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South China Sea: Reducing The China-Vietnam Tension – Analysis

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The disputed South China Sea is a source of long-running tension and instability in Asia, worsened by controversial actions and sharp reactions by the various territorial claimants. There is a need for the peaceful resolution of disputes between China and Vietnam.

By Zhen Sun

RECENT EVENTS in the South China Sea involving China’s annual fishing moratorium and skirmishes between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels over seismic survey and oil exploration — with the inevitable nationalistic rhetoric that comes with such incidents — highlight the politically volatile situation in the region.

China’s unilateral moratorium on fishing in an area of the South China Sea north of 12 degrees latitude from 16 May 2011 was due to end on 1 August 2011. Vietnam has challenged the moratorium ever since it was first imposed in 1999, claiming it has sovereign rights in parts of the affected area.

Tensions have risen this year, stoked by formal accusations by the Vietnamese authorities and newspapers of “Chinese starvation of Vietnam’s fishing industry” and protest demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Arguably adding to the situation were purported displays of Vietnam’s military such as conducting live fire drills in June and ordering military conscription for the first time since 1979. Moreover Vietnam announced plans to hold joint naval activities with the United States both at sea and in port in the next few months.

Vietnam’s Dilemma

Vietnam
Vietnam

Vietnam appears to have found itself in a dilemma: to stake its claim for fishing rights and oil exploration or risk losing them to a more assertive China. The Vietnamese government has accommodated a growing nationalistic sentiment among its people, but it is also afraid that this could create a momentum leading to something greater and harder to control that could complicate its relations with China.

On the other hand China’s enforcement of the moratorium and strong response to Vietnam’s actions have served to heighten tension and sent a tough signal to both its people and the neighbouring states.

Since its inception 12 years ago, China’s fishing moratorium has resulted in tangible benefits for the fishing community in terms of improvement to fishing stocks, both in quantity and quality. It proved effective and necessary in protecting fisheries resources and improving production. Moreover, it has been widely accepted and implemented with only minor instances of non-compliance.

China’s fishing moratorium, first imposed in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea in 1995, and then in the South China Sea, is in keeping with its international obligations. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both China and Vietnam are parties, the coastal state is obliged to take proper measures to ensure that living resources under its jurisdiction are not endangered by over-exploitation. China also formulated a Fisheries Law to enhance the protection, increase development and reasonable utilisation of fishery resources.

Maintaining Harmony

China and Vietnam, which have managed to maintain a long-standing relationship as neighbouring states, have every incentive to continue doing so. China-Vietnam relations have been marked by extended periods of collaboration and shorter periods of military conflict. Following the resumption of their relations in 1991 they have signed the Land Border Treaty in 1999 and the Agreement on the Maritime Demarcation in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2000. Their successful delimitation of the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the Gulf of Tonkin proved that the two states can solve territorial issues by peaceful means. This gives hope that the recent incidents in the South China Sea can be solved bilaterally by peaceful means.

An encouraging sign has been the high-level diplomatic exchanges between China and Vietnam immediately after the recent occurrences. During a visit to Beijing by a special envoy from Vietnam, the two parties agreed on the importance of diplomatic negotiation to resolve the South China Sea issues. Both sides also agreed to avoid taking action which aggravates or complicates the issue. In addition, China and Vietnam have continued their joint naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin, including a port call to China in June, which marked the 11th joint patrol since 2005.

Growing power, avoiding belligerency

While China, with its growing power, is becoming more assertive in territorial disputes and security affairs, it needs to show that being powerful does not necessarily mean being aggressive. It is just as well that China advocates a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea disputes through talks and consultations between states directly involved. Beijing has declared that it will refrain from resorting to force. It is also willing to work with all parties involved to fully implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea to safeguard the stability of the sea by practical means and make it a sea of “peace, friendship and cooperation”.

However it is necessary that China and other claimant states clarify their claims, spell out their interests and positions, and hold dialogues to ensure that they do not misunderstand or misjudge each other. The claimant states should all adopt a restrained, responsible, and constructive attitude toward each other, and be prepared to withstand and resolve serious tensions if and when they arise.

China emphasises that regional disputes be resolved by states in this region. It argues that internationalising the South China Sea issue only heightens tension between parties; ostensible support from parties not involved in the dispute will encourage certain factions within states or the states themselves to adopt a more belligerent tone and makes it less possible to reach an agreement.

For both China and Vietnam, the most important concern is to eliminate miscalculation, misunderstanding and misperception to ensure order and stability in the South China Sea.

Zhen Sun is a Ph.D candidate in the Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge. She graduated with an LLM from the China University of Political Science and Law, Beijing. This article is specially written for RSIS Commentaries.

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RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries. For any republishing of RSIS articles, consent must be obtained from S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

13 thoughts on “South China Sea: Reducing The China-Vietnam Tension – Analysis

  • Avatar
    August 11, 2011 at 4:53 am
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    Do you really believe that China just want to protect the fishing stocks in South China Sea?
    Your article seems… very naive and well brain washed by the CCP or PLA.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 11, 2011 at 4:12 pm
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    Just another combination of wordings that shows “misunderstanding”, “miscalculation”, and “misperception”.

    The very matter here in Southeast Asia Sea is China gets out of the sea that is not its.

    qx

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm
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    Zhen Sun is another sleeper agent that China sent to the West. To solve the problem, China just have to stick to your 200 miles economic zones from the shore and leave smaller countries in Asia alone. They will not lay down for China to step over, so don’t waste your energy.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 11, 2011 at 8:46 pm
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    “China’s unilateral moratorium on fishing in an area of the South China Sea north of 12 degrees latitude”

    I think it’s good for the fish stock when China’s moratorium within its 200 miles eez. But it’s really odd that that china does this to its neighboring states’ eez!!! It’s like to say your next door neighbor draw a line in your backyard and tell you that you cannot cross that line and water your grass because he’s moratorium the … grass there!?

    Does that sound right to you?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm
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    Zhen Sun,
    if the fishing ban by the Chinese government is really to improve fish stocking like you said, then why is the ban only applied to the Vietnamese, Phillipinos, Malaysian fishermen but not the Chinese fishermen.

    Remember the incident that took place on June 9th 2011 when a Chinese fishing boat, equipped with cable cutting devices, was strangled with up with the cable of the survey ship from Vietnam? This incident happened during the time duration of the Chinese fishing ban…if your Chinese government really cares for for fishing environment and try to protect the fish, then why that Chinese fishing boat was in the East Vietname sea? Hypocrit.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 11, 2011 at 10:57 pm
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    This appears to be a piece of propaganda from Chinese Communist Party disguided as a scholar work. If you look at the facts, the Chinese government and military have been aggressors, not responders to the Vietnamese stance.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 12, 2011 at 6:37 am
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    Zhen Sun’s arguments are based on a completely false premise that China has sovereignty over the whole South China Sea, and what she needs to do now is only to act in a mild, responsive manner.

    Wrong ! China has absolutely no claim, none whatsoever, when it comes to the South China Sea. All ‘historical facts’, texts and relics cannot withstand the least thorough investigation (e.g: The flimsy texts themselves were even distorted). Admiral Zeng He’s voyage in the 15th century could not be cited as proofs of Chinese possession. Most importantly, the 9 dashed line was first mentioned in a Chinese map published by an individual, in a manner inadmissible under international law, hence no one took notice of the line at first.

    In the same time, proofs of activities and possessions in SCS by Southeast Asian nations, especially Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia etc abound. It’s high time that the Sea be renamed to reflect the reality.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 12, 2011 at 6:43 am
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    And it’s not for China to emphasise who should be the parties to the solution. The country that’s the source of every problem, China, needs to learn to keep quiet a bit. Every parties concerned should be part of the solution.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 12, 2011 at 3:17 pm
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    First, report about tangible benefits for the fishing community in terms of improvement to fishing stocks, both in quantity and quality are unknown and unverified. The obvious thing is that many Vietnamese fishermen have suffered, even risked their own life in some cases, due to that fishing ban.

    Second, China should impose that fishing ban only in its own EEZ, but not in other countries’ waters. The author mentioned that China is a signatory to UNCLOS 1982, she probably knows that the EEZ extending up to 200 nm seaward. How about EEZ of Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries? How about locations of the Binh Minh 2 and Viking II incidents?

    The Binh Minh 2 (the Vietnamese research vessel’s name) incident, which occurred on May 26, 2011, took place at 12o48’25”N and 111o26’48”E, 120 nautical miles (NM) off Vietnam’s continental coast and 180 NM off the Paracels’ Triton Island, and no less than 300 NM from China’ Hainan Island. Triton Island is a barren rock that does not support human habitation or an economic life of its own, so it would be absurd to say that it has an EEZ out to 180 NM, while the continental coast has only 120 NM.

    For more info about the map and location of that incident, please visit http://unclos1982.com/2011/06/21/how-china-can-avoid-next-conflict-minxin-pei/

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 12, 2011 at 3:19 pm
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    How about China’ EEZ in the Viking II incident which occurred on June 9, 2011? It again would be unreasonable to say that the incident took place outside Vietnam’s EEZ.
    The coordination of the seismic exploration ship Viking 2 was at 6o47’5” N and 109o17’5”E when its research cable was run into and disabled by three Chinese vessels, 188 NM off Vietnam’ Côn Đảo Island, 192 NM off the Spratly Island – the nearest Spratlys feature that could possibly have any EEZ, and about 600 NM from China’ Hainan Island.
    The Spratly Island is 0.13 km2 while Côn Đảo Island alone is about 50 km2. If the Spratly Island’s EEZ is contested against Côn Đảo Island’s EEZ, the former cannot possibly go beyond the equidistance line.
    It is also important to note that China is not the only country claiming the Spratlys. The majority of this archipelago, including the Spratly Island, has been under Vietnam’s factual control.

    For more info about the map and location of that incident, please visit http://unclos1982.com/2011/06/21/how-china-can-avoid-next-conflict-minxin-pei/

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm
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    It also makes sense to point out that China’s “fishing boats” operated in the location, where the Binh Minh 2 incident took place at 12o48’25”N and 111o26’48”E on June 9, 2011, where China unilaterally imposed its “fishing ban” at that time, namely north of 12 degrees latitude from 16 May 2011 to 1 August 2011. Of course, Vietnam strongly objected to this ban, because this region is inside Vietnam’s EEZ. The question is what Chinese fishing boats did with the support of other Chinese fishery administration vessels at a time when its own government imposed the fishing ban? Is it legal and consistent even in the interpretation of the Chinese government?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 13, 2011 at 2:45 am
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    Zhen Sun,

    Your blood shot up to your head to be Red as your leaders in Beijing also as well as your Military leaders who don’t care the truth, and respect the other countries sovereignty. Just make up and use the power to get what you want for your country. Your diploma does not represent the Chinese Confucius tradition. You need to read more Confucius’s book to be decency in natural of human conscience.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    August 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm
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    I don’t think the author is naive, but as stated in the bio, this is a chinese using her degree to defend china’s aggressiveness in Southeast Asia. Was China really protecting fish stock? While they attacked Vietnamese fishermen, the chinese fishermen round up fish on the sea freely. How many Vietnamese fishermen were killed, kidnapped for ransom by the chinese? Does the author even know?

    Reply

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