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Shifting tactics: China advances 'four sha' claim in South China Sea

Beijing's "four sha" claim in the South China Sea includes the Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank area. Google Maps

MANILA, Philippines — Shifting away from its nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea, Beijing has forwarded a new sovereignty claim over the island groups in the disputed waters.

China's "four sha" (Chinese for sand) claim covers sovereignty and maritime entitlements from four island groups in the South China Sea—the Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank area—according to a report from The Washington Free Beacon.

The Pratas Islands are occupied by Taiwan while the Paracel Islands are being disputed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Parts of the Macclesfield Bank are being claimed by China and Taiwan.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing territorial dispute between China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam over the ownership of the Spratly Islands.

According to the report, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has laid its new tactic to assert its claims over the disputed sea in a closed-door meeting with US State Department officials last month.

International law experts Julian Ku and Christopher Mirasola, however, said that China's four sha claims are no more lawful than its nine-dash line claim.

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"The challenge for critics of Chinese claims in the South China Sea, however, will be effectively explaining and articulating why this shift does not actually strengthen China’s legal claims in the South China Sea," Ku and Mirasola said in an article published by Lawfare.

In July 2016, the United Nations-backed tribunal invalidated the nine-dash line claim and ruled that Beijing violated its commitment under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

READ: The verdict: Philippines wins arbitration case vs China

The four sha claim is not new as Beijing had stated it in a 2016 white paper disputing the Philippines' claims in the arbitration at The Hague-based tribunal.

"China has, based on Nanhai Zhudao [the “Four Sha”], internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf," Beijing said in its 2016 white paper.

The 2016 tribunal award found that no feature in the Spratly Islands is large enough to generate a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. Beijing's declaration of straight baselines around the Paracel Islands would be contrary to the UNCLOS as it does not qualify to the required ratio, the international law experts said.

Article 47 of the UNCLOS states that archipelagic baselines may only be drawn if they enclose a state's "main islands and an area in which the ratio of the area of the water to the area of the land, including atolls, is between one to one and nine to one."

Ku and Mirasola noted that China's new legal strategy is weaker than the nine-dash line claim as it clearly violates the UNCLOS.

"Most Chinese defenses of the Nine Dash Line argued that the claim predated China’s accession to UNCLOS and therefore not governed by it," the experts said.

Beijing, however, may still benefit from trading the nine-dash line which has become a diplomatic liability as it has made China an easy target for foreign criticism.

"Second, by adopting language more similar to that found in UNCLOS, China may be betting that it can tamp down criticism, and win potential partners in the region," Ku and Mirasola said.

President Rodrigo Duterte's willingness to work with Beijing would support this conclusion, the international law experts added.

"China’s legal justification for the Four Shas is just as weak, if not weaker, than its Nine-Dash Line claim. But explaining why the Four Shas is weak and lawless will require sophisticated legal analysis married with effective public messaging," they said.

RELATED: US gov't study: 9-dash line inconsistent with int'l law

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