Today, the Department of State released a Limits in the Seas study on the PRC’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. The Department’s Limits in the Seas studies are a longstanding legal and technical series that examine national maritime claims and boundaries and assess their consistency with international law. This most recent study, the 150th in the Limits in the Seas series, concludes that the PRC asserts unlawful maritime claims in most of the South China Sea, including an unlawful historic rights claim.
This study builds on the Department’s 2014 analysis of the PRC’s ambiguous “dashed-line” claim in the South China Sea. Since 2014, the PRC has continued to assert claims to a wide swath of the South China Sea as well as to what the PRC has termed “internal waters” and “outlying archipelagos,” all of which are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.
With the release of this latest study, the United States calls again on the PRC to conform its maritime claims to international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, to comply with the decision of the arbitral tribunal in its award of July 12, 2016, in The South China Sea Arbitration, and to cease its unlawful and coercive activities in the South China Sea.
Visit the State Department website to review the Limits in the Seas study on the PRC’s maritime claims in the South China Sea as well as previous studies. For press inquiries, contact OES-PA-DG@state.gov.
This study examines the maritime claims of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China 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 are inconsistent with international law, under which such features are not subject to a lawful sovereignty 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 PRC in 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. This claim has no legal basis and is asserted by the PRC without specificity as to the nature or geographic extent of the “historic rights” claimed.
The overall effect of these maritime claims is that the PRC unlawfully claims sovereignty or some form of exclusive jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea. These claims gravely undermine the rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally-recognized provisions of international law reflected in the Convention. For this reason, the United
States and numerous other States have rejected these claims in favor of the rules-based international maritime order within the South China Sea and worldwide.
* Islands in the South China Sea over which the PRC claims sovereignty are also claimed by other States. This study examines only the maritime claims asserted by the PRC and does not examine the merits of sovereignty claims to islands in the South China Sea asserted by the PRC or other States. The United States takes no position as to which country has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea, which is not a matter governed by the law of the sea.
Link to full report: https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/LIS150-SCS.pdf