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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

New map boosts China's claim in sea

Updated: 2014-07-04 08:49

By Wang Junming (China Daily)

A local publishing house in China has published a vertical map of the country giving equal weight to land and sea areas. The new map is different because, unlike traditional horizontal maps that show the islands in the South China Sea in cut-away boxes in a bottom corner, it gives a good idea of China's land and sea territories at a single glance, and thus strengthens its territorial claims.

The map, however, has evoked strong reactions from Vietnam and the Philippines. The two countries have criticized China's "unreasonably expansive claim" and urged it to respect international laws. Besides, Philip Goldberg, the US ambassador to the Philippines, has said China's "artificial creations" have no basis in international law.

Contrary to the accusations, the publication of the map can help promote Chinese public's territorial awareness and high-light its historic title over the South China Sea and is thus a legitimate move.

This is not the first time these countries have questioned China's historic title over the South China Sea or wrongly accused Beijing of violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China is a party to the UNCLOS and has been adhering to its principles. Moreover, there is no conflict in China abiding by the UNCLOS and substantiating its sovereign claim over the islands and the adjacent waters by high-lighting its historic title. After all, reference to historic titles is part of the UNCLOS.

Historic title generally signifies the rights a state has had over certain waters for a considerable time, which can be sovereign rights or other non-exclusive rights unrelated to territorial sovereignty such as traditional fishing rights. From the perspective of the UNCLOS, historic title is considered an exception to the applicability of the provisions on sea boundary delimitations.

For instance, according to Article 10 of the UNCLOS, related provisions on bays do not apply to the so-called historic bays, and Article 15 says provisions on the delimitation of the territorial sea between states with opposite or adjacent coasts do not apply "where it is necessary by reason of historic title or other special circumstances". Article 47 stipulates that, "if a part of the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic state lies between two parts of an immediately adjacent neighboring state, existing rights and all other legitimate interests which the latter state has traditionally exercised in such waters" shall continue and be respected.

China has a long history of exploring and exploiting the South China Sea and, hence, has historic title over the sea, which is proven by the nine-dash U-shaped line marked on official maps since the 1940s. Although China's Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act says conflicting claims on the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf by China and countries with opposite or adjacent coasts shall be settled on the basis of international law, it clarifies that "the provisions of this act shall not affect the historical rights of the People's Republic of China".

With historical rights over the South China Sea, China is entitled to draw the baselines for measuring the territorial sea of the islands in the South China Sea. In fact, in September 1958 China issued the Declaration on the Territorial Sea, which states that China's territorial sea along the mainland and its coastal islands takes as its baseline the line composed of the straight lines connecting basepoints on the mainland coast and on the outermost of the coastal islands; and the water area extending 12 nautical miles outward from this baseline is China's territorial sea, and the water areas inside the baseline are China's inland waters, and no foreign vessels for military use and no foreign aircraft may enter China's territorial sea and the air space above it without the permission of the Chinese government.

In July 1973, in a working paper on the sea area within China's jurisdiction submitted to the UN Seabed Committee, Beijing suggested that an archipelago or an island chain consisting of islands close to each other be taken as a whole in defining the limits of the territorial sea around it. Article 3 of the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, too, says that the method of straight baselines composed of all the straight lines joining the adjacent basepoints should be used to draw the baselines of China's territorial sea.

Given that, China has the right to take archipelagoes such as the Xisha Islands as an integral whole and use straight baselines to delimit its territorial sea and determine the limits of the contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in accordance with the provisions of the UNCLOS applicable to other land territory.

Apart from sovereign rights, China also enjoys traditional fishing rights in certain areas within the exclusive zones or archipelagic waters of an adjacent state, and such rights should be recognized and respected as stipulated in the UNCLOS. For hundreds of years, Chinese people have engaged in fishing and other activities to exploit marine resources. With the rapid advancement in navigational technology in recent decades, such activities have expanded further within the nine-dotted line.

Even though some neighboring countries have earmarked exclusive fishing areas and/or incorporated areas that fall within China's nine-dash line into their exclusive economic zone, China is still entitled to its traditional fishing rights and should still have access to the surplus resources in certain areas within the exclusive economic zone of other countries. As Article 51 of the UNCLOS says, an archipelagic state shall recognize traditional fishing rights and other legitimate activities of the immediately adjacent neighboring states in certain areas falling within archipelagic waters.

Parties to the South China Sea disputes, the Philippines and Vietnam in particular, have repeatedly questioned China's historic title over the South China Sea and spared no effort to paint China as a violator of international laws. The truth is, the approach taken by China so far, including the release of the vertical map, to reaffirm its historic title and thus strengthen its sovereign claim over the South China Sea, does not go against its commitment to the UNCLOS.

The author is a professor of international law and marine law at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.

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