiality, while others believe such action may be redundant if China heeds the warning that such behavior will no longer be tolerated.

Vietnam too took surprise action over the nine-dashed line, in a move long-mooted but unexpected in its timing. Vietnam’s foreign ministry announced last week that it had filed papers with the Hague arbitral tribunal overseeing the case submitted by the Philippines, asking that its rights and interests be considered in the ruling. Vietnam supported the Philippines position arguing that China’s nine-dashed line is “without legal basis.” While a regional source in The South China Morning Post noted that the action was as much about protecting “Vietnamese interests vis-à-vis the Philippines as it is directed against China,” and Professor Carlyle Thayer described it as “a cheap way of getting into the back door without joining the Philippines’ case,” Thayer also told Bloomberg News that it “raises the stature of the case in the eyes of the arbitrational tribunal.”

China-Vietnam-RigIf the actions taken by the United States, Indonesia, and Vietnam were surprising, China’s reactions were not. On December 7th, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a white paper of its own on the Philippines’ arbitration case. The document states that China’s policy, as established in its 2006 statement on UNCLOS ratification, is to exclude maritime delimitation from compulsory arbitration. Additionally, the paper says that while the current arbitration is ostensibly about the compatibility of China’s nine-dashed line with international law, “the essence of the subject-matter” deals with a mater of maritime delimitation and territorial sovereignty. The paper goes on to say that until the matter of sovereignty of the land features in the South China Sea is conclusively settled it is impossible to determine the extent to which China’s claims exceed international law.

In effect, China is taking the position that only after it has conducted and conclude bilateral sovereignty negotiations will its nine-dashed line be open to critique. While the foreign ministry may be right that the Philippines is attempting to force the issue of territorial sovereignty, its argument that this prevents scrutiny of the nine-dashed line’s accordance with international law rings hollow.

At the end of the day, China has repeatedly stated, and its new policy paper affirms, that it will “neither accept nor participate in the arbitration” initiated by the Philippines. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei likewise remarked of Vietnam’s filing with the tribunal that “China will never accept such a claim.” So it is prudent to ask what benefit will come of the legal maneuvers. Some, such as Richard Javad Heydarian, a political-science professor at De La Salle University, point to the economic harm already incurred by the Philippines in opportunity costs and the danger of having created a worse domestic and international environment for settling the disputes. Yet given the lengthening list of states willing to stake a legal position on the matter and the moral weight of a potential court ruling, China can claim and attempt to enforce what it wants, but it will be increasingly clear that it is doing so in contravention of international law.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

A Busy Week in the South China Sea


South China Sea Claims. The Economist

It’s been a busy week for the South China Sea. For those of you keeping score at home, these are some of the news stories we’ve been following:


1.      Post-ASEAN fall-out: After ASEAN failed last week to release a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years, Cambodia is looking to some in the region like a Chinese proxy playing the role of spoiler. Indonesia managed to salvage a version of the “code of conduct” for the South China Sea, a 6-point declaration to essentially work peacefully to implement existing maritime law and guidelines and avoid military confrontations: making progress by reaffirming the status quo.


2.      Beijing announces troop build-up in Paracels: On Monday, China said it would  send troops to guard its newly incorporated city of Sansha. The most likely location is the largest island, Woody Island/Yongxing. Fun fact – according to Chinese reports the city, home to 1,000 across various islands, already has a karaoke parlor up and running. Preparations for hosting the troops may take longer – the announcement and move is more symbolic than practical at this time.


3.      The Philippines and Vietnam Protest China’s moves: Manila summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the new garrison, while President Benigno Aquino took to the airwaves and decried Chinese provocations in an address to the nation. Meanwhile, Hanoi filed an official diplomatic complaint about the build-up in the Paracels, which it too claims. Both the Philippines and Vietnam however reiterated their desire for a diplomatic solution and stated they would not seek military confrontation.


Allies…but in arms?

4.      The International Crisis Group releases report on the SCS: Said the report: “The failure to reduce the risks of conflict, combined with the internal economic and political factors that are pushing claimants toward more assertive behaviour, shows that trends in the South China Sea are moving in the wrong direction.” Interestingly, the report also believes the Philippines made the wrong move in the recent Scarborough Shoal stand-off with China by sending in a naval vessel, thereby giving the Chinese an excuse to escalate, to play up nationalism to their domestic audience. The report also states the U.S. might not be obligated to assist the Philippines in the event of an attack in the South China Sea under the terms of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, as the U.S. has yet to make a formal statement whether the Spratleys and other disputed maritime areas are covered under the treaty’s terms.


5.      Taiwan to ship armament to the Spratleys: Taiwan has confirmed it will send a mix of mortars and artillery to Taiping, the largest of islands and host to a 130-strong Taiwanese force, in August. Fun fact – the total land mass of the 100 Spratley “islands” is less than 2 square miles.


6.      The Philippines ratifies a long-languishing Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Australia. “Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China,” President Benigno Arroyo said after the vote. The pact, however, has more to do with pursuing terrorists in the country’s muslim South – primarily the island of Mindanao.


No one of these stories points to a looming conflict, but taken together they provide context for what has been the increasing trend of looking towards military power for lack of a diplomatic progress.