China's nine-dotted line: a vague claim

VietNamNet Bridge – China has made its claim about a nine-dash line that stretches along the coastline of a number of countries in the East Sea, covering up to 80 percent of the sea’s area.

China, East Sea, U-shaped line

China's first hand drawn map of the bull tongue line (

Since first raising the argument, China has not made any official statements explaining its “bull tongue” line. This dearth of information has not stopped the mainland from campaigning both locally and internationally on how most of the East Sea, including four groups of islands, is now part of its territory.

How was the nine-dash line formed and what are China’s true motivations? VOV provides insight into the case through a series of stories.

Story 1: the nine-dash line - a vague claim

Scholars have provided different explanations of the line’s origins.

Li Linghua, a researcher of the China National Ocean Information Centre, says “in 1946 Lin Zun led a naval fleet to recapture the islands following Japan’s defeat. Some of the islands were unknown to the world. Japan first occupied them and was forced to cede them to us after surrendering. We were happy to receive them (...). Accompanying the fleet was a man from the Ministry of Geology and Resources who demarcated an imaginary line shaped like a bull’s tongue. Upon his return, the line was printed on the national map and was publicised as a new boundary.....”

The first map illustrating the ‘bull tongue’ line was introduced in February 1948 by the Chinese Department of Border Management under the Ministry of Home Affairs. It was named the “bull tongue” line comprising 11 dots because it resembles a bull’s tongue licking further down the East Sea.

The People’s Republic of China (referred to as China from herein) was founded in 1949 after the Chiang Kai-shek administration fled to the Taiwanese islands in defeat. In the same year, China published a map that included a “bull tongue” line similar to that of the 1948 map.

In a new map published in 1953, China eliminated two dots in the Bac Bo (Tonkin) Gulf from the line’s original total of 11.

The nine-dotted line originated from a private map drawn by Bai Meichu that was incorporated into the map of the Republic of China and carried over into the maps of the People’s Republic of China.

The line contradicted international legal standards at the time of the map’s publication as laws stipulated the maximum width of a nation’s territorial waters was restricted to three nautical miles.

Chinese scholars wondered if the map’s creator was fully aware of this marine law current at the time. It has been said Bai was invited to Beijing in 1990 to elaborate on his drawing. Contrary to their expectations, Bai could not provide any ample evidence supporting the “bull tongue” line.

A number of Chinese scholars still try and defend the imaginary line.

Professor Gao Zhiguo, head of the China Institute for Marine Affairs of the State Oceanic Administration, said “Chinese materials show China has never claimed the entire area of the South China Sea (East Sea), but just the islands and adjacent areas within this line.”

Pan Shiying, another Chinese scholar, argued that the line has existed for half a century without any opposition from other countries, establishing a historical Chinese territorial boundary. China has claimed sovereignty over not only the four archipelagos Dong Sa (Pratas), Tay Sa (Hoang Sa), Trung Sa (Macclesfield), and Nam Sa (Truong Sa), but also the entire area of waters within the U-shaped line.

Zhu Keyuan, another scholar, posited that the Chinese claim should be considered as based on historic sovereign and jurisdictional rights rather than full and absolute.

But several Chinese scholars have voiced opposition against the claim. The Unirule Institute of Economics and news wire organised a June 2012 workshop in China examining East Sea disputes, national sovereignty, and international law.   

China National Ocean Information Centre researcher Li Linghua stressed, “There has been no unreal land or marine border demarcating line in the history of international cartography.  The nine-dotted line in the East Sea is unreal. Our predecessors invented the line without specific longitudes and latitudes, as well as without legal evidence.”

Professor Zhang Shuguang, Head of the Academic Committee under the Unirule Institute of Economics, stated “The nine-dotted line is not legal, a view once shared by Chinese lawmakers and their colleagues from Taiwan. It was unilaterally claimed by China.”

China’s official viewpoints

China submitted a diplomatic note to the UN General Secretary on May 7, 2009—the first of its kind in over 60 years—formalising its official stance on the issue. This was the first time China released its map including the nine-dotted line to the world.

The note read: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof”.

Dr Marco Benatar, from the International Law Centre of the Brussels University, Belgium, stated the criteria for defining China’s claim are insufficient. Scholars’ different explanations of the nine-dotted line as well as the unclear note dated May 7, 2009 support this conclusion.

In addition to complex sentences, he said phrases such as the relevant waters and the adjacent waters are ambiguous. These phrases are not included in the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.

The absence of annotations explaining the confusing wording, contrary to international mapping standards, leaves the intentions behind China’s “bull tongue” line unclear and its territorial claim invalid.

Prof. Erik Franckx, dean of the International and European Law Faculty of the Brussels University, points out that the maps featuring the nine-dotted line conflict with the depictions of the East Sea in other maps and materials submitted by regional coastal countries.

The Chinese maps with the nine-dotted line are also inconsistent. Those published before 1953 consist of 11 dots while later editions have only nine. There are no reasonable explanations for the elimination of the two dots. When maps are inconsistent, they are unreliable.

Dr Hoang Viet argues a line so lacking in clarity cannot be considered as a national border according to international law.  

“Is it a border line? No, because borders are always stable. China’s claimed line has no coordinate and the limits were modified arbitrarily from 11 dots at the beginning to the current 9. Such a line cannot be recognised internationally. “

China’s map even lacks technical cartographical accuracy. It’s worth remembering that in the Island of Palmas case in the 1920s, arbitrator Hax Hubert argued that, “The first condition required of maps that are to serve as evidence on points of law is their geographical accuracy.”

John Hopkins University Professor Marvin Ott shares the view that the Chinese claim is groundless. According to him, China has asserted its sovereignty over the islands but cannot identify the legal evidence defending its claim—rendering it null and void.

In recent years, China has tried to legitimise the nine-dash line through legislation and seismic surveying, hoping to attract international recognition. Their fishery protection force is equipped with modern tools capable of seizing and detaining any strange fishing vessels and their crews operating in the area.

The China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has invited bids for 9 lots within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China also announced the establishment of Shansa City, comprising Vietnam’s Truong Sa and Hoang Sa archipelagos, Macclesfield Bank and the waters within the nine-dash line - an area totalling up to 80 percent of the East Sea.   

General Daniel Schaeffer, a former French military attaché to Vietnam, China and Thailand, summarises China’s actions clearly. In 2008 the American ConocoPhillips withdrew from the Moc Tinh and Hai Thach gas fields, located within China’s claimed nine-dash line. The cable severing suffered by Vietnamese ship Binh Minh also occurred within the line, as did the Reed Bank clash between China and the Philippines. They want to communicate the extent of their claim through these incidents, he says.

China’s claim and its vague supporting arguments cannot convince many Chinese scholars. Renmin University Professor Shi Yinhong asks if the entire East Sea belongs to China.  According to him, the Chinese press themselves were recently unclear about this. “If that is the claim - that the entire East Sea belongs to China - it is certainly not recognised worldwide,” he says.

Source: VOV

China, East Sea, U-shaped line