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South China Sea

Rejection of China's 'nine-dash line' spreads from Asia to Europe

Countries having no territorial dispute with Beijing turn up heat despite economic ties

A Royal Navy helicopter flies alongside anti-air defense destroyer HMS Defender in the Indian Ocean to patrol against the flow of narcotics from the Makran Coast to East Africa, Yemen and Sri Lanka.(Photo courtesy of the U.K. Ministry of Defense)

JAKARTA -- The U.K., France and Germany are among at least nine countries to issue statements this year rejecting Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea, as concerns about China's maritime expansionism spread beyond its immediate neighbors.

China has claimed "historical rights" to waters within its so-called nine-dash line, which encompasses almost all of the South China Sea. The three European countries, not involved in any territorial dispute with Beijing, sent a joint note verbale rejecting the idea to the U.N. in September.

The claims "do not comply with international law and U.N. [Convention on the Law of the Sea] provisions," the countries wrote, stressing that "there is no legal ground for continental States to treat archipelagos or marine features as a whole entity."

"All maritime claims in the South China Sea should be made and peacefully resolved in accordance with the principles and rules of UNCLOS," the statement said.

An international tribunal in The Hague found in 2016 that the nine-dash line lacks a legal basis, which China has refused to accept. Beijing issued a rebuttal to the three nation's statement in mid-September, claiming that its "territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are established in the long course of history."

European countries were long reluctant to take a strong stance on the South China Sea, given their economic ties to China and geographic distance from the waters. But they have turned up the heat recently in response to China's transparency issues regarding the coronavirus outbreak as well as Beijing's national security law covering Hong Kong.

Australian and U.S. naval vessels sail in the South China Sea during April. The two countries also have rejected Beijing's claims in those waters.   © Reuters

The European Union also urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to abide by international law in the South China Sea during their September summit.

Among the nine nations, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, which all have competing claims with China in those waters, were the first ones to send statements rejecting China's claims to the U.N.

Indonesia sent a similar note verbale in May. While the two sides agree that Indonesia's territorial waters lie outside of the nine-dash line, some overlap exists between China's claims and Indonesia's exclusive economic zone by the Natuna Islands.

Australia and the U.S., both of which have no territorial dispute with Beijing, also sent notes verbales. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in July that China's claims are "completely unlawful," and President-elect Joe Biden has suggested he will work closely with allies and other partners on security to counter China.

Growing alarm toward China could hamper its Belt and Road international infrastructure-building initiative. Strong objections from countries not involved in maritime disputes with China will be more effective in curbing Beijing than will U.S. military pressure, said Awani Irewati, senior researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

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