South China Sea: Beijing changes strategy in pursuit of its territorial claims
The Malaysian foreign minister speaks out against the new approach. China now claims the “Four Sha”, four archipelagos in the area rather than the "Nine-Dash line". However, the substance does not change. According to experts both theories have no legal basis. In recent months, Chinese ships have been involved in incidents with Malaysia and Indonesia.
Beijing (AsiaNews) – China is changing its strategy to justify its territorial claims on the South China Sea. Beijing now talks more about the “Four Sha” rather than the traditional "Nine-Dash line”, this according to Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah quoted by Radio Free Asia and BenarNews.
A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague called Chinese claims on nearly 90 per cent of this vast stretch of water “baseless”.
According to the international arbitral tribunal, the Nine-Dash line, the territorial demarcation claimed by Beijing based on historical rights has no legal basis and violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Beijing has so far rejected the court’s conclusions.
The case was brought to the court by the Philippines. Together with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, and with the active support of the United States, the Philippines are one of the countries challenging China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.
Such opposition has not prevented the Chinese from occupying and militarising several islands and coral reefs in the area.
According to Minister Abdullah, the legal theory of the Four Sha is even more insidious than the Nine-Dash line. It is based on the "historical rights" that China claims over four archipelagos in the South China Sea, namely the Spratly, Paracel, Pratas and Macclesfield Bank.
Basically, notes the Malaysian minister, Beijing's claims have not changed. The new tactic appears to be an attempt to abandon a legal approach that is too easy to dispute. However, several experts argue that the Four Sha theory also has little legal basis.
Many of the outcrops in the four archipelagos are sandbars or coral reefs that remain submerged at high tide; as for the Macclesfield Bank, it is practically underwater all year round:
Under UNCLOS, such features do not justify territorial claims and the area in question remains international in scope, conclusions also reached by a recent US State Department report which does not mention the Four Sha.
China's claims in the South China Sea have caused repeated incidents over the years. Most recently, in a series of naval operations, China has challenged Malaysia's oil and gas exploration activities off the coast of Sabah.
The Chinese have done the same with regard to Indonesia north of the Natuna Islands. Although China has no territorial claims on this Indonesian archipelago of 272 islands, it claims the right to exploit its fish-rich waters, meeting strong opposition from Indonesia.
In order to reduce tensions, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has tried to negotiate a “code of conduct” with Beijing to regulate maritime traffic in the South China Sea.
This has led to nowhere as talks have dragged on with little results since 2016, above all because the Chinese refuse to give the code binding legal value.