China’s new administrative districts and naming of geographical features in the South China Sea: No

China new administrative districts and naming of geographical features in the South China SeaFollowing a disastrous defeat in the Philippines vs. China South China Sea lawsuit at the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s at the Hague, China is looking for new ways to legitimize its irrational claim and illegal occupation of features in the South China Sea with perverse declarations. Most recently, China has taken advantage of a time when countries were busy combating the COVID-19 pandemic to make a series of irrational announcements.

Firstly, on April 18, 2020, the State Council of the People's Republic of China blatantly announced the establishment of a so-called "Xisha District" headquartered in Woody Island to oversee the Paracel Islands and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank) Archipelagos and surrounding waters; "Nansha District", headquartered in the Fiery Cross Reef to oversee the Spratly Islands and surrounding seas. These two districts are under the so-called "Sansha City", which China has illegally set up in 2012.

Second, on April 19, 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs had announced the so-called "standard naming" for 25 islands, reefs and 55 geographical features within their absurd "nine-dash line" claim in the South China Sea. In addition to naming these entities, China pronounced the longitudes and latitudes for the islands, reefs and features in question.

China's goal in making the aforementioned statements is to demonstrate Beijing's so-called "governance" over entities and waters in the South China Sea; gradually legalizing their illegal occupation in the South China Sea as well as their unreasonable maritime "nine-dash line" claim which was overruled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on 7/12/2016 in the Philippines vs. China case. Furthermore, China is prepared to deal with possible legal actions from other South China Sea countries in the future.

However, such Chinese actions are completely null and void, because in reality, this is nothing more than a unilateral act by China. According to international law, a statement of international legal validity must satisfy two elements: first, the statement must be based on international law; second, that statement must receive the recognition of the states involved. Let us consider China's claim based on these elements.

As far as the first element is concerned, it is very clear that what China has been doing is in complete contrary to international law. Based on legal evidence and territorial acquisition principles, China has absolutely no sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Legal and historical documents preserved in international archiving centers have proved that both Paracel and Spratly Archipelagos are under the sovereignty of Viet Nam.

In 1974, China used force to occupy the entire Paracel Islands and in 1988, they continued to use force to seize 6 features in the Spratly Islands (another - Mischief Reef - was invaded by China in 1995). China's occupation had seriously violated the UN Charter and international law, leaving them with no legal sovereignty over these features.

In addition, the State Council of China stated that not only do the two newly established districts govern the features of the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank), but also the waters surrounding these entities. Such claims directly contradict international law.

According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is also a party, reefs or low tide elevations are not considered territorial beneficiaries and do not have their own maritime zones. Such features in Spratly, as well as Macclesfield, fall under this definition.

With no legal sovereignty and no agreement with the UNCLOS, what could be China’s basis to give itself control over those areas? Beijing authorities have surely disregarded everything in order to make its illegal claims.

On the second elements (attitudes of the countries concerned), it is clear that Vietnam has constantly voiced its opposition to any Chinese action towards the Paracel and Spratly Islands, and while confirming Vietnam's rights to these two archipelagos with historical and legal evidence. Most recently, in a note to the United Nations on 30/3/2020, Vietnam has once again affirmed this.

Following Vietnam’s example, the Philippines also voiced its opposition to China's announcement on April 18, 2020. The US has taken no side in the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, but has also criticized Beijing in discontent. Most recently, on April 22, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned China's taking advantage of global efforts on combating the COVID-19 pandemic to continue its provocative acts. He also strongly opposed China's coercion and bullying towards its neighbors in the South China Sea.

As for China's announcement on the two newly established districts to govern areas in the South China Sea, it has faced opposition from the international community, which called on China to comply with UNCLOS. China's claim to waters in the South China Sea has previously been rejected by the Permanent Arbitration Court in 2016.

The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs’ naming of 80 entities in the South China Sea on April 19, 2020, is a serious violation of international law. According to the coordinates produced by China on August 19, many of these entities are underground reefs along the illegal " nine dash line", some of which are deep within the continental shelf of countries along the South China Sea, about 60 nm from the Vietnamese mainland.

The 1982 UNCLOS specifies what countries can and cannot claim, under which no country can claim sovereignty over entities if they are not within 12 nm of its mainland. Despite being a party to the UNCLOS, China is deliberately ignoring its provisions and intentionally defying international law by claiming sovereignty over underground reefs 600-700 nm from mainland China.

It should also be emphasized here that the naming of entities or waters is meaningless in determining sovereignty or administration. For example, the Indian Ocean does not mean that said sea belongs to India; nor does the English name of the South China Sea - mean this is an area under China’s jurisdiction.

The Beijing administration's disregard of the provisions of international law, as well as the international public, by deliberately releasing statements about the establishment of "administrative units" and new names for entities in the South China Sea, is therefore rendered legally invalid. But just what are their intentions behind these?

China is clearly trying to push the “nine dash line" claim despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling. China is seeking ways not only to control in the Spratly and Paracel islands but also to encroach on the EEZs and continental shelves of countries in the South China Sea, which has been recognized under UNCLOS. Based on the repeated pattern of actions by Beijing authorities, their vicious intentions are clearly shown.

With Beijing’s illegal naming in place, soon after they would claim historical sovereignty over said entities in the South China Sea under the so-called "historic right" - a concept not included in UNCLOS regulations, and eventually China will consider other countries’ fishing activities in these areas to be acts of violation. There is an urgent need to prevent this chain of actions from the very beginning, so as to stop China from twisting the truth.

Through these activities, the nature of Beijing authorities is exposed with such sinister guise of “what’s done is done”, and later use the incident as an excuse to claim all the aforementioned entities under Chinese sovereignty.

It is necessary for the countries concerned, including Vietnam, to oppose these Chinese actions by responding to the second element mentioned above (the statement must have the recognition of the States concerned), as basis for long-term legal battle with China in the South China Sea.