Image Courtesy: Vivekananda International Foundation
Article No. 42/2019
Courtesy: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: China Seek to Exclude ‘Outside Countries’,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, August 1, 2019
We request an assessment from you regarding recent developments in the South China Sea. Here are our questions:
Q1. Recent developments in the South China Sea have seen some complicated changes. Can you summarize what happened and also your assessment of these developments?
ANSWER: Three years ago, the Arbitral Tribunal that heard the case brought by the Philippines against China ruled that China’s claim to historic right over the South China Sea were extinguished when it acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and that China’s nine-dash line had no foundation in international law.
China refused to recognize the authority of the Arbitral Tribunal and since 2016 has persisted in asserting its claim to sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction over the land features and adjacent waters within its nine-dash line. For example, China strongly objected to Vietnamese oil exploration activities in the waters near Vanguard Bank in July 2017 and Vietnam stopped operations in block 136/03. In March 2018, Vietnam suspended operations in block 07/03, known as the Red Emperor, in response to Chinese pressure.
Despite Vietnam’s measured response, China has continued to exert pressure on Vietnam in the South China Sea.
In May this year, Rosneft Vietnam contracted Japan’s Hakuryu 5 to drill a well at block 06-01 in the Nam Con Son basin. Two Vietnamese offshore supply vessels, the Crest Argus 5 and the Sea Meadow 29 regularly travelled from Vung Tau port to block 06-01 to provide support to the Hakuryu 5. On 16 June, China Coast Guard vessel no. 35111 took up station in the waters northwest of Vanguard Bank and began patrolling block 06-01. On 2 July, China Coast Guard vessel no. 35111 began harassing the Hakuryu 5 and its support vessels.
On 3 July, the China Geological Survey ship Haiyang Di Zhi 8 entered Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and commenced a seismic survey in waters to the northeast of Vanguard Bank. The Haiyang Di Zhi 8 was escorted by four China Coast Guard ships, including nos. 3901 and 3711, and a maritime militia vessel. China Coast Guard ship no. 3901 is a behemoth weighing 12,000 tons. The Chinese vessels wereconfronted by four Vietnam Coast Guard ships.
Both Chinese actions were a deliberate violation of international law. Vietnam hassovereign rights over the marine and seabed resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone.
Initially, news of these maritime confrontations appeared on Vietnamese social media but could not be officially corroborated. On 12 July, the South China Morning Post broke the story on the same day that Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China was determined to protect its interests in the South China Sea but “We are also committed to managing our differences throughnegotiations with relevant countries.”
On 16 July, Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, said “all relevant parties and the international community should contribute to the joint effort to protect and ensure our common interests.” Three days later Hang revealed that Vietnam had contacted China on numerous occasions through different channels and delivered diplomatic notes demanding that China stop all illegal activities and withdraw its ships from Vietnam’s waters, and respect Vietnam’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
The situation has not changed until today. The Haiyang Di Zhi 8 continues to conduct seismic surveys. And Vietnam has announced that the Hakuryu 5 will continue its operations.
Q2. In your assessment, what are the reasons behind China’s violating Vietnamese waters?
ANSWER: China’s actions over the past three years reveals that Beijing has two prime objectives. The first objective is to establish hegemony over the development of marine resources (including oil and gas) in the maritime area within its nine-dash line. China therefore disrupts oil exploration activities by the littoral states and pressures these states to enter into joint development with China.
China’s second objective is to exclude the involvement of outside powers in marine resource development in the South China Sea. This is evident from China’s submission to the South China Sea Code of Conduct Single Draft Negotiating Text adopted by ASEAN members and China in August last year. China’s submission proposed that cooperation on the marine economy is to be carried out by China and the littoral state “and shall not be conducted in cooperation with companies from countries outside the region.”
Q3. Do you have any policy recommendations for Vietnam on what to do to prevent China from repeating these illegal acts?
ANSWER: This matter can only be solved directly by China and Vietnam through diplomatic consultations and negotiation. International law enjoins both parties to resolve their dispute through peaceful means. Vietnam must continue with diplomatic efforts, in part, to lay the basis for possible legal action under UNCLOS. Vietnam will have to demonstrate it has exhausted diplomatic discussions with China without result.
Vietnam must follow up its call for the international community by diplomatically lobbying other members of ASEAN, major powers and other maritime states to condemn China’s actions. The United Stated has already accused China of bullying.
Vietnam should enhance its maritime law enforcement cooperation with friendly states, such as the U.S. and Japan, by conducting exercises in the waters around Vanguard Bank.
Vietnam should lobby members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs to bring the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2019 to the floor of the Senate for a vote.
[Carlyle A. Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. The views expressed are his own. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. The views expressed in this article are of the author.]