Time to demythologize China’s 10-dash line

Time to demythologize China’s 10-dash line

On Aug. 28, 2023, China released its standard national map which includes a 10-dash line, an extended version of its nine-dash line claim, with the 10th dash covering the eastern coast of Taiwan.

This drew immediate protests from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan which saw the new Beijing map as violating their exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea (SCS). India and Russia also rejected the new map as an infringement of their respective territorial sovereignty.

The nine-dash line, and its latest iteration—the 10-dash line—is being used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to firm up its claim to over 90 percent of SCS. The overarching claim has spawned territorial conflicts between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, and drawn other countries into the fray because of issues of freedom of navigation and overflight in one of the busiest maritime corridors in the world.

While China’s narrative behind the 10-dash line claim is littered with broken potteries and anecdotal references to seafaring explorations during the Ming Dynasty, the CCP has never provided specific geographic coordinates, an ambiguous position seen to be deliberate.


In his book, “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,” Bill Hayton wrote extensively on the origin of the maritime conflict in the SCS. He noted that official national Chinese maps until 1897 showed that Hainan Island was the southernmost point of Chinese territory.

This view of its national territory changed in the first half of the 20th century, between 1907-1947, after several conflicts, foreign occupations, and civil unrest. This includes the invasion of multinational forces in 1901 to quell the Boxer Rebellion led by the anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian Yihetuan Movement. When the Kuomintang Party took power in 1927, it marshalled a sense of national violation to unite the country by commemorating the so-called “100 years of national humiliation.”

Anxious to protect its maritime borders, China turned its attention to map-making by establishing the Inspection Committee for Land and Water Maps in 1933. After two years, the committee published a journal that listed 132 islands, islets, and other maritime features in the SCS, which the committee believed rightfully belonged to China.

Hayton observed, however, that the names given to maritime features were not original Chinese names, but translations and transliterations of names from old British maps. For example, North Danger Island in the Spratlys became Beixian (Chinese word for north danger); Spratly Island became Si-ba-la-tuo (transliteration of the English name). In addition, there were errors made due to unfamiliarity with the geography of the area. James Shoal was named Zengmu tan—transliteration of the English letters “J” and “M,” while tan in Chinese means sand bar. James Shoal, however, is an underwater feature that lies 22 meters below the sea.


Following this maritime inventory, the first appearance of the nine-dash line was in the “New Atlas of China’s Construction” published in 1936 by geographer Bai Meichu. It featured a U-shaped line that snaked around the SCS going down south to James Shoal which is situated 83 kilometers from Borneo, and 1,800 km from Chinese mainland. Different versions of the U-shaped line appeared in 26 maps during the period 1936 to 1945.

For reference, the “Carta hydrographica y chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas” (Hydrographical and Chorographical Chart of the Philippine Islands), published in 1734 by Jesuit cartographer Pedro Murillo Velarde, showed that Panacot or Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough) and Los Bajos de Paragua (Spratly Islands) were already parts of the Philippine archipelago.


The process of map-making, according to Hayton, was filled with confusion and misunderstanding. His conclusion: “A few mistakes by a small number of poorly informed Chinese officials and academics back in the 1930s have created lingering confusion that still poisons the politics of Southeast Asia to this day.”

In more recent developments, the arbitral tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled unanimously on July 12, 2016 that China’s nine-dash line claim has no historical or legal basis.

Without solid history and legal anchor, the 10-dash line narrative can be compared to the fireworks that highlighted the opening ceremonies of the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 23. The spectacular pyrotechnic display awed the athletes and dignitaries in attendance, as well as television audiences all over the world, except for one thing: it was not real. Computer technicians had superimposed the virtual fireworks in the broadcast to climax the opening of the Asian Games. Like this representation that had no basis in reality, it is time to demythologize China’s 10-dash line narrative.


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Tomas H. C. Vargas is a retired business executive and entrepreneur.

TAGS: China, Philippines, Taiwan

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