Water Wars

Water Wars: China Takes a New Tack (Maybe)

By Jimmy Chalk
Friday, September 29, 2017, 4:30 PM

China Reportedly Seeks to Swap the Nine-Dash Line for the 'Four Shas,' While Trump Chides China on Sovereignty Before Tillerson Visit.

President Donald Trump indirectly rebuked China’s ambitious and unlawful island construction efforts in its eastern sea, telling the U.N. General Assembly last week, “We must reject threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.” Trump’s statement comes after Chinese officials reportedly advanced a surprising new legal theory to support its claims in a meeting with State Department officials in late August.

Under the new theory, China would exchange its infamous so-called “nine-dash line” for a slightly narrower claim that more tightly embraces four disputed island groups (which China calls the “Four Shas,” or Four Sands) in the South China Sea. Lawfare’s Julian Ku and Chris Mirasola evaluated the claim this week, writing that “[d]espite the legal weaknesses of its possible new strategy, China may still reap some benefits from trading the Nine-Dash Line for the Four Shas.” These benefits include: (1) avoiding criticism over its “sui generis” Nine-Dash Line, (2) “tamping down criticism” by adopting terminology used in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and (3) “shap[ing] . . . or undermin[ing] . . . the law of the sea” by adopting a pseudo-UNCLOS approach.

Ku and Mirasola also suggest that China could be seeking to “win potential partners” with the new legal strategy. China’s recent diplomatic push aimed at U.S. allies in the region supports their conclusion. Despite recent disputes over Vietnam’s offshore oil and gas drilling, a top Chinese general invited Vietnam to increase its border cooperation efforts with China, and this week China highlighted its deepening military ties with Singapore, which has long trained with Taiwan, another close ally of the United States.

China’s slightly more modest claim could mean big relief for oil and gas producers in the region, who have been spooked recently by Chinese saber rattling. The unilateral drilling efforts in Vietnam and the Philippines’ respective exclusive economic zones had been called off due to Chinese threats. But, depending on the dimensions of China’s possible new claim, these sites (such as Vietnam’s controversial Block 136-03) may now be excluded from China’s claims in the South China Sea. Also on the energy front, in addition to its traditional offshore exploration efforts, China continues to make progress in its exploration of methane hydrates, or combustible ice, an experimental but promising source of energy.

Despite Trump’s nod to the South China Sea at the UNGA, the issue is not on the public agenda for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to China this weekend, where he will meet with China’s foreign minister and lay the groundwork for Trump’s Asia trip in November. During the trip, Trump is set to travel to Japan, South Korea, China, and the Philippines, and will attend the ASEAN and APEC summits. He is expected to make a “major Asia speech” during the trip.

In Other News...


A Taiwan court sentenced a mainland Chinese student to 14 months in prison after his conviction on national security charges. The student was charged with facilitating a meeting between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese government officials in exchange for money. His sentence comes just weeks after a similar episode involving a Taiwanese activist in China, and amid a chill in relations since the election of a pro-independence party in Taiwan last year.


Shots fired in an encounter between a Vietnamese fishing boat and a Philippine navy vessel left two fishermen dead. Five others were arrested. The encounter reportedly occurred within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Philippines immediately promised a probe into the incident, which led to the firing of the Philippine ship’s captain. The countries’ foreign ministers discussed the incident during their meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

At an Asia Society event during the General Assembly, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano spoke at length on the Philippines’ strategy to implement the favorable 2016 arbitral decision issued under UNCLOS’s Annex VII. “Once we won the arbitration case ruling, the challenge is how to implement it . . . . If we continued the Aquino administration strategy of a shouting match or embarrassing China or trying to out reason them in every multilateral, we were winning in world opinion and on paper but we were losing on the ground.”

Also last week, the Philippines announced that improvements worth approximately $30 million to its military facilities on Pag-asa Island (China: Thitu Island) are imminent. The renovation of the dilapidated outpost is expected to take approximately 18 months. Pag-asa is located less than 15 nautical miles from the highly advanced Chinese outpost on Subi Reef.


Three Chinese Coast Guard vessels sailed near Japan’s Senkaku Islands (China: Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea, the fourth such incursion this year. Even so, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made efforts to strengthen ties with China, attending a ceremony in Tokyo marking the 45th anniversary of the countries’ diplomatic relationship and China’s national day.

United States

The U.S. Navy has implemented a raft of new measures in response to two collisions in the Western Pacific that left 17 sailors dead. The measures were drawn up during a fleet-wide operational halt, and include a lighter workload for sailors (who before the safety measures spent up to 108 hours per week on duty), manual tracking of vessels in close range, and broadcasting the Naval vessels’ location in crowded straits.

The collisions have led to a wave of personnel changes. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift retired this week after being passed up for promotion, and Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin was removed from his position as Seventh Fleet commander last month. Two more commanders tied to the collisions were relieved of duty this week.

Analysis and Commentary

Professor Robert G. Sutter of George Washington University and Chin-Hao Huang of Yale-NUS in Singapore wrote together in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Comparative Connections journal regarding “China’s Steady Gains.” They concluded that China is slowly but surely making real progress in establishing itself as the region’s dominant power, especially as the U.S.’s partners in the region question the country’s resolve. The National Interest’s Bill Bray comes to a similar conclusion, citing China’s successful power play against Vietnam’s oil exploration efforts and the Philippines’ capitulation to China during the ASEAN Code of Conduct negotiations as evidence that “America is losing the battle for the South China Sea.” Finally, in The Diplomat, CSIS’s South China Sea Expert Working Group proposes an innovative path toward cooperation on environmental management between the coastal states.

Water Wars is our biweekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Sarah Grant with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.