Seen on a map, the ‘Nine Dash Line’ is a wide hoop that springs from the southern tip of China’s Hainan Island and follows the coast of Vietnam all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City and beyond. It loops east not far from where the Malacca Straits feeds into the South China Sea, about level with Singapore, and tracks along Borneo and the Philippines, finally ending just south of Taiwan.
Within it is perhaps the world’s most valuable shipping route, connecting East Asia, hungry for oil, gas and metals, with world markets. China claims sovereignty over the entire area, which encompasses several rocky groups of islands, reefs and shoals – the Spratlys, the Paracels and the Scarborough Shoal.
There is a high chance that, as well as being a major artery for trade, the South China Sea contains significant oil and gas reserves; all of the countries surrounding it want access to valuable fisheries. Perhaps more dangerously, the US has made the region a major focus of its ‘Pivot East’ strategy, of projecting influence into Asia, and has sent warships through the area to enforce what it believes is its right to freedom of passage.
Although these territorial disputes have simmered for years, occasionally spilling over into outright conflict. In 2013 the Philippines finally took its challenge to a tribunal in the Hague, which, on July 12, delivered a sweeping judgement that effectively overruled China’s claims to area within the Nine Dash Line.
I think everybody was expecting a ruling that was favourable to the Philippine side. But it is still very shocking to see this sweeping rejection of the Chinese national interest.
The court said that saying that the rocky outcrops that Beijing says give it sovereignty over a huge swathe of the South China Sea are not sufficient grounds under the United Nations Convention on the International Law of the Sea to lay claim to the waters surrounding them. The convention states that reefs and rocks that are not fully submerged at low tide can be claimed as islands, and with them a surrounding exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles. The Hague ruling says that none of the disputed Spratly Islands count.
It was a damning judgement for China, which has backed up its diplomatic posturing with a programme of intense construction, including naval bases, airstrips and even entire new islands attached to reefs. Most analysts expected that the judgement would be in favour of the Philippines, but few expected it to be quite so extreme.
“I think the ruling is shocking to a lot of people,” says Qinduo Xu, a Chinese political analyst. “I think everybody was expecting a ruling that was favourable to the Philippine side. But it is still very shocking to see this sweeping rejection of the Chinese national interest.”
On a practical level, little is likely to change – as Xu says, China is unlikely to start dismantling its bases – but it has ratcheted up the pressure on China. Beijing, though, is unlikely to back down. State-owned newspapers reacted fiercely. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, claimed that the court was a tool of malign outside influences, saying: “We do not claim an inch of land that does not belong to us, but we won’t give up any patch that is ours.”
The reaction, which was echoed across social media in China, speaks to the importance that China places on its territorial integrity.
“The issue is very important to China. It’s sort of touching upon the sovereignty issue, and China is very sensitive to that,” Xu says.
Although China has been dismissive of the tribunal, it is not entirely insensitive to the perception that it is willing to flout international law.
“The fact that China has rolled out a public relations blitz both for a domestic audience and an international one shows that it cares – it cares very much about the reputational cost,” says Yanmei Xie, a Beijing-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.
Beijing has for years been trying to establish itself as the principal interlocutor for developing countries within multilateral forums, and wants to be able to shape global governance. China has increased its participation within the existing international system – beefing up its presence at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – and created its own alternative multilateral mechanisms, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new, regional rival to the World Bank.
“China has been a beneficiary of the rules-based international order. It has underwritten China’s rise,” Xie says. “I don’t think China intends to destroy it. China now intends to make itself a leader in international rules, a maker of international rules.”
“It has to have credibility as a participant in these rules, and it’s not necessarily favourable to China’s national interest to be seen as cherry-picking a rule.”
In some ways Beijing has a get-out clause in the South China Sea. Its main antagonist, the US, has itself never ratified the UN Convention of the International Law of the Sea, and is often seen as imposing the rules of the international order without necessarily abiding by them.
“The US, precisely because of this, is a flawed spokesperson on the law of the sea and the international order based on international laws,” Xie says.
The diplomatic cost of working outside the rules can be high, however, and both Xie and Xu believe that, once the bluster dies down, China will start to move on to find a new, negotiated solution with the other claimants.
As Xu says: “You do see Beijing on one hand saying ‘this ruling has nothing to do with us, it’s a piece of scrap paper’, and on the other they say the door to dialogue is always open.”