China’s 9-Dash Line Policy & South China Sea Dispute

China's 9-Dash Line Policy & South China Sea Dispute

China’s 9-Dash Line Policy & South China Sea Dispute

Background of China’s 9-dash line policy:

  • In the first half of the 20th century, the Sea remained almost quiet. In fact, at the end of World War II, no claimant occupied a single island in the entire South China Sea.
  • China laid claim to the South China Sea in 1947. It demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map, covering most of the area.
  • But two “dashes” were removed in the early 1950s to bypass the Gulf of Tonkin as a gesture to communist comrades in North Vietnam.
  • The remaining ‘nine-dash line’ stretches hundreds of kilometers south and east of its southerly Hainan Island, covering almost 90% of the South China Sea.
  • After the 1960s when a huge reserve of oil and natural gas was discovered in the region, the territorial claims started growing in an unprecedented manner.
  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994, established a legal framework intended to balance the economic and security interests of coastal states with those of seafaring nations.
  • While UNCLOS has been signed and ratified by nearly all the coastal countries in the South China Sea, based on their own interpretation of the UNCLOS, claimant countries started to legitimize their claims.
  • In 2002, ASEAN and China came together to sign the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to keep disputes away. However, it didn’t achieve the desired outcomes.
  • In 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam sent a joint submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to set out some of their claims. In response to this China submitted a map containing the infamous “nine-dash” line and due to this, there was no headway in the dispute resolution.

Significance of the South China Sea:

Strategic Location: The South China Sea is bordered by China and Taiwan to the north, the Indo-Chinese peninsula (including Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) to the west, Indonesia and Brunei to the south, and the Philippines to the east (referred to as the West Philippine Sea).

It is connected by the Taiwan Strait with the East China Sea and by the Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea (both marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean).

Trade Importance: Approximately USD 3.37 trillion worth of trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, making it a crucial global trade route.

  • According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 80% of global trade by volume and 70% by value is transported by sea, with 60% of it passing through Asia and one-third of global shipping moving through the South China Sea.
  • China, the world’s second-largest economy, relies heavily on the South China Sea, with an estimated 64% of its trade passing through the region. In contrast, only 14% of U.S. trade traverses these waters.
  • India relies on the region for approximately 55% of its trade.

Fishing Ground: The South China Sea is also a rich fishing ground, providing a vital source of livelihood and food security for millions of people in the region.

 Major Disputes in the South China Sea:


  • The heart of the South China Sea dispute revolves around territorial claims to land features (islands and reefs) and their associated territorial waters.
  • The major island and reef formations in the South China Sea are the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, Pratas, the Natuna Islands, and Scarborough Shoal.
  • As many as 70 disputed reefs and islets are under contention, with China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan all building more than 90 outposts on these disputed features.
  • China claims up to 90% of the sea with its “nine-dash line” map and has physically expanded islands and constructed military installations to assert control.
    • China has been particularly active in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, engaging in extensive dredging and artificial island-building, creating 3,200 acres of new land since 2013.
    • China also controls the Scarborough Shoal through a constant Coast Guard presence.

Ten-Dash Line

  • China has released a new “standard map”, which includes the ten-dash line.
  • Ten-dash line is a U-shaped line (with ten dashes) in the South China Sea.
  • With the ten-dash line, China is claiming over 90% of the South China Sea.
  • It is an extended version of the nine-dash line.

Related Links:

China – Taiwan ConflictChinese Invasion and Seventeen Point Agreement