Vietnam, China vie for control of South China Sea

ASEAN+ January 11, 2017 12:44

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This is the first of a four-part series on the South China Sea. The Nation’s Supalak Ganjanakhundee reports from the key Vietnamese cities of Danang, Khanh Hoa and Ho Chi Minh City on how the country and its people view the contentious sea.

FOR YEARS countries in Southeast Asia have had conflicts among themselves and with China over archipelagos in the South China Sea. Among them, Vietnam says it has 3,000 islands and two important offshore archipelagos known in Vietnamese as Hoang Sa and Truong Sa or internationally as the Paracels and Spratlys, respectively.

The two archipelagos are located a fair distance from the Vietnamese coast. The closest point of Hoang Sa (the Paracels) is 120 nautical miles east of Quang Ngai province. 

The closest point of Troung Sa (the Spratly Islands) is 250 nautical miles east off Cam Ranh Bay in Khanh Hoa province.

Under international law, a country can declare maritime areas 12 nautical miles from its shore baseline as its territorial sea and 200 nautical miles as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Other countries are no closer to the disputed areas. Dang Cong Ngu, a former chairman of Hoang Sa People’s Committee, who oversaw the Paracels for more than a decade, said the closest point from China’s Hainan island to the Paracels is 150 nautical miles. 

Both countries have claimed the islands are in their exclusive economic zone. Ngu said the Paracels belong to Vietnam de jure – legally, but China occupies the islands de facto.

But the stories are more complex, as countries claim they have occupied and utilised these archipelagos in the sea long before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea came about on December 10, 1982 (Unclos).

It is not easy to apply Unclos as there is no provision in the law on how to determine which state has better claim to sovereignty over a disputed territory, according to a report by Nguyen Toan Thang, vice director of Hanoi Law University’s Institute of Comparative Law.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry says in an official book that it has occupied and utilised the areas for a long time since they were known only as large areas in the middle of the sea with submerged cays or reefs, which were very dangerous for watercraft.

The sea was known among Vietnamese as Bien Dong, which meant “East Sea”, rather than the South China Sea, as people mostly from the West called it.

Many ancient geography books and maps of Vietnam give the archipelagos different names such as Bai Cat Vang, Hoang Sa, Van Ly Hoang Sa, Dai Truong Sa or Van Ly Troung Sa, and they have been included as part of Vietnamese territory for a long time. The oldest document can be dated back to the 17th Century when Vietnam was under feudal rule, according to Ngu and many official Vietnamese documents.

There were several changes and conflicts over occupation of the archipelagos during colonial times, from 1858 to 1954 – since Vietnam gained independence – and up to reunification in 1975.

Since the reunification in 1975, the current Vietnamese regime has promulgated many legal documents on its maritime zone, as well as the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.

In reality, however, Vietnam did not completely occupy all of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos in the South China Sea. China and the Philippines also annexed some islands, rocks and shoals, and claimed their right to do this. This led to disputes, confrontations and tense clashes over recent years.

China unilaterally documented its claim in 1947 when it published the ‘Eleven-dash line’, a map later modified for unclear reason when it was reduced to nine dashes. However it is still large enough to claim the vast majority of areas in the contentious sea. The nine-dash U-shaped line, which Vietnamese call the Cow-Tongue Line, was used internationally in 2009 against a joint submission by Vietnam and Malaysia on the outer limits of the continental shelf.

China moved to occupy some areas in the Paracels in the 1950s but only advanced to the Spratlys in the 1980s, relatively late compared to other countries in the region.

Vietnam put both the Paracels and Spratlys under the administration of Danang City and Khanh Hoa province, respectively. Hanoi has tried to boost its military presence and force in the South China Sea, plus its civilian presence, in recent decades. In 1988, it set up permanent military garrisons on 11 land features in the Spratlys, as well as increasing sites under its possession. 

In 2007, the government set up Truong Sa district with two communes: Song Tu Tay and Sinh Ton in the Spratlys, and started to populate the largest of its islands with permanent settlements. 

The problems in the South China Sea became more complicated 

a few years ago, when China began to conduct large-scale land reclamation activities and build outposts, which could be used for military purposes.

Vietnam consistently protests over Chinese activities in areas it has claimed sovereignty over. Hanoi, indeed, mulled legal means to settle the disputes with China, although no action has been taken so far, according to an international analyst who monitors the issue. “Actually, they told us, they prepared [to do this] before the Philippines, so they maintain the arbitration [in an international court] as an option, but don’t use it immediately. They are waiting to see how arbitration between China and the Philippines works,” senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs Tetsuo Kotani told The Nation recently.

The Philippines put its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in January 2013 against China after a confrontation at Scarborough Shoal.

The court awarded its ruling to the Philippines in July last year, saying that China had no historic right over the disputed areas and the activities conducted by Beijing were illegal because they were done in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Vietnam did not directly participate in arbitration but took the case seriously – as a landmark ruling for dispute settlement in the contentious sea.

Hanoi welcomed the court’s verdict on July 12. The Foreign Ministry said: “Vietnam reaffirms its consistent position regarding this 

arbitration. Accordingly, Vietnam strongly supports the settlement of disputes in the Sea by peaceful means, including legal and diplomatic processes, refraining from the use or threat of use of force in accordance with international law, including the 1982 Unclos, maintenance 

of regional peace and stability, 

security, safety and freedoms of 

navigation and over-flight in 

the Sea, and respect for the rule of law in the oceans and seas.”

At the Spratlys, both China and Vietnam have reclaimed land and created new features, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

The institute examined each 

of the islets and reefs Vietnam occupies in the Spratlys and found 

evidence of reclamation at 10 of them.

The images seen in the institute’s website suggest Vietnam has created just over 48 hectares of new land in the South China Sea, mostly at Spratly Island (for which the archipelago is named), Southwest Cay, Sin Cowe Island, and West Reef. The majority of work has occurred in the last two years.

China, by comparison, has created almost 1,200 hectares of new land at the seven features it occupies in the Spratlys. Vietnam’s work has been much smaller and far less destructive in environment terms, as it has not involved large-scale dredging of reefs on which Hanoi’s outposts sit, the institute said.

In the last few months, Vietnam has made significant progress on its land reclamation and upgrades of air infrastructure at Spratly Island. New imagery shows that Vietnam has nearly completed an extension of the islet’s runway, which will measure approximately 1,220 metres when finished, the institute said in an update on its website on December 1 last year.

“The runway will be able to accommodate most planes in the Vietnamese air force, except its Antonov An-26 transport planes and any P-3 surveillance aircraft

it might acquire in the future,” the statement said.