US Department of State – Republic of China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea

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Executive Summary

This study examines the maritime claims of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the SouthChina Sea. The PRC’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“Convention”).

The PRC asserts four categories of maritime claims* in the South China Sea:

• Sovereignty claims over maritime features. The PRC claims “sovereignty” over more than one hundred features in the South China Sea that are submerged below the sea surface at high tide and are beyond the lawful limits of any State’s territorial sea. Such claims areinconsistent with international law, under which such features are not subject to a lawfulsovereignty claim or capable of generating maritime zones such as a territorial sea.

• Straight baselines. The PRC has either drawn, or asserts the right to draw, “straight baselines” that enclose the islands, waters, and submerged features within vast areas of ocean space in the South China Sea. None of the four “island groups” claimed by the PRCin the South China Sea (“Dongsha Qundao,” “Xisha Qundao,” “Zhongsha Qundao,” and“Nansha Qundao”) meet the geographic criteria for using straight baselines under the Convention. Additionally, there is no separate body of customary international law that supports the PRC position that it may enclose entire island groups within straight baselines.

• Maritime zones. The PRC asserts claims to internal waters, a territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone, and a continental shelf that are based on treating each claimed South China Sea island group “as a whole.” This is not permitted by international law. The seaward extent of maritime zones must be measured from lawfully established baselines, which are normally the low-water line along the coast. Within its claimed maritime zones, the PRC also makes numerous jurisdictional claims that are inconsistent with international law.

• Historic rights. The PRC asserts that it has “historic rights” in the South China Sea. Thisclaim has no legal basis and is asserted by the PRC without specificity as to the nature orgeographic extent of the “historic rights” claimed.

The overall effect of these maritime claims is that the PRC unlawfully claims sovereignty or someform of exclusive jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea. These claims gravely underminethe rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally-recognized provisions of international lawreflected in the Convention. For this reason, the United States and numerous other States haverejected these claims in favor of the rules-based international maritime order within the SouthChina Sea and worldwide.

* Islands in the South China Sea over which the PRC claims sovereignty are also claimed by other States. This studyexamines only the maritime claims asserted by the PRC and does not examine the merits of sovereignty claims toislands in the South China Sea asserted by the PRC or other States. The United States takes no position as to whichcountry has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, which is not a matter governed by the law of the sea.

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