China's Hegemonic Nine-dash Line Map

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Wednesday June 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The developing problem that Taiwan now faces with Japan over how close its fishing boats can operate near the Okinotori atoll is only a foreshadowing of bigger things to come. While domestic issues and the economy are to have priority for the in-coming Tsai administration, what continues to build up on the high seas is a clearly the harbinger of a future tempest that cannot be ignored.

This maritime issue is one of the many issues that the outgoing administration of President Ma Ying-jeou has left behind in traditional fashion by pretending that they either do not exist or that they are solved problems.

Taiwan and Japan have already achieved an agreement on fishing rights near the disputed Diaoyutais Islands - known as the Senkakus in Japan.

However Okinotori atoll lies outside that area, and Japan has stuck to its claim of controlling a 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the atoll. In the process, Japan has continued to reinforce the atoll to make it an island.

That decision reflects the similar and deeper problems arising in the South China Sea where China is also "creating islands" and Taiwan is caught in the middle.

What makes the South China Sea so important?

First, many nations including Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea depend upon the shipping that passes through the region. For them freedom of navigation in the sea-lanes is of vital importance. Second the region could harbor rich fishing, oil and gas resources. And third--something that is not readily recognized by many--is that the South China Sea is not that wide. If all the nations that border the South China Sea claimed a 200 nautical mile EEZ that the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows each from their shorelines, that would leave little "free and unclaimed space" in the middle of the sea. And in that unclaimed space there are few islands.

Many nations have of course already made their EEZ claims in the South China Sea known: the Republic of China (ROC), Brunei, Malaysia, the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Philippines, and Vietnam. However the real elephant here and the one that desires to make the South China Sea its mare nostrum or bathtub is the PRC.

What China's infamous 9-dash line basically says is that the continental claims of the surrounding nations do not count. Each of those nations should only be entitled to the territorial claims of 12 nautical miles (22.22km) from their shores while China because of the islands it has built up or won by war in the sea can claim nearly the whole sea.

From the standpoint of EEZ claims, China's continental and island claims extend from China to Brunei and Malaysia in the south and from Vietnam in the west to the Philippines in the east. The PRC is further continuing to "build" islands to extend its EEZ claims.

Can the claims of these created islands of China intrude upon the claims of the surrounding continental nations? China thinks so and that is what makes the nine-dash line all the more absurd.

Taiwan controls two key locations in the South China Sea: the Pratas (Dongsha) Islands at the northeast entrance to the sea and Itu Aba (Taiping) Island in the Spratly Islands. However, to complicate matters for Taiwan, the rules of UNCLOS were developed and came into effect between 1972 and 1984 at a time when Taiwan as the ROC had been bounced out of the UN.

Nonetheless, the ROC also by a strange twist of logic wherein some consider it as "China" still lays claim to the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands), which the PRC won in battles with Vietnam.

There was no peace treaty at the end of those battles. If there were, Vietnam would consider it an unequal treaty imposed by China. Instead as with many of the islands, possession seems to be nine-tenths of the law, a matter that the Tsai administration will have to deal with in its decisions.

Two other big players in the area that are not to be left out are Japan and the US. Since they have no land claims, they are more concerned with free passage on the high seas. Japan once controlled the Paracels but like many of its possessions it gave those islands up after WWII in the San Francisco Peace Treaty.

In that treaty it also gave up Taiwan. This raises a different age-old question, for while Japan surrendered these possessions it never specified to what nation it surrendered them. And the US position, certainly as regards these islands and the democratic nation of Taiwan is still "undecided."

For Taiwan, what is happening in the South China Sea is likely to spill back over into the East China Sea where the ROC, the PRC and Japan have other overlapping claims of territory and EEZ.

The South China Sea waterways will be continue to be flashpoints for the future and all nations involved will challenge each other's rights both in the UN courts and on the high seas. The Tsai administration in Taiwan will have to make a decision on what it judges to be the legitimacy of China's nine-dash line and its future course of action.

A final issue for all nations involved is that China also claims that democratic Taiwan is part of its territory. By this claim, Beijing will naturally lay claim to any and all islands that Taiwan claims to possess whether in the East of South China Seas.

Taiwan is an island nation. As such it depends on trade by sea and the protection of its coastal waters. This demands a strong navy. Is the Tsai government ready for this?

This need and the problems in the South China Sea are not going to go away and the Tsai government will eventually have to face them, if not now, then some time in the future. The Ma government had danced around these issues with phrases like the "1992 consensus," and "one China with different interpretations," and Beijing has accepted these facades because they pointed to an outcome that was in China's long-term interest.

However, the South China Sea is where the chickens of these facile explanations and facades will eventually come home to roost. Fortunately for Taiwan, it is not alone here for almost all nations surrounding that sea have a stake in its solution and that stake is in not accepting China's nine-dash line. The Tsai government has this advantage, but it also must be prepared to explain and defend its rights.