On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague granted an award on the Philippines vs. China case filed in 2013. This award completely rejected both the historical rights and the Chinese interpretation of UNCLOS 1982 provisions of China’s “nine-dash line” claim. Although it publicly denied the PCA’s ruling, China still employed many legal experts to research and seek a new way to advocate for its absurd claim in the South China Sea. Later, this gives birth to the “Four Shas” claim.
In a retreat with American diplomatic officials on August 28-29, 2017 in Boston, Ma Xinmin, deputy director-general of Treaty and Law Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asserted “Chinese historical rights to Nanhai Zhudao (meaning: Islands in the South China Sea) Four Shas” for the first time.
According to him, China had “sovereignty and maritime entitlements” extending from four island groups in the South China Sea – Dongsha (or Pratas Islands which Taiwan is occupying), Xisha (or Paracel Islands), Nansha (or Spratly Islands), and Zhongsha (or Macclesfield Bank, an underwater shoal 75 nautical miles away from Paracel Islands). Beijing called them the “Four Shas” and demanded for 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zones (EEZ) around these island groups.
In fact, this is not a new concept but rather China’s way to advocate for its claims in the South China Sea. China’s 1958 declaration on its territorial sea mentioned its “sovereignty” over “Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha.” China’s 1992 Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone declared that Chinese territories included “Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha;” its 2016 White Paper, published when the Philippine lawsuit against China was about to end, also asserted sovereignty over “Nanhai Zhudao” which consisted of the above four island groups, including “islands, coral reefs, shoals, and cays of various numbers and sizes.”
Different from previously, now China sees each island group as a single legal entity which can generate a 200 nautical mile EEZ. China’s new interpretation to demand control over the South China Sea shocked the American officials.
After the meeting, when asked about China’s “Four Shas” claim, the US State Department spokesperson Justin Higgins said that Washington did not recognize Chinese control over the said features, geological structures, emphasizing that the waters, where an estimated $3.37 billion worth of goods passed through annually, was international waters. Higgins’ statement demonstrated the US position – objection of the “Four Shas” claim.
Some analysts pointed out three reasons for China’s use of “Four Shas” concept and its ridiculous claims:
First, Beijing might have realized that the “nine-dash line,” after having been rejected by the PCA and criticized by the world, was becoming a diplomatic burden, a target for international censure and thus, it has to seek another way to advocate for its absurd claims in the South China Sea.
Second, when using a term which seemingly comes from the UNCLOS 1982, China could avoid criticism (China, in fact, distorted and wrongly applied the provisions of UNCLOS 1982).
Third, Beijing came up with the “Four Shas” claim to prepare for the “legal warfare” and “media manipulation,” which were two out of three key components of the “Three Warfares” that the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) advocated in 2003. Beijing would rely on many Chinese lawyers and researchers to promulgate this new strategy to international community.
According to international analysts, the “Four Shas” claim is the most dangerous yet as its scope if much bigger than that of the “nine-dash line” claim, which covers 80% of the South China Sea. The fact that Chinese fishing vessels, under the protection of Chinese coast guard (CCG), illegally fished in the waters in Indonesia’s Natuna Islands at the end of December 2019-beginning of January 2020 shows that China has expanded the “Four Shas” claim beyond the “nine dash line.”
However, the “Four Shas” claim is in principle just a distorted version, a “new look” of the “nine-dash line” which was rejected internationally. The “Four Shas” concept could also never provide sound arguments to advocate for China’s unreasonable claims in the South China Sea. This only serves to expose more clearly Beijing’s ambition to monopolize the South China Sea.
There are also experts saying that the “Four Shas” trickery is just a form of “open feint” strategy, a Chinese traditional tactic to distract enemies. In this case, right after PCA rejected the “nine-dash line,” China presented a new concept of “Four Shas” to trick the international community. Nonetheless, its true intention was soon exposed in a rule-of-law world.
It requires a PCA to reject the ”nine-dash line” but it probably won’t need one to reject the “Four Shas” claim because the UNCLOS 1982 and the PCA’s award on July 12, 2016 clearly showed that this claim would have absolutely no legal basis. Thus, it can be concluded that by presenting the “Four Shas” claim, Beijing is performing a trick to fool the international community./.