Washington's message to Beijing: Your 'nine-dash line' is a sham

Washington's message to Beijing: Your 'nine-dash line' is a sham
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A visitor to China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies could not miss the wall near its entrance decorated with a large map of the South China Sea with the “nine-dash line” emblazoned upon it. In fact, one need not have traveled to Hainan Island in the South China Sea, where the Institute is located, in order to see the nine-dash line. All one has to do is pick up a Chinese newspaper and turn to the weather page, which depicts the line and the sea that it encompasses. 

Ever since the communists came to power, China has claimed sovereignty over 80 percent of the sea and all the islands and formations within it. Indeed, the People’s Republic inherited its claim from the previous Kuomintang government that it drove off the mainland. In one of the few cases where the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree, Taipei’s and Beijing’s territorial claims to the sea are virtually identical. The difference is that China has aggressively pushed aside several of the other claimants to the sea’s territorial waters — notably, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia — and has militarized several of the rocks and outcroppings that those countries claim as being within their own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

China’s behavior in the South China Sea includes, but is not limited to, its 1995 seizure of Mischief Reef that the Philippines claimed as part of its EEZ, and blocking Filipino fishermen from accessing Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by the Philippines. In 2018, China placed air defense and anti-ship missiles on Mischief Reef, which Manila claims, as well as on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, which both Vietnam and the Philippines claim. In 2019, the Chinese coast guard harassed Vietnamese ships servicing a drilling platform in an area the Vietnamese consider territorial waters, and an oil rig in Malaysia’s coastal waters. And in May of this year, the United States sent two warships to support the West Capella, a Malaysian drillship, that was the subject of Chinese naval harassment.

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Until now, the United States declined to take a formal position regarding the validity of Chinese or other countries’ claims to the area within the nine-dash line, and more generally regarding the legality of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Washington’s focus was purely on the right to operate freely in what all but China’s leaders consider to be international waters. To that end, the U.S. Navy long has conducted freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, at times with international partners such as Britain, Japan and Singapore. Last month, the Navy deployed two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, the first time it did so since 2014. The deployment was a harbinger of what was soon to come.

On July 13, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep MORE issued a statement that for the first time termed Chinese behavior in the South China Sea “illegal.” Also for the first time, Washington explicitly aligned itself with the 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, when  Pompeo stated that “the [People’s Republic of China] cannot lawfully assert a maritime claim — including … claims derived from Scarborough Reef and the Spratly Islands vis-à-vis the Philippines EEZ or on its continental shelf.” Furthermore, he added, “The PRC has no lawful territorial claim to Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal [which Manila does control], both of which fall fully under the Philippines’ sovereign right and jurisdiction.” 

Pompeo might have stopped there, allowing his statement to serve as an acknowledgment of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision not to terminate his country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. But Pompeo went further, rejecting “any PRC claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank [off Vietnam], Luconia Shoals [off Malaysia], waters in Brunei’s EEZ and Natuna Besar [off Indonesia].” He made it clear that Washington considers the nine-dash line to be nothing more than Chinese fiction — or, as Pompeo put it more diplomatically, “The PRC has offered no coherent basis for its nine-dash line claim.”

Not surprisingly, China reacted angrily to Pompeo’s statement of U.S. government policy. Nevertheless, Beijing must recognize that it is in no position to challenge the United States Navy, or even the navies of America’s allies, without running the risk of hostilities in which it would not prevail. The challenge for Washington is to ensure that, together with its allies, it can continue to underpin Pompeo’s statement by maintaining a credible and powerful military presence that can deter Chinese predations in Southeast Asia, now and for the foreseeable future.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.