Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress Page: 2 of 78
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Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China
This report presents policy and oversight issues for Congress arising from (1) maritime territorial
disputes involving China in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS) and (2) an
additional dispute over whether China has a right under international law to regulate U. S. and
other foreign military activities in its 200-nautical-mile maritime Exclusive Economic Zone
China is a party to multiple maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, including, in
particular, disputes over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal in the SCS,
and the Senkaku Islands in the ECS. Maritime territorial disputes involving China in the SCS and
ECS date back many years, and have periodically led to incidents and periods of increased
tension. The disputes have again intensified in the past few years, leading to numerous
confrontations and incidents, and heightened tensions between China and other countries in the
region, particularly Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
In addition to maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, China is involved in a dispute,
particularly with the United States, over whether China has a right under international law to
regulate the activities of foreign military forces operating within China's EEZ. The dispute
appears to be at the heart of multiple incidents between Chinese and U. S. ships and aircraft in
international waters and airspace in 2001, 2002, and 2009.
The issue of whether China has a right under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the
Sea (UNCLOS) to regulate foreign military activities in its EEZ is related to, but ultimately
separate from, the issue of maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS. The two issues are
related because China can claim EEZs from inhabitable islands over which it has sovereignty, so
accepting China's claims to islands in the SCS or ECS could permit China to expand the EEZ
zone within which China claims a right to regulate foreign military activities.
The EEZ issue is ultimately separate from the territorial disputes issue because even if all the
territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS were resolved, and none of China's claims in the SCS and
ECS were accepted, China could continue to apply its concept of its EEZ rights to the EEZ that it
unequivocally derives from its mainland coast and it is in this unequivocal Chinese EEZ that
most of the past U.S.-Chinese incidents at sea have occurred.
China depicts its maritime territorial claims in the SCS using the so-called map of the nine dashed
lines that appears to enclose an area covering roughly 8000 of the SCS. China prefers to discuss
maritime territorial disputes with other parties to the disputes on a bilateral rather than
multilateral basis, and has resisted U. S. involvement in the disputes. Some observers believe
China is pursuing a policy of putting off a negotiated resolution of maritime territorial disputes so
as to give itself time to implement a strategy of taking incremental unilateral actions that
gradually enhance China's position in the disputes and consolidate China's de facto control of
disputed areas. China's maritime territorial claims in the SCS and ECS appear to be motivated by
a mix of factors, including potentially large undersea oil and gas reserves, fishing rights,
nationalism, and security concerns.
The United States does not take a position (i.e., is neutral) regarding competing territorial claims
over land features in the SCS and ECS. The U. S. position is that territorial disputes should be
resolved peacefully-without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force-and that claims
Congressional Research Service
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Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress, report, December 10, 2012; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc817574/m1/2/: accessed November 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.