On July 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a press statement saying that China’s claims in the South China Sea were “completely unlawful” and that its “nine-dash line” map “offers no coherent legal basis.”
The statement was, of course, strongly opposed by China and decried as “completely unjustified.”
Political rhetoric aside, Pompeo’s argument is indeed legitimate: The “nine-dash line” contravenes international law, not least the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in two main aspects.
First, its legal terminology is incompatible with the UNCLOS.
For instance, based on the map, China claims to have “indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters.”
However, “adjacent waters” and “relevant waters” remain undefined in the UNCLOS, and there is no specific maritime zone designated to these waters.
In other words, since the map’s terminology does not cohere with the legal definitions of the UNCLOS, China’s claims in the South China Sea disputes, underpinned by the map, are without legal effect.
Second, maps do not constitute titles in international law.
Academics, such as Florian Dupuy and Pierre-Marie Dupuy, have pointed out that “cartographic materials do not by themselves have any legal value.”
This legal principal is highlighted in a 1986 International Court of Justice ruling in the frontier dispute between Burkina Faso and Mali.
According to the court’s press release on the case, “maps merely constitute information, and never constitute territorial titles in themselves alone.”
Furthermore, while maps could be employed “to establish the real facts,” their value depends on both “their technical reliability and their neutrality in relation to the dispute and the parties to that dispute,” it reads.
The “nine-dash line” is not only unreliable due to its inherent legal ambiguity and incompatibility with the UNCLOS, its lack of neutrality is candidly illustrated by other claimants’ formal diplomatic protests in the South China Sea disputes, such as those from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
In short, Pompeo is right. The “nine-dash line” holds no legal value, and neither do China’s claims based on the map.
Hsueh Chin is studying international relations, and global economics and management at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany.
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