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The Tenth Line

China’s claims in the South China sea continue to expand. Is it a cause for concern?

In late August this year, China published a new ‘standard map’, with all of its territorial claims. The map has upset several of its neighbours, with the most affected being those in the South China Sea.

As has been the case in recent years, the map included territories far beyond China’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Several of these are parts of its neighbours’ EEZs. One such striking claim was on the Paracel Islands, which lie well within the Philippines' EEZ. China has been claiming the islands for several years, and in 2016, the claim was deemed unlawful by an International Tribunal at The Hague.

This year’s map is a clear sign of cartographic aggression from Beijing, which it seems gives little value to the court ruling. A similar case exists for the Spratly Islands, which lie far beyond China’s EEZ.

Yet, the most controversial element in the new map is the addition of a tenth dash to China’s infamous 9 Dash Line. The 9 dash line is a U-shaped line marking territories that Beijing claims in the South China Sea and has been present in Chinese ‘standard maps’ since the 1940s. This year, a 10th dash has been added to the east of Taiwan, and the position of dashes has been shifted to incorporate more territories.

Some fear that the new map is a sign of Chinese defiance portrayed cartographically. However, is the new map truly a cause for concern? Most likely not.

This is not the first time a 10th dash has been added to a standard map. The original purpose of the line was to demarcate territories which China could have claimed in the future. Beijing has stealthily morphed such could-haves into official claims. To quote Bill Hayden, “The basis for the line is nonsensical” and it is unlikely China will take practical control of these territories.

Further, several of the lines, specially the newly added tenth, are quite vague in their positioning. The tenth line sits awkwardly to the east of Taiwan - most definitely claiming parts of the mainland, but not extending to Taiwan’s nautical territory. In fact, this is not aligned with any official Chinese claims at all. The most probable reason to add this line is a domestic one - to spread propaganda. It is stereotypical for government propaganda to exaggerate its actions, and this could very likely be one such case.

That is not to say that China’s neighbours should not be wary. Beijing is most likely playing the long game, waiting for those who contest its claims to slowly move on and accept them. The international community, and above all the Asian community must ensure that China knows its claims are not welcome.

It is a time to be alert, not panic.

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