Malaysia has rejected China's territorial claims on the South China Sea, and rebuked the country for claiming Malaysia had no right to apply for an extension of a part of its continental shelf.
What's in the South China Sea?
Malaysia, along with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei, have territorial claim disputes with China in the resource-rich South China Sea, and some overlapping claims with each other in some cases.
Some US$3.4 trillion worth (S$4.7 trillion) of international shipping trade passes through the sea annually.
Malaysia rejects China's "nine-dash line" claims
In an unusually strongly-worded note verbale submitted to the United Nations (UN), Malaysia said it "rejects China's claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction" regarding the area of the South China Sea that China has claimed under the "nine-dash line".
This is because the claims are "contrary" to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the prevailing international law of the sea, Malaysia said.
Malaysia also said China's claims are "without lawful effect" as they extend beyond the geographic and substantive limits of what China is entitled to have under UNCLOS.
Malaysia has underscored its longstanding legal position on the South China Sea in a note verbale to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). pic.twitter.com/ypJrQ7qJeo— Shahriman Lockman (@raylockman) July 30, 2020
China claims all the territorial waters within the "nine-dash line", which encompasses about 90 per cent of the entire South China Sea.
The note, dated July 29, continued by saying that the Malaysian government considered China's claim to the maritime features in the South China Sea "has no basis under international law".
It added that Malaysia rejects in its entirety the content of China's note verbale that was issued on Dec. 12, 2019.
Malaysia also emphasised that its submission is legitimate under UNCLOS.
What are notes verbale?
According to Robert Beckman, head of the Ocean Law and Policy Programme at the Centre for International Law in NUS, notes verbale are not normal diplomatic notes exchanged between the parties concerned, but are notes submitted to the UN secretary-general with a request that they be circulated to all UN members.
The notes are publicly available too, which means states can use the notes to make their views known to other UN members and the general public.
China says Malaysia's submission infringed on its sovereignty
Malaysia's note verbale was in response to the one submitted by China, which was itself a response to Malaysia's same-day submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for an extension of a part of its continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles.
China's note protested against Malaysia's submission, claiming the latter had no right to claim an extended continental shelf in the northern part of the South China Sea.
China asserted that Malaysia's submission "seriously infringed China's sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea".
The country further claimed it has sovereignty over the four groups of islands in the South China Sea, which are the Paracels, Spratlys, Pratas and Macclesfield Bank.
China also asked the CLCS not to consider Malaysia's submission.
Note in line with Malaysia's stance on South China Sea issue
A source familiar with Malaysia's long-standing position on the territorial dispute with China told South China Morning Post that while the wording of Malaysia's latest diplomatic communication had been "surprising", the contents of the note reflected the country's consistent rejection of China's "nine-dash line" claim.
Malaysia's 2019 submission was also a continuation of similar submissions made to the CLCS back in 2009, according to Beckman.
Malaysia's note follows similar notes from other claimants
The Philippines and Indonesia had referred specifically to the decision of the 2016 arbitral tribunal in the South China Sea case between the Philippines and China, in which the five judges and legal experts ruled unanimously in the favour of the Philippines.
While Vietnam has not mentioned the tribunal's ruling specifically, the contents of its note verbale are in line with the decision.
Beijing has subsequently rejected the ruling.
Indonesia and the U.S. join the fray
Indonesia, despite not being a claimant in the South China Sea, also reiterated its position through diplomatic notes sent to the UN, saying that China's claims under the "nine-dash line" have no international legal basis.
The U.S., despite being a non-claimant in the South China Sea and a non-signatory of UNCLOS, also rejected China's claims in the South China Sea — a major policy shift that was part of a series of increasingly hostile moves that escalated tensions with China.
South China Sea dispute is here to stay
According to Beckman, the CLCS is not likely to accept Malaysia's submission, not because it agrees with China's claims, but because it does not typically accept any submissions that have been challenged by other states.
He also opined that the overlapping claims in the sea are going to persist as a sticking point among the various claimants, saying in another commentary that the exchanges of notes verbale are "a clear signal that the dispute over the legality under international law of China’s claims in the South China Sea is not going to go away any time soon".
Top image of the Liaoning in the South China Sea via AFP/Getty Images