If China continues its current activities in the Paracels without let-up, it is providing a pretext for key countries in Southeast Asia to unite in pushing harder for the immediate conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea
By Rommel C. Banlaoi
Security tensions in the South China Sea have flared up again when Vietnam’s naval vessels collided with Chinese ships on Wednesday, May 7, in a serious attempt of Hanoi to prevent Beijing from stationing a US$1-billion oil rig, HD-981, in the Northwest Triton Island of the Paracels.
For Vietnam, the location of China’s oil rig belongs to Hanoi’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (EEZ/CS). Therefore, Vietnam considers the oil drilling activities of HD-981 as an apparent derogation not only of the sovereignty of Vietnam but also of the United Nations Convention of the Law of Sea (UNCLOS).
Both Vietnam and China are parties to UNCLOS. Vietnam warned China that it would take “all necessary measures” to compel China to remove the oil rig.
For China, however, the activities of HD-981 were normal petroleum activities of the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in China’s territorial waters. China warned Vietnam not to disrupt CNOOC’s oil drilling projects in the Paracels, which the Chinese call the Xisha Islands.
The oil rig incident started on May 1, 2014, at around 5:22 am, when Vietnam discovered the deep water activities of HD-981, which was supported by 3 Chinese vessels. The location of the oil rig is around 130 nautical miles from the coast of Vietnam and 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Ly Son Island, which represents the 1 base point of Vietnam. This point falls within Vietnam’s petroleum Lot. 143 that belongs to its 200 nautical miles EEZ/CS.
To protect the activities of HD-981, China has deployed at least 80 vessels in the waters surrounding Triton Island.
Tensions in the South China Sea are high again as the oil rig incident in the Paracel Islands can provide the tipping point of military encounters between the two parties. This military situation is something that all littoral states and user states in the South China Sea do not want to develop.
But China and Vietnam had the history of military battle in the Paracels in 1974, which started when Vietnam’s navy attempted to expel Chinese fishing vessels from the waters surrounding the Paracels. China retaliated by sending the warships of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the contested island.
China won the battle resulting in China’s control of the Paracels. The battle caused the death of more than 50 Vietnamese soldiers and almost 20 Chinese soldiers. But Vietnam never surrendered its claims to the Paracels. In fact, Vietnam entered into direct negotiations with China to settle their territorial disputes peacefully in accordance with existing international laws, particularly the UNCLOS.
Since China started the operation of HD-981, Vietnam has conducted 6 bilateral meetings with China at various levels both in Hanoi and Beijing. But China remains intransigent in its position and reiterates its stand that the location of the activities of HD-981 is under the sovereign jurisdiction of China.
There is no doubt that the ongoing oil rig incident in the Paracels is destroying both countries’ strategic trust with each other. It is therefore imperative for Vietnam and China to rebuild their strategic trust if they want to maintain their good political relationship.
Otherwise, the deterioration of their political relationship will push Vietnam to follow the international arbitration option chosen by the Philippines. Vietnam can either join the Philippines in the case or submit a separate case.
If China continues its current activities in the Paracels without let-up, it is providing a pretext for key countries in Southeast Asia to unite in pushing harder for the immediate conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, particularly in the context of China’s activities in the Second Thomas Shoal being claimed by the Philippines, James Shoal being claimed by Malaysia, and Natuna Island being claimed by Indonesia.
What will Beijing do if Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam build a united front to deal with China in the South China Sea? Will China pursue strategic restraint or will it push more strategic assertions of its sovereignty claims?
Let’s continue to watch how this whole saga in the South China Sea will unfold. – Rappler.com
Rommel Banlaoi is the vice president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and Head of the Center for Intelligence National Security Studies (CINSS) of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR).
A Chinese ship (L) uses water cannon on a Vietnamese Sea Guard ship on the South China Sea near the Paracels islands, in this handout photo taken on May 2, 2014 and released by the Vietnamese Marine Guard on May 8, 2014. REUTERS/Vietnam Marine Guard/Handout via Reuters
Credit Vietnam Marine Guard, via Reuters
Vietnamese sea surveillance officer injured by China’s water cannon attack. Screen shot from Vietnam TV
The South China Sea (called the east Sea by the Vietnamese) is rich in resources — and not just fish.
Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea
Photo: Chinese marine surveillance officers stop and search fishermen in international waters in the South China Sea
A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, which is closer to Malaysia, the Phillipines and Vietnam, than it is to China. – Reuters pic, February 27, 2014.
Photo: Captain Pham Quang Thanh on the fishing boat that was fired at by a Chinese naval boat off Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands of Vietnam on March 20, 2013
Chủ tàu Trần Văn Quang và chiếc mỏ neo bị tàu lạ đâm lút vào mũi tàu. Ảnh: Đức Nguyễn.
Vietnamese boat captain Vo Van Tu said his boat was attacked by China early in 2014
In recent years, Vietnamese protesters have become more outspoken in accusing China of piracy and lawlessness in the South China Sea.
Photo: Protesters in Hanoi object to China’s claim to take over the South China Sea last year
A China Coast Guard ship (top) and a Philippine supply boat engage in a stand off as the Philippine boat attempts to reach the Second Thomas Shoal, a remote South China Sea a reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014. The largewr Chinese ship seems to totally out class the Filipino craft. (AFP Photo/Jay Directo )
The chart above shows how Vietnam views the South China Sea (which many Vietnamese call the East Sea)
China views the South China Sea and East China Sea as vital areas with “must have” resources. And China also wants to control the maritime domain to protect the free movement of what it needs from the sea — even in a crisis or war.
Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.
China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself — claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.
The chart below shows the area declared by China on 1 January 2014 as “an area under China’s jurisdiction.” China says “foreign fishing vessels” can only enter and work in this area with prior approval from China. Vietnam, the Philippines and others have said they will not comply with China’s law.