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Why it’s crucial to understand what the nine-dash line means

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IF the nine-dash line does not represent China’s territorial boundaries in the South China Sea, as I have explained Wednesday, then what is it?

The line first appeared in the “Map Showing the Location of the Various Islands in the South Sea” in the February 1948 Atlas of Administrative Areas of the then Kuomintang-controlled Republic of China. Subsequent maps of China, issued in certain years starting 1958 to 2001 contained the line. It originally consisted of 11 dashes, but were reduced to nine in 1952, upon orders of Mao Zedong so as not to include North Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin, as a gesture of solidarity with another communist-ruled state.

https://www.researchgate.net/ Copy of “The Location Map of South China Sea Islands in 1947 (1:4,000,000)”

That it was not really a territorial boundary is evident in the fact that China has never given its geographical coordinates, and the dashes’ positions in its 2009 map submitted to the UN are even slightly different from its previous maps.

One probable explanation for the line’s continued use is that if the Communist Party of China deleted the line in its official maps, it would seriously dent its nationalist credentials, and its archenemy the Kuomintang Party β€” under whose rule the line was first drawn β€” would condemn it for relinquishing Chinese territory and therefore that it is betraying China.

his is extremely important to the CPP’s legitimacy as the defense of Chinese territory looms large in the Chinese people’s consciousness because of its “Century of Humiliation” when Western powers and Japan grabbed huge swaths of its territory. As the disputes in the South China Sea heated up through the 1990s, the Communist Party of China has used the line to strengthen nationalist depiction in its maps of its claims over the South China Sea, without explaining what it really is.

South China Sea

China’s official maps that include the South China Sea portray the Spratly Islands (Kalayaan to us and Nansha Qundao) and three other areas there as having no clear boundary, in stark contrast to the bold strokes of the nine-dash line. To the layman, the nine-dash line would certainly appear to mark Chinese boundaries in the South China Sea.

Anti-China writers have exploited this perception to claim that the Chinese arbitrarily drew the line on a map that represents a huge area β€” “86 percent of the entire South China Sea” β€” and then claimed that everything within it is China’s sovereign territory.

It is an undoubtedly powerful propaganda tack that rouses anti-China sentiments in the region as the line skirts close to the coasts of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam and encloses what they claim are their exclusive economic zone.

The senior editor of the international magazine The Diplomat, Ankit Panda, asked what should have been an obvious question: If China wanted to depict the nine-dash line as its national border, why didn’t it simply portray it as a continuous line in its new map?


Panda wrote: “The primary advantage of these dashes is a degree of calculated ambiguity. According to Beijing, the dashes do not represent an inviolable sovereign claim to the entirety of the area demarcated by the dashes but in reality represent the maximum extent of Chinese control over the region. By maintaining its dashes, Beijing actually sees its position on its maritime claims as conciliatory and open somewhat to negotiation with other South China Sea states… They do not state what China has but rather what China ought to have once the South China Sea’s disputes are filed away. It’s not a neat approach to diplomacy in the South China Sea.”

That is, China’s nine-dash line could be a message to the claimants in the region that while the area it encompasses rightfully belongs to it β€” because China exercised forms of sovereignty over it since 2,000 years ago and because it has declared it as such in the modern era β€” it is not adamant in enforcing such a claim in the foreseeable future.

Such a view is reflected in Chinese leaders’ repeated invocation of its revered leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement that “future generations will have more wisdom in resolving territorial disputes.”

A 2009 study by a research unit of the US State Department however pointed out: “Under the possible interpretation that it represents a claim to the islands, the dashed line indicates only the islands over which China claims sovereignty. It is not unusual to draw lines at sea on a map as an efficient and practical means to identify a group of islands. If the map depicts only China’s land claims, then China’s maritime claims, under this interpretation, are those provided for in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”


China’s claim to the islands within the dashed line is based on its government’s actions and declarations on its sovereignty over these features in the South China Sea since the early part of the last century, independent of the dashed line. That is, China’s deletion of this line map won’t change a bit its claim of sovereignty over the Spratlys and the three other areas in the South China Sea.

Wu Shicun, the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, claims the line represents all three interpretations. As he explained, “the U-shaped line is based on the theory of sovereignty + Unclos + historic rights.” (China has not, however, officially adopted nor rejected Wu’s explanation.)

An article in the Central Party School’s Postgraduate Studies Institute elaborated that explanation: “The nine-dash line is not a blanket claim to historic rights over all waters within, but rather to three distinct sets of rights across different geographical areas: 1) sovereignty over the islands within the line (the original meaning of the line when the Kuomintang government published it in 1948); 2) “historic title” to waters enclosed by straight baselines drawn around island groups within the line; and 3) non-exclusive fishing rights in others’ EEZs where they overlap with the line and Chinese fishermen traditionally fished under high-seas freedoms.”


To use Wu’s “equation” that the nine-dash line represents “sovereignty + Unclos + historic rights,” the tribunal’s award struck down only the “Unclos” element, that is, its provisions over “sovereign rights” a nation is entitled to in its EEZ. But it did not, and could not strike down the all-important “sovereignty” element.

One proof that China’s sovereign claims over the Spratlys, the Reed Bank and Scarborough Shoal are not based on the nine-dash line is the fact that the Philippines’ Malampaya Gas field, from which natural gas has been extracted since 2002 providing 40 percent of Luzon’s power requirements, is within the nine-dash line. Yet China has never protested that the Philippines has been extracting gas from Malampaya since 2002.

Another proof that China doesn’t consider the nine-dash line as marking its sovereignty over the area it encompasses is that China in 1996 officially declared the baselines around the Paracel Islands (Xisha Qundao) it has occupied since 1974. It is from these baselines that the Parcels’ territorial sea and EEZ under Unclos would be drawn, although China has not officially declared so yet.

If the nine-dash line were its boundaries in the South China Sea, China need not have declared such baselines around the Paracels, from which will be measured its territorial sea and EEZ. China though has not declared β€” yet β€” baselines around what it calls Nansha Qundao, the Spratlys.


Even pro-US analysts are realizing that China’s claims are not dependent on its nine-dash line. They are saying, however, that China is merely inventing a new narrative, away from that of the nine-dash line justification.

A Sept. 17, 2017 article in the political news website freebeacon.com, an outfit known to be well connected in Washington security circles, claimed that China had unveiled a “new narrative” that “involves a shift from China’s so-called ‘Dash Line’ ownership” to one claiming sovereignty over the “Four Shas,” or island groups in the South China Sea, of Dongsha Qundao (Pratas), Xisha Qundao (Paracels), Zhongsha Qundao (Macclesfield Bank and the area of Scarborough Shoal), and Nansha Qundao (Spratlys).

This is patently false: China has long been pointing out β€” decades before that line appeared in its 1947 map β€” that its sovereignty claims are over “Four Shas,” or island groups, although the US and the West’s propaganda thrust has been that Chinese leaders one day simply drew the nine-dash line in the South China Sea and declared everything in it as belonging to China.

Prodded by the US, the late President Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary chased a phantom issue that is the nine-dash line, spent a billion pesos for American lawyers’ astronomical fees and other expenses for the 2014 arbitration suit which, however, did not rule on China’s sovereign claims over the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal.

Why is understanding what the nine-dash line is important? Because we cannot continue embracing Aquino’s stance, expressed in his infantile rant, “what is ours is ours”, which President Marcos Jr. apparently appears to have also adopted.


We have our justifications for claiming the Kalayaan Islands: President Ferdinand E. Marcos annexed it in 1978, on grounds that no country was exercising sovereignty over it for many decades.

China has its justification for claiming the same area it calls Nansha as it has declared sovereignty over it not just 2,000 years ago, but exercised such control when it occupied the biggest island in the group, Itu Aba, which was one way of declaring sovereignty over an island group. The Chinese claim that the Japanese forcibly illegally annexed it during World War 2. With Japan’s defeat, it meant its automatic reversion to China.

Understand this territorial dispute, and rid your minds of the propaganda disseminated by the US that China is a bully unreasonably trying to grab our territory.

Then the mature solution to the dispute would clearly emerge, which is to negotiate with China for some formula that has to involve compromises on the part of the two countries.

The road to catastrophe is for us to ask the US to defend us in our fight with China to insist “what is ours is ours.” The US is merely exploiting our territorial dispute to make us its very expendable pawn in its project to contain the rising superpower in Asia, even recklessly provoking China, which could bring the entire world to a nuclear war with us, because of the military bases we allow the Americans to use, the first to be nuked.

Take wisdom from the old African proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” Remain neutral in this war of the superpowers as the other claimants of South China Sea β€” Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei β€” are doing.

This column consists of excerpts from my 2022 book Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception, which has footnotes showing the sources of its assertions.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina Rojas

    True. I find it ridiculous that a superpower will use dashes to claim territorial sovereignty because that is tantamount to gossip and the US is fanning the gossip and we tend to actually believe it. Very cheap propaganda.

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