For decades, China has marked its claims to territory in the disputed South China Sea with a wavy, broken line composed of exactly nine dashes.
Chinese scientists want to link up nine dashes on a map. Here’s why it matters
Why the dashes? Well, they had been chosen decades ago, instead of solid lines, because they were meant to give an intentionally imprecise idea of Chinese sovereignty, while acknowledging that other countries were free to send their vessels through the region.
On a map, the first dash starts near the coast of Vietnam before dipping south near the coast of Malaysia, with subsequent dashes finishing near the southern coast of Taiwan.
But now, in a major development, Chinese scientists funded by the central government have proposed a new, continuous boundary: essentially closing the gaps between the dashes.
They have told the South China Morning Post that the proposal would help strengthen China’s country’s claims in the region. The new boundary, which has not yet been officially approved or adopted by the Chinese government, would delineate for the first time the territory that China claims to own, according to the researchers.
The team working on this project said they were close to pinning down the exact coordinates of the proposed boundary, which is based on an old map, by global satellite positioning.
“The GPS data set is ready,” said one of the researchers, who has declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. “Soon, we will have a clear idea of what belongs to us in the South China Sea and what does not.”
The researcher said the proposal would initially be used for internal planning purposes. Drawing the boundary would be just the first step.
Next, the scientists would calculate total biomass, oil and gas reserves, mineral deposits and other natural resources in the area claimed by China. The country would also claim territorial rights, including the right to build infrastructure such as military bases or airports.
The researcher said the rights of other countries in the claimed region would be open for discussion. He added he believes freedom of navigation for all vessels would continue.
In recent years, China has been massively extending its control over the disputed South China Sea, which is also claimed by five other Asian governments. It has turned small islets into man-made islands with military air strips, deployed oil drilling platforms and conducted naval exercises.
Experts not involved with the boundary-setting project said it was unlikely for China to publicly proclaim its new border. Formally changing the nine-dash line could destabilize the region, says Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
The move “would cause deep concern in the capitals of Southeast Asia and beyond,” he said.
“If China does indicate its claims in the South China Sea by a continuous line which joined up the nine dashes, it would represent a complete repudiation of the July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.”
At the time, an international tribunal ruled that China had no legal basis to claim the area within the dashes. That clearly hasn’t stopped the Chinese scientists from scouting the new boundary in the highly strategic area.
Some scientists believe the total number of undersea surveillance sensors deployed by the Chinese navy in the South China Sea has already exceeded those deployed by the US, which is the dominant naval power in Asia.
“Often, when we are sending vessels out to the sea or looking down at an area via satellite, we are not sure whether it is our water,” said one of the researchers on the boundary project. “The nine-dash line can no longer meet the demands of increasing Chinese activities in the South China Sea.”
In recent months, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been touting his country’s growing global ambitions, including in the South China Sea. The new boundary may not yet be official, but its delineation could be a first step for China eventually to make those claims.