Written by C.A. George

Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Chinese government outlived the Japanese effort to conquer China, but at a terrible cost.  After defeating Japan in concert with the Allies, Chiang’s government faced the formidable leadership of Mao Ze Dong and his Communist guerilla army.  Mao husbanded his resources during the Japanese war to outlive the Nationalist government and the two sides renewed a brutal civil war.

Seeking to expand Chinese territory in an area with no possible resistance, Nationalist Chinese geographer Yang Huairen developed a map of Chinese claims to the South China Sea, pictured above, released around 1947 (reports conflict on the year it was released).  The eleven curved dashes enveloping the South China Sea were arbitrarily placed to delineate “historical” Chinese blue water territory.

Mao’s Communist forces drove Chiang’s Nationalist forces to Taiwan in 1949 and consolidated power in mainland China, founding the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”).  The PRC adopted Yang Huairen’s map but removed two of the original eleven dashes on the map between the PRC’s Hainan Island and North Vietnam. 

China has yet to specify the exact coordinates of the dashes on their current nine-dashed line claims (see map below).  The nine-dashed line claims of the South China Sea comprise approximately 2,000,000 square kilometers of seas, islands, and rocks.  As is visible in the accompanying maps, China’s claims abut closely to her maritime neighbors, swallowing islands and rock features claimed by these nations.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) of 1982 governs maritime claims around the globe.  Although the United States has not ratified the treaty, it recognizes the international law codified in it.  China is a party to UNCLOS.

China quietly claimed the seas and land features inside the nine-dashed line from 1949 until 2009, when China submitted two Notes Verbales to the United Nations Secretary General.  These documents and others filled later, put neighbor states on notice of China’s historical and legal claims to the South China Sea, which the PRC claims are supported by “abundant historical and legal evidence.”

In July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague held that China’s nine-dashed line claims had no legal basis.  The PRC disputes the ruling.  China is yet to give a convincing account of why it has inherent historical sovereignty rights in the South China Sea.  While it is true that China has a rich maritime history in the area, (see the voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He, 1405-1433) this is not a unique heritage among nations.  Indeed, the South China Sea has been a maritime commons in use by many nations for much of history.