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Refuting China’s Nine-Dash Claim – OpEd

By Huan Tran

The South China Sea in Southeast Asia is bordered by 7 countries: China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The name of that water, like others such as Gulf of Mexico, Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, Gulf of Thailand, Philippines Sea, East China Sea and Sea of Japan, do not imply any notion of sovereignty because they were invented for convenience by European explorers.

In the South China Sea, there are three islands groups – Paracel islands, Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal – which are not permanently inhabited because the islands are small and do not have dependable fresh water. Some man-made objects have been found on some of them, indicating transient human presence, because since prehistory, fishermen, merchants and pirates from various countries built temporary shelter on them. Because those islands cannot support permanent human habitation, various national governments in the area recently had to build superstructures on them, as on Okinotori (a Japanese islet in the Pacific Ocean), to support human habitation.

South China Sea

South China Sea

China claimed sovereignty over 90% of the water and all the islands in the South China Sea by drawing a nine-dash line covering 90% of that sea, prompting her neighbors to protest that her claim contradicts international law, specifically the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

UNCLOS gave a coastal nation or an inhabited island an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 miles from the baseline (shoreline at low tide) in which the coastal nation or the inhabited island has the exclusive right to exploit natural resources. China’s nine-dash claim extends beyond her EEZ, biting into the EEZs of her neighbors. Also, UNCLOS said that rocks on the sea that cannot support human habitation and do not have economic life of their own cannot have EEZ. By UNCLOS definition, the South China Sea islands cannot have EEZ because they cannot support permanent human habitation on their own. Only China argued that they have EEZs, a hypocritical argument because in the dispute about Okinotori, China had argued that Okinotori cannot have EEZ because Okinotori cannot support human habitation on its own. As the Paracel islands lie halfway between China and Vietnam while Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal lie within the EEZs of China’s neighbors, China argued that those islands have EEZs simultaneously with claiming sovereignty over all the islands in order to maximize China’s EEZ at the expense of her neighbors.

China justified her exaggerated claim on the South China Sea by arguing that ancient Chinese texts mentioned certain islands in the South China Sea, proving that Chinese people were the first to navigate that sea and the first to discover the islands in the area, that China was the first country to exercise jurisdiction over the islands and that the South China Sea was China’s historic water. China further argued that in 1947, when China published a map of that sea with an eleven-dash line (predecessor of the nine-dash line), nobody protested, proving that the world had accepted China’s claim. However, close examination shows that China’s arguments are baseless.

First, in 1947, the world did not react to the map of the South China Sea with the eleven-dash line because the world ignored that map. That map carried as much legal weight as the traditional Chinese political thought which said that the world (All-under-heaven) is under the authority of Chinese emperors. Can China argue that the world had accept China’s sovereignty over the world because nobody protested when the Chinese emperors declared that the world is under their authority ? .

Second, countries that had historical border with the Arctic Ocean formed the Arctic Council to divide the Arctic natural resources according to the rules of UNCLOS. China never had any historical border with the Arctic Ocean, yet China asked to join the Arctic Council in order to have a share of Arctic natural rersources, arguing that the Arctic Ocean is a “common heritage for all of humankind”. If the Arctic Ocean is a “common heritage for all of humankind”, then the South China Sea is a common heritage for all the peoples who live on its shores, not only for China.

Third, peoples of the Austronesian language family, more specifically the Malayo-Polynesian branch, were the first to navigate the South China Sea. Their original homelands were Southern China or Taiwan. Between 5000-2500 BC, they crossed the South China Sea to populate the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. From Southeast Asia, they crossed the Pacific Ocean to populate Melanesia and Micronesia by 1200 BC, Polynesia by 1000 BC, Easter Island by 300 AD, Hawaii by 400 AD and New Zealand by 800 AD. They also crossed the Indian Ocean to populate Madagascar by 0-500 AD. The Indo-Pacific maritime space, including the South China Sea, was their historic water. Since the Austronesian peoples (ancestors of the Filipinos, Indonesians and Malaysians) were the first to navigate the South China Sea, they were the first to discover the islands in the area and to fish in the associated waters. Though they did not invent writing to record their discovery, it would be ludicrous to deny their discovery of the islands so close to the Philippines and Indonesia in light of the fact that they were able to discover the various islands in the vast Pacific Ocean. By the way, they have been displaced or reduced to aboriginal minority status in their original homelands.

Fourth, the South China Sea has always been an international waterway since prehistory. Indian traders navigated that sea early in prehistory, introducing Indian philosophies to Southeast Asia, leading to the formation of many Indianised states on Islands Southeast Asia in ancient time. One of those states was Srivijaya, located on Indonesia in the 7th century and exercised prominent maritime activities in the South China Sea. During ancient time, the influence of Chinese civilization on Southeast Asia was limited to Vietnam whereas the influence of Indian civilization was dominant throughout Islands Southeast Asia, indicating Indian traders were very active in the South China Sea. Persian and Arab traders also navigated that sea, introducing Islam to Indonesia and the Philippines. The Arabs even settled in Guangzhou during the 7th century. A 7th-century Chinese monk, I-Tsing, went pilgrimage to India by embarking at Guangzhou on a Persian ship, stopped over at Srivijaya before continued onto India.

Fifth, even if Chinese people were the first to navigate the South China Sea (not true), China cannot claim sovereignty over the water that is used by many other countries. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia do not claim sovereignty over the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean even though their Austronesian ancestors were the first to navigate those waters. Norway does not claim sovereignty over the Norwegian Sea even though the Norsemen (Vikings) were the first to navigate that water to populate Iceland and Greenland in the 9th century. Portugal does not claim sovereignty over the water off the West African coast, the water around the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean even though Portuguese under Bartolomeu Diaz and Vasco da Gama were the first to navigate those waters in 1488 and 1498. Spain does not claim sovereignty over the Atlantic Ocean, the Magellan Strait and the Pacific Ocean even though Spaniards under Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan were the first to navigate those waters in 1492 and 1521. Russia does not claim sovereignty over the Bering Sea even though Russians under Vitus Bering were the first to navigate that water in 1741.

Sixth, ancient Chinese texts which mention the South China Sea islands do not describe discovery of the islands but only describe general knowledge about the islands, knowledge shared among the fishermen, merchants and pirates from various countries who navigated that sea since prehistory. Chinese writers were the first to write about the South China Sea islands because China invented writing earlier, not because Chinese people were the first to navigate that sea or the first to discover the islands. This principle is illustrated by the Sea of Japan and the Black Sea.

Japan first appeared in written records in 57 AD in China’s Book of the Later Han as followed: “Across the sea from Lelang were the people of Wa”. Lelang was a Han Empire’s military outpost in Korea and Wa referred to Japan. The sea between Lelang and Wa is now known as Sea of Japan. Chinese writers were the first to write about Japan and Sea of Japan because China invented writing early, not because Chinese people were the first to navigate the Sea of Japan or the first to discover Japan. Korean and Japanese peoples lived by the Sea of Japan since prehistory and sailed into that sea to fish and to trade with each other, and knew about the existence of each others since prehistory, long before Chinese writers wrote about Japan and Sea of Japan.

The Black Sea first appeared in written records in 5th century BC in the writing of the Greek poet Pindar as “Pontos Axeinos”. By the 5th century BC, the Greeks had established many colonies by the Black Sea. Greek writers were the first to write about the Black Sea because Greece invented writing early, not because Greeks were the first to discover or the first to navigate the Black Sea. There were other peoples who lived by the Black Sea alongside with the Greeks and had sailed into that water to fish and to trade since prehistory, even though they did not invent writing to write about that. The Black Sea, like the South China Sea, is a common heritage for all the peoples who live on its shores.

Seventh, ancient Chinese texts which mention the South China Sea islands mention those islands as foreign lands, not as China’s territories, and do not describe which activities the authority of ancient China exercised on the islands. Therefore, there is no proof of China’s jurisdiction over the islands. In the case of Scarborough shoal, China argued that Kublai Khan’s officials were the first to map out and to establish jurisdiction over those islands in 1279. However, Kublai Khan was the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire who conquered China. If any country can inherit Scarborough shoal from Kublai Khan, it is Mongolia, not China.

In 1279, Kublai Khan’s officials neither “discovered” nor “established jurisdiction” over Scarborough shoal because that place was already the historic water and traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen, descendants of the Austronesian sailors who navigated the South China Sea and populated the Philippines in 5000-2500 BC. Scarborough shoal was known as “bajio de Masinloc”, meaning shoal of Masinloc, in a Spanish-made map of the Philippines in 1734. Masinloc is not a Spanish word and is the name of a municipality on the Philippines’ main island, confirming that Filipino fishermen had been to and had named the islands after their own tongue for centuries.

Eighth, official maps of the Yuan Dynasty and Ching Dynasty, including but not limited to Da Qing Zhi Sheng Quan Tu (published in 1862) and Huang Chao Yi Tong Yu Di Zen Du (published in 1894), show that the southernmost extent of China ends at Hainan islands (see below).

Finally, the Chinese empire originated on the Yellow river basin and eventually conquered many lands and peoples, including Tibet and Sinkiang, which is why China is a multiethnic, multi-languages country. At the time when China allegedly discovered the South China Sea islands, China’s border on the mainland was not what it is today, Tibet and Sinkiang were independent countries of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, respectively. The Tibetans and the Uyghurs are demanding self-determination. Three dozens Tibetan monks have burned themselves to death to draw attention of humanity to the sufferings of their people under China’s rule. If China is serious about its historical claim, it should return to its historical border on the mainland, return Tibet and Sinkiang to the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, respectively.

China knows that her arguments for claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea and all the islands in that water are baseless, which is why China refused the Philippines’ invitation to submit the dispute to an international court.

29 Comments on "Refuting China’s Nine-Dash Claim – OpEd"

  1. Great argument! It is academic argument trully.

  2. World Scholar | May 24, 2012 at 6:16 am | Reply

    I like the way Huan Tran presented the nine (9) reasons/ways on how the Chinese nine (9)-dash theory should be refuted.

    The Chinese gets 9 minus 9 equals ZERO!

    Seriously, it is an intelligent presentation of acceptable history.

    South China Sea is just a monicker for that sea named by European explorers for convenience similar to Indian Ocean named by Portuguese conquistador. It doesn’t mean that the Indians own the ocean and so does the Chinese.

    It is thus ridiculous to believe the 9-dash theory … For many, it is simple greed. It is very easy to refute this claim for it can never have a well-founded basis and evidence, either historically or otherwise.

    What to do with the Chinese-style of silently asserting their claim, which is much more dangerous.

    For example, when there was a conflict and nobody is looking, they fired at hapless Vietnamese fishermen in 1988.

    Now, they appeal for understanding and requested they put an emergency shelter for their fishermen in Mischief Reef. Out of pity, the Philippines consented only to learn that the Chinese will usurp and claim the reef as their own by putting permanent structures.

    Watch my word, they will do that for as long as possible with their military might in the background.

    This is the reason why they decline to submit the invitation to neutral international body.

    • zaldy lo austria | August 26, 2012 at 8:23 am | Reply

      The presentation By Huan Tran is well defined and can stand arguably if China agrees to a debate in international fora. The question is, would China bite? Actually to my reading, they (the Chinese)testing the world opinion in bullying her neighbors thru military might and now ECONOMIC policy thru lending yuan to the world over. In this area where China surpasses Japan and the United States.United States suspects that China was initializing conflict among ASEAN nation and side with them.

  3. Well presented. Should be/can be used for arguments.

    • It’s hard to argue with people who are stubborn and refuse to listen to reason. Russia blasts at Chinese poacher vessels. Japan sends 2 boats to edge out any poacher vessel. They are bold to act. Filipinos should also be bold to act.

  4. This Eurasia review is a consolidated information from so many arguments about the South China sea which called as West Philippines Sea by the Philippines.

    These review is very clear and based on fact.
    Now for the People of Tibet and Sinkiang.. You must stand up in connection with china’s insistence of fabricated map about their history.

    IF China is serious in dealing with the old history; China must free the People in Tibet and Sinkiang..

    China must back-off from invading the Scarborough shoal but instead submit themselves to be under the government of Mongolia to have a slightly valid claim for Scarborough Shoal.
    It is not intelligent that if you know how to call a name of a foreign land then you own it.

    We are challenging the Scholars of China if you are deserving to be called intelligent scholars of china to understand and comment in this review of If you could not understand this review then I think it is wrong also to called you as scholars but dumb preschoolers of china who pretend to be older with malnourish brains.

  5. Unfortunately, the UN chooses to keep mum on the matter.

  6. This is entirely correct!

  7. Asean_United | May 24, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply


  8. extremely acceptable….i learned a lot from this article and i would like to thank the author for this truthful facts from our geographical history….this is the real facts not fabricated…. thumbs up for Eurasia Review!

  9. It is just too bad that PRC negotiates with gunboats and not reasons. However, this proves that how right the western powers were when they exercise gunboat diplomacy in the 16 to 19th centuries in China. The Opium War was just, because the Brits had stronger navy and 10,000 better fighting marines than the million Qing soldiers.

    • No connection-Imperialists are still imperialists-UK+US had/have no right to have/had been in China. Just as today they habe NO RIGHT OF ANY KIND to be invading soverign nations planetwide. MJ US ARMY RETIRED..

  10. In history you learn nothing is permanent. So is in our everyday life. you claim what you can regardless of the reasons. That is a reality of today’s world and has been ever since the days of old.

  11. Bravo Mr. Huan,

    You have made your Tran clan very proud, and your ancester Tran Hung Dao is one of my favaorite Heroes, who’s shatter’s the Mongol dreams of invading Vietnam three X’s.

    Thank You

  12. Bravo! Well presented. A very concise argument and a very realistic explanation than those i got from Beijing Ministry’s one hour bruhahaha. More power to the author. Good luck to the real peacefull claimant of SCS/WPS; Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunie and Taiwan.May we got a truly peaceful years.

  13. I think whoever wrote this article is addressing the wrong points. They are not understanding China’s claim so they are arguing against fallacies others have made up.

    You have to understand the basis of Chinese claim first before you waste your time writing this.

    Therefore all arguments are not capturing the real issue or arguing properly.

    China is not claiming the Sea, they are protecting what is currently theirs.

    It definitely isn’t Philippines or Vietnam’s etc Philippines and Vietnam is just trying to steal it by playing victim.

    China has the superior naval power and they haven’t even lifted a finger yet. I hope Philippines and Vietnam have half a brain not to try to claim it for themselves. They will only aggravate China and ask for death.

    Anyway, writer it’s better to find out what the real issue is first and re-write this entire argument all over again.

  14. This article demonstrates some known facts about history but still lacks a rather lot in terms of accuracy and the argument is from a wrong viewpoint.

    Academically pass grade 6 elementary.
    Some distortion of the facts for the argument and assumptions are not highlighting or capturing the real issue at hand here.

    China isn’t claiming the Sea, they are simply reasserting their claim on the current Huangyan islands which they currently have sovereignty over.

    This sea has always been shared by all Asian neighbours since the beginning of time.

    And the mention about Tibet is also incorrect either, self immolation are activities by religious extremists who are doing to revolt against Chinese sovereignty. Those not all Tibetans are like this, there is just a portion of political insurgents who are doing this to get attention from the international community.

    Just saying, though online news is never really accurate when it comes to reporting on China.

    People should just ask China instead of assuming.

    • China is claiming island in SCS. in fact they are quite aggressive in this claim. i absolutely agree with author comparison of China’s historical claim and self determination movement of Tibetan and Xi jiang. self immolation is not a religious extremism they are in fact desperate of China’s brutal rule over them.

  15. Santi Kampilan | July 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Reply

    The nine-dash-line is a 100% unadulterated concocted scam!

  16. Well presented arguments and all are based on facts. So far, this is the most clear review.

  17. “As the Paracel islands lie halfway between China and Vietnam while Spratly islands and Scarborough shoal lie within the EEZs of China’s neighbors, China argued that those islands have EEZs simultaneously with claiming sovereignty over all the islands in order to maximize China’s EEZ at the expense of her neighbors.”

    So, whenever convenient, China will use or not use the concept of EEZ.

    “arguing that the Arctic Ocean is a “common heritage for all of humankind”. If the Arctic Ocean is a “common heritage for all of humankind”, then the South China Sea is a common heritage for all the peoples who live on its shores, not only for China.”

    Again, whenever convenient. Seems like China just wants to get all the resources it wants wherever territory it belongs.

  18. i believe that truth will prevail…the world is watching.. god bless south east asia

  19. Severino M. Lovero | August 22, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply

    Dear Chinese,
    It’s quite clear now the above aforementioned
    posting, time to vacate the place for everyones
    sake, ASEAN are not interested of any kind of bullies
    or provocation of war were not up to that sort of agenda
    just leave those places and concentrate on your own
    problem as such your relation to young generation that
    most dislike your government system and the struggle
    the olden thoughts of Mao and others who dislike
    each others just for power reason, some of Chinese
    officials partly owned the 37 trillion deposited in tax haven
    country why don’t you checked it out yourself
    before going into this kind of problem to other
    countries, please do your homework.

  20. Thank you very much Mr. Tran. Thank you very much Eurasia Review. This is very enlightening article. No matter how they try to twist the facts, truth will always prevail.

  21. i think this is the most sensible among all write up about south china sea.. China is trying to bully the whole world.. not only asia and believe it or not even among themselves they are bullying each other, the mainlander of china against the hong kong citizens upto the taiwan peoples which they claim to be part of china..shame on china!!

  22. Well written fact filled account. China will never comprehend this argument… They are like bullies who use their muscles rather than their brains.

  23. Wake up China!! We are in a world where everyone
    will not tolerate bullies like you. All eyes are on you
    PRC. Such an idiotic claim even my 13 year old son
    dont buy such claim.

  24. Can’t we all just get along?

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