Beijing Shoots Itself in Foot with ’10-Dash Line’ Map
Tone-deaf timing of map’s publication a slap in the face of neighboring nations, G-20
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Beijing’s recent publication of a new, standard map, its so-called ’10-dash line’ extending its claim over most of the South China Sea beyond its internationally recognized Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), may just be the opportunity hitherto missing for the US in its long-running mission to contain China. The map has effectively revealed where China stands vis-à-vis the dispute: it sees even more of the entire sea as its own, and it extends its hegemony into Indian territory as well.
The map not only rejects the 2016 international court ruling that its so-called ‘nine-dash line’ was without merit and superseded by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but extends it unto new territory. In effect, the message Beijing has sent is this: China does not respect a rules-based international order. The message becomes even clearer considering its timing. In July, China and the ASEAN states reached agreement on guidelines to accelerate negotiations for developing and implementing a new Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. While efforts for such a code remain underway, the map shows Beijing’s active attempts at presenting the relevant states with a fait accompli and its refusal to respect other states’ interests.
This shift is thus a complete contrast to Wang Yi’s recent message to his Thai counterpart that Beijing supports the Code of Conduct and is willing to “make effective and meaningful regional rules that can make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”. More than ever, however, the South China Sea is for China only, as the latter called the map an “exercise of sovereignty.”
Sovereign claims and counterclaims
No wonder all ASEAN states have rejected the new map. “Malaysia does not recognize China’s claims in the South China Sea as outlined in the ‘2023 edition of the standard map of China’ which extends into [the] Malaysian maritime area,” said a foreign ministry statement.
The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said that “this latest attempt to legitimize China’s purported sovereignty and jurisdiction over Philippine features and maritime zones has no basis under international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
The new map affects India as well. In addition to the territorial dispute China is already negotiating in Ladakh, the map has started a new dispute as the ‘dashes’ extend to the water around the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and the Aksai Chin plateau. A foreign ministry statement said that India rejects “these claims as they have no basis. Such steps by the Chinese side only complicate the resolution of the boundary question.”
More than that, the controversy coincides with the G20 summit starting in India today, September 9. China’s Xi has already absented himself from the summit, supposedly part of a decision to avoid Biden.
Raising the anti-China stakes
For the US, this is a perfect opportunity to reinforce to the region its projection of China as a threat to the world order and peaceful resolution of conflicts. China now stands to be projected in the same way as Russia because of the latter’s war on Ukraine and how the conflict involves Russian territorial claims as well.
Setting the stage for Biden, the US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said that Washington rejects “the unlawful maritime claims reflected on that map and call on the PRC to comport its maritime claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere with the International Law of the Sea.”
Separately, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder called this China’s active attempts at “obfuscation of international sovereignty,” meaning it is now more important than ever for the US to work with its regional allies and partners, helping them defend their sovereignty while maintaining the international rules-based order that “has preserved regional security and stability for 70-plus years.”
With Beijing now acting as a regional hegemon not interested in consensus-based frameworks and with regional states unable, or not strong enough, to tackle it on their own, security arrangements that involve the US become a logical policy option.
With an eye on China, Washington recently found success with Japan and South Korea in forming a security pact. Many saw this, in addition to the Quad, as a step towards an eventual ‘Asian NATO’ and a bid at successfully containing Beijing.
Earlier, many regional countries were sensitive to the possibility of Washington provoking China. But with Beijing unilaterally publishing its sovereignty claims, Washington doesn’t really have to be the provocateur.
Tensions are also already mounting. In August, with a US Navy plane circling overhead, two Filipino boats breached a Chinese coast guard blockade in a dangerous confrontation to provide supplies to Filipino forces guarding a contested shoal. This particular incident followed another in August when China used water cannon against the Filipino boats, leading Washington to renew a warning that it is obliged to defend its longtime treaty ally if Philippine public vessels and forces come under armed attack, including in the South China Sea.
The series of incidents and the subsequent publication of the new map illuminate a) the US support for the regional states, b) that China is imposing its unilateral will (its imposed blockades), and c) a region-wide confrontation is not impossible.
Considering the high stakes, the G20 summit in India and the ASEAN summit in Indonesia now have a lot to consider. It is now obvious enough that Beijing’s actions will come under scrutiny, and so will ways of tackling them both individually and collectively. Although many ASEAN states have in the past emphasized negotiations over confrontation, they will now be forced to reassess their options, as expecting China to simply give up its sovereign claims is naïve and unrealistic.
In short, by publishing the map just before the summit, China has shot itself in the foot, providing fodder for all the canons pointed at Beijing. Different timing might have allowed Beijing to diffuse tensions. But the conscious decision about the timing again shows that it is not really interested in using diplomacy as its primary mechanism for dispute settlement.
That, once again, is a position that both G20 and ASEAN will consider. Consequently, a reassessment by these nations of their ties with China could have implications for the latter far beyond the disputed sea. They will reverberate in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa as well at a time when Beijing is pushing to transform BRICS-plus into a vehicle for a new, multipolar world order.