China’s Natural Resources Ministry and Civil Affairs Ministry published a joint release on Sunday which announced the Chinese names and coordinates belonging to 25 islands, shoals, and reefs, as well as 55 submerged oceanic mountains and ridges, all in the contested waterway south of the mainland, reported AFP.
"No state can claim sovereignty over underwater features unless they are within 12 nautical miles of land. So is China ignorant of this or deliberately trying to overturn international law?" Bill Hayton, an associate fellow at British think tank Chatham House, told the outlet.
"China has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which is very clear on what states can and cannot claim as territory. Yet China seems to be going against UNCLOS by asserting sovereignty in very far away places."
Despite China’s individual claims in the South China Sea, it has also made the more general claim to roughly 90% of the waterway via the so-called “nine-dash line,” which has never been precisely delineated. In addition to China, several other countries have also laid claim to parts of the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The waterway is believed to contain huge hydrocarbon deposits beneath the seafloor and carries trillions in annual sea trade.
Yan Yan, director of the Research Center of Oceans Law and Policy in the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told the South China Morning Post that China’s territorial claims were a showing of its sovereignty in the region.
He noted that this is not the first time such an announcement has been made by China. The last one came during a 1983 exercise in which China laid claim to 287 features in the South China Sea.
“China is faced with an increasingly aggressive Vietnam as the country continues to fish illegally and conduct oil and gas exploration unilaterally in the South China Sea,” Yan said. “And as this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnam should exercise more restraint rather than acting aggressively.”
Last month, Vietnam issued a diplomatic note to the United Nations which protested China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing has stepped up activity in the South China Sea over the past six years and on Saturday announced that two new districts will govern areas in the sea that overlap with claims from Vietnam and Taiwan.
“The State Council has recently approved the establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts under Sansha city,” the Ministry of Civil Affairs stated, using the respective Chinese names for the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
Vietnam has since responded, stating that China’s actions “seriously violated” its territorial sovereignty, according to AFP. China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry fired back on Tuesday, contending that the Spratly and Paracel Islands are China’s “innate territories” and that Vietnam’s claims in the South China Sea are “illegal.”