• Reading time:13 mins read

Hoax No. 2: China’s claims are based on the nine-dash line

Third of four parts

I DEBUNKED in my column last Monday the colossal lie that China has trampled on our sovereignty because it has been intruding into our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and I do hope those who disagree with me express their views, which I will publish in my column so we could have a lively debate and ferret out the truth.

The gist of my argument: Areas that our leaders claim are within our EEZ are areas China has long claimed as its sovereign territory, such as the Spratlys, which in all its maps since even before the World Wars are depicted as part of its territory it calls the Nansha Islands. It’s moot and academic to argue which narrative is correct; all we can do is to recognize that a territorial (not maritime) dispute exists and to undertake cordial, not belligerent, bilateral negotiations without threatening China that the US will help us enforce our claims.

The second biggest hoax over our territorial disputes with China is the assertion, which is almost always stated even in straight news articles, that our neighbor’s declaration of sovereignty over the Spratlys is based on the so-called nine-dash line, a series of dashes drawn around the South China Sea. It’s as if one day, a Chinese leader woke up on the wrong side of the bed, drew that line, and declared everything encompassed by it as China’s sovereign territory.

It is a testament to the power of the US media apparatus that this lie is embraced and internalized by even academics you would think have critical faculties. For instance, Saul Hofileña, a law-school professor and a columnist here, wrote last year in this paper: “The line is a series of dashes, nine in all, that presents and outlines in a vague way, China’s claim on the South China Sea. The nine-dash line encroached on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).” He proceeded to write that the arbitral tribunal in the Philippines v. China arbitration case in 2016 ruled that the line was without basis in international law.

Another academic and also columnist here, Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, more recently repeated the same falsehood: “China drew a map and encompassed virtually the whole swath of sea between itself and the Philippines by nine dashes — lately, 10, it seems — so, the notorious ‘nine-dash line.’ It insisted that historical maps and records gave it exclusive rights over this vast area of sea.”

Most newspapers in reports of our dispute with China almost always have this sentence as if it were undisputed fact: “In July 2016, the arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and rejected China’s nine-dash claim, that encompasses almost the entire South China Sea (SCS).”


That is a lie, a total hoax: China has never declared that the nine-dash line is the basis for its claims of sovereignty over the archipelagos, especially the Spratlys, which has been the tinder box for the disputes. The Philippines merely set up a straw man, which the tribunal easily cut down.

Even the US State Department’s Bureau of Oceans pointed out in its 2014 study “Maritime Claims in the South China Sea”: “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.” In fact, the role of the nine-dash line in China’s claims in the area was never discussed by scholars before 2009.

It was only after the Aquino 3rd government filed an “arbitration case” against China in 2012 that the US media apparatus went on full blast to propagate the lie that the Chinese claim over the outlying archipelagos in the South China Sea was simply because of the nine-dash line.

In China’s official “Position Paper on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration,” dated Dec. 7, 2014, there is no mention at all of the line in its arguments for its sovereignty over the SCS archipelagos:


“In 1935, the Commission of the Chinese Government for the Review of Maps of Land and Waters published the Map of Islands in the South China Sea. In 1948, the Chinese government published the Map of the Location of the South China Sea Islands. Both maps placed under China’s sovereignty what are now known as the Nansha Islands (Spratlys) as well as the Dongsha Islands (Pratas), the Xisha Islands (Paracels) and the Zhongsha Islands (Macclesfield Bank).

“The Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea of 1958 declared that the territory of the People’s Republic of China includes, inter alia, the Nansha Islands. In 1983, the National Toponymy Commission of China published standard names for some of the South China Sea Islands, including those of the Nansha Islands. The Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of 1992 again expressly provides that the Nansha Islands constitutes a part of the land territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

On the other hand, we claimed sovereignty over what we now call the Kalayaan Island Group in 1978 when President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. issued Presidential Decree 1596 that annexed that area as part of the country. The decree claimed that “while other states have laid claim to some of these areas, their claims have lapsed by abandonment and cannot prevail over that of the Philippines on legal, historical and equitable grounds.” Marcos troops occupied the eight islands and islets in the Spratlys it controlled from 1970 to 1977 before the decree was issued. China and Vietnam moved into the reefs they occupy now only in 1988.

The US propaganda thrust to allege that China’s claims in the South China Sea are based on its absurd nine-dash line was given a boost when it submitted in 2009 to the United Nations its protest against the submissions of Vietnam and Malaysia to register their extended continental shelf. This would have extended the two countries’ maritime area that would have similar rights as those in EEZs.

China protested as this infringed on “China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea.” Presumably, it was referring to the interpretation that Vietnam’s extended continental shelf would infringe on the EEZs China would later claim emanating from the Spratly Islands, not only for features it controls but for those occupied by other claimants.

China’s purported big mistake, however, is that while its note verbale on this issue did not declare that its sovereignty was based on the nine-dash line, the maps it attached to the note had the nine-dash line, without any explanation about what it represented. While it has been China’s policy to have the nine-dash line depicted in all its maps, the note verbale to the United Nations was the first time it submitted such a map to an international body, which US propagandists and other claimants have claimed is a de facto admission that the nine-dash line was the justification for its claims of sovereignty.


China, to this day, has not claimed that the line is the basis for its sovereignty claims. Nevertheless, the US — with the Aquino 3rd administration as its proxy — proceeded to get an “international court” to rule that the nine-dash line as a justification for sovereignty has no basis under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). However, they got only an ad hoc tribunal to hear the case, which in 2018 ruled that the line was illegal. That, of course, boosted the lie that China has no legitimate sovereign claims in the SCS, believed by many.

But if the nine-dash line does not represent China’s territorial boundaries in the SCS, 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, all contained the line. It originally consisted of 11 dashes but was 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.

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 arch-enemy, the Kuomintang Party — under whose rule the line was first drawn — would condemn it for relinquishing Chinese territory and therefore betraying China.

This 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 used the line to strengthen nationalist depiction in its maps of its claims over the South China Sea without explaining what it really is.

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

It is an undoubtedly powerful propaganda tack that rouses anti-China sentiments as the line skirts the Philippines coastline and appears to be arbitrarily, even hastily, drawn.


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 [that is, the Spratlys, and three other groups of islands.] 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.”

One proof that China’s sovereign claims over the Spratlys 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 the line 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 — yet — the baselines around what it calls Nansha Qundao, or the Spratlys.

The No. 3 colossal lie — after the EEZ and nine-dash deceptions—is the arbitral tribunal, a masterpiece in prevarication. More on that on Friday.

What a tragedy. Our quarrel with China, which has the biggest economy in the world and is a neighbor, is based on lies, concocted by the US to maintain its hegemony even in Asia. And it could have taught and even financed us on how to totally eradicate poverty, as it did for its 770 million citizens, in just four decades.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

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