World Politics & Affairs

Nine-dash Line and the South China Sea Conflict

"It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, including the Paracels and the Spratlys"

In 2009, a map with the nine-dash line – representing the South China Sea – was attached to China’s submission to the UN as its territorial claim. The dashed line encircles as much as 90 percent of the ­waters, running as far as 2,000km from Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometers of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. China’s marine territory has been repeatedly challenged by leaders from around the world, causing dispute and fears that the area is becoming a flashpoint with potentially serious global consequences.

Origin of the dispute

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, including the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries. Although largely unoccupied, the Paracels and the Spratlys hold a lot of natural resources around them. Alongside the islands, there are also dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks, and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.

The sea is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.


The dashed line serves as the basis of China’s claim to “historical rights” in the region, as neither Beijing nor Taipei ever held effective control over the entire region encompassing more than 2 million square kilometers. Other claimants such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei root their claim in geographical proximity, while Vietnam, which occupies the largest number of islands and reefs in the Spratlys, at 29, stresses it actively administers the area. 

Ancient maps debunk Beijing’s sea claims

Senior Supreme Court Judge Antonio Carpio challenged Beijing’s claim to 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea. Carpio presented 72 ancient maps – 15 of them of Chinese origin, all of which showed China’s southern border ending at Hainan. The maps have long been freely available to view through the US Library of Congress. Carpio said: “We shall gladly accept China’s invitation to look at the historical facts by examining three types of maps” – those made in China, those made by foreigners, and ancient maps of the Philippines showing the Huangyan island as part of the archipelago and not China.

Carpio also emphasized the importance to show that the nine-dash line was a “gigantic historical fraud” as China was using it to seek public opinion.

The first map Carpio showed was a photo of a map engraved in stone in Fuchang in 1136 AD in the Song dynasty.

“The stone map shows Hainan Island as the southernmost territory of China”.


In 2004, the Chinese embassy in Manila cited an inscription on the tomb of Hainan garrison general Quian Shicai of the Ming dynasty, stated: “Guangdong is adjacent to the grand South China Sea, and the territories beyond the sea all internally belong to the Ming state.” However, Carpio showed five official maps from the Ming dynasty showing Hainan as the southernmost area of China.

China’s claim took another hit recently when Dr. Tran Duc Anh Son – a Vietnamese historian – visited Yale University. The maps illustrate in detail all the territories that belonged to China under the rule of Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796). The territories stretched from mainland China to islands and surrounding waters, but none of them drew nor mentioned the Spratlys and Paracel Islands. Moreover, one of the maps specified that the southernmost point of China’s territory at the time was the Hainan Island.

The second collection that Dr. Son found at the library was the Atlas von China. Along with it was 16 pages of description in German and 55 color-printed, full-page administrative and geographical maps on Beijing under the rule of Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908), the eleventh emperor of the Qing dynasty. Interestingly, the first map in part one of Atlas von China draws the entire Chinese territory at the time, and also shows Hainan Island as China’s southernmost point.


He added that he has also collected numerous other separate maps published by the Chinese government since the late 19th Century until the 1930s, and none of them mention the Spratly Islands or the Paracel Islands.

What happens if the tribunal rules against China?

The Philippines has filed a case with the United Nations challenging Beijing’s claims.

The consensus among legal experts is that the court is unlikely to rule specifically on the nine-dash line. The court has said earlier it will not offer a judgment on territorial disputes, but there is a small chance it may rule on whether there is a legal basis for the line under the UN convention. If it rules against China, the government may face increased international pressure to clarify its “historical maritime rights”. However, what is certain is China will not remove the line from its maps, especially given enduring nationalism.

Beijing has also repeatedly said it will ignore any rulings by the tribunal. Taiwan has said it stands by its position that all South China Sea islands are its territory. The island’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, has not mentioned the nine or 11-dash line and has emphasized it will adhere to international law. If she were to give up the nine-dash line claims following the ruling, cross-strait relations would likely be further strained.

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