In the most brazen and vulgar display of assertiveness and bullying tactics, China that has adopted a confrontationist posture for quite some time is embroiled in a stand-off with Vietnam over the control of the strategic oceanic space of South China Sea believed to be endowed with precious resources. Since early July 2019, vessels of both the countries have been engaged in a tense stand-off over natural gas resources in waters off the coast of southern Vietnam. The on-going confrontation near the Spratly Islands is just one incident in a pattern of increasingly assertive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Unless handled carefully, the incident could provoke anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, a repeat of what happened in 2014. This time around, the escalation could be more perilous.
Overlapping territorial claims had long created tension in China-Vietnam relationship. Under international law “Overlapping territorial claims” means one country’s EEZ overlap that with its neighboring country’s EEZ (for example Vietnam and China have overlapping territorial claims in Gulf of Tokin and the two countries have successfully solved this issue). In the context of Vanguard Bank, China tries to claim via its 9-dash line which has been rejected by PCA verdict 2016. Vanguard Bank is about 770 km from Spratly. It is totally located within Vietnam EEZ and not a part of Spratly. China intentionally states that Vanguard Bank belongs to Spratly and makes erroneously Vietnam’s water as disputed.
Both sides have been very restraint in handling territorial disputes. This is the basic fact that the recent incident is unlikely to alter. But if Beijing continues to show assertiveness, bilateral ties could go downhill.
The South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, through which about $5 trillion in ship borne trade passes each year, are contested, all or in parts, by several countries involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. China claims more than 80 per cent, while Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys. The Vanguard Bank stand-off marks the worst confrontation between two countries since May 2014, when China National Offshore Oil Corporation moved the oil platform Hai Yang Shi You 981 into waters near the Paracels. Vietnam sent vessels to stop the rig fixing to the seabed, and they were met by Chinese escort ships. Vietnam calls the South China Sea as East Sea.
Chinese incursions in Vietnamese water
The latest tensions started when on July 12 six “heavily armed” coast guard vessels – two Chinese and four Vietnamese – started shadowing each other and conducted patrols in close proximity around Vanguard Bank, a reef that sits within what Hanoi claims as its exclusive economic zone. Vietnam has dozens of oil rigs operating in the area, which is known for its rich oil and gas reserves. The dispute arises because China claims the Vanguard Bank basin falls within its “nine-dash line” – a line used to demarcate its claims to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea.
Vietnam has proof that a Chinese geological survey vessel has been traversing the area in a crisscross pattern, indicating that it conducted an oil and gas survey. Vietnam contests it, saying that the Chinese exploration ship and coast guard escorts were operating in Vietnamese waters. Vietnam takes a serious view of this that one gas field in the area feeds the Nam Con Son pipeline, which provides up to 10 per cent of Vietnam’s total energy needs. The situation is “fluid and dangerous”, which unless handled with restraint could result in accidental collision and could lead to escalation.
The crux of the problem is that Beijing tries to prevent oil and gas exploration by any other country having contending claims in their exclusive economic zones or anywhere within the “nine-dash line”, despite its own exploration of natural gas resources in the contested waters.
Relations between China and Vietnam are marked by centuries of distrust rooted in past Chinese colonization of parts of northern Vietnam, something comparable with the shadow of history that has bedeviled ties between Japan with the Koreas and China to the present day. More recently, both countries fought a bloody border war in the 1970s, and a boat-ramming incident in 2014 involving Chinese and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea that sparked a wave of deadly anti-China protests in Vietnam. It is not only with Vietnam, China is engaged in similar disputes with Malaysia and the Philippines over energy exploration activities.
Beijing has consistently rejected outside mediation or intervention and wants to deal issues bilaterally from a position of strength and has tried to shape a narrative of peace and stability from its own perspective. It has tried to impose this narrative on the smaller neighboring nations. China has prevented the attempts by the 10-member ASEAN grouping to craft a sea code of conduct, which it sees could be detrimental to its interests.
Proof of incursions
In the latest weeks-long stand-off, ships of China and Vietnam have been embroiled near an offshore oil block in disputed waters of the South China Sea, which fall within Vietnam’s EEZ. China’s U-shaped nine-dash line marks a vast expanse of the South China Sea that it claims, including large swathes of Vietnam’s continental shelf where it has awarded oil concessions. According to separate reports by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), Chinese ship Daiyang Dizhi 8 operated by the China Geological Survey traversed the waters near the disputed Spratly Islands. One of the oil blocks it surveyed is licensed by Vietnam to Spanish energy firm Repsol. China put pressure this firm, leading to cessation of operations in Vietnamese waters in 2017.
Upon confirmation of the Haiyang Dizhi 8 conducting survey, escorted by three China Coast Guard vessels, nine Vietnamese vessels closely followed it. This is confirmed from data from Winward Maritime, compiled by C4ADS.
This was not the only such incident involving China. Days earlier, the China Coast Guard ship Haijing 35111 maneuvered in a “threatening manner” toward Vietnamese vessels servicing a Japanese-owned oil-rig, the Hakuryu-5, leased by Russian state oil firm Rosneft in Vietnam’s Block 06.1, 370 km (230 miles) southeast of Vietnam. China claims this area also falls within nine-dash line. The Chinese provocation seemed to breach the threshold when on July 2 the vessels were leaving the Hakuryu-5, Haijing 35111 maneuvered between them at high speed, passing within 100 meters of each ship and less than half a nautical mile from the rig.
Oil exploration in the South China Sea is a highly fraught issue in both the countries, which fought a series of violent disputes between 1974 and 1988 over control of the Spratly and Parcel Islands. This incident was something similar to what happened in 2014 when tensions between China and Vietnam rose sharply when a Chinese oil rig started drilling in Vietnamese waters, triggering boat ramming by both sides and the resultant deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam. That time, for unexplained reasons, Vietnam suddenly announced to cancel a drilling contract with Spanish company Repsol in 2017 during heightened tensions with China.
The latest provocations demonstrate that China has learnt no lesson and seems determined to execute its plans by bullying the smaller nations. China needs to understand that such a strategy shall go against its interests and could drive coalition of forces that respect global norms to come together to confront China with a united voice. There are already reports that China’s aggressive behavior and by ignoring Hanoi’s concerns, Beijing is creating a new US ally out of a former enemy.
Beijing’s brazen show of intimidation
Beijing seems is determined to rewrite global rules on its own terms. Far from being deterred when repulsed from its aggressive approach, it defends its position on South China Sea as “clear and consistent” without bothering that pursuing such a policy could have consequences.
Responding to the stand-off, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on July 12 that “China resolutely safeguards its sovereignty in the South China Sea and maritime rights, and at the same time upholds controlling disputes with relevant countries via negotiations and consultations”.
In retaliation, Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said: “Without Vietnam’s permission, all actions undertaken by foreign parties in Vietnamese waters have no legal effect, and constitute encroachments in Vietnamese waters, and violations of international law”. Neither statements confirmed or elaborated on the standoff. Going further, Geng told a regular press conference that China expects Vietnam respects China’s sovereignty, rights, and jurisdiction over the relevant waters, and not take any action that could complicate the situation.
Vietnam is ready to give China a bloody nose if needed and it has friends for support. Visiting the headquarters of the Vietnam Coast Guard in Hanoi on July 11, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc exhorted the sailors to “stay vigilant and ready to fight” and to be aware of “unpredictable developments”. If Beijing is ready for peace, Vietnam would not be found wanting. This was demonstrated when the same day Vietnam’s national assembly chairwoman, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan met her Chinese counterpart, Li Zhanshu, in Beijing and agreed to “jointly safeguard peace and stability at sea”.
In order to prevent escalation, Vietnam demanded China stop the “unlawful activities” and remove the ships from Vietnamese waters as the vessels violated its sovereignty. Vietnam has also called on the international community to join its efforts in maintaining order, peace and security in the South China Sea, which was in the common interest of all countries in the region and beyond.
Vietnam not to tolerate if red line crossed
Vietnam does not want a fight with China but at the same time would not tolerate unwanted provocations and be ready to retaliate if Beijing crosses the red line. Vietnam’s peace overtures give hope that the incident is unlikely to escalate into a conflict or damage relations.
Vietnam has made contact with China on multiple occasions via different channels, delivered diplomatic notes to oppose China’s violations, and staunchly demanded China to stop all unlawful activities and withdraw its ships from Vietnamese waters. On more than one occasion Hanoi has said that all activities undertaken by foreign parties in the country’s waters must comply with international and Vietnamese law, without naming China.
Demand for respect global rules
Vietnam has raised the importance of international law and that countries adhere to it. Leading a Vietnamese delegation to attend the ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Caracas on July 20-21 under the chair of Venezuela, to prepare for the NAM summit slated for October 2019 in Baku, Azerbaijan, Ambassador Dang Dinh Quy stressed the importance of navigation and aviation freedom in the region, peaceful resolution of conflicts and disputes on the basis of international law, including the UN Charter and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, fully implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea, and promoting negotiations to soon finalize an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the waters that is in line with international law.
The ambassador also called upon countries to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions complicating the situation, including unilateral actions and militarization in the East Sea.
In view of the escalating tensions, the US voiced concern over reports of Chinese interference with oil and gas activities in the disputed waters. The US State Department said that China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threatened regional energy security and undermined the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market. President Donald Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton also remarked that China’s coercive behavior towards its Southeast Asian neighbors was counterproductive and threatened regional peace and stability, echoing earlier comments by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Beijing lost no time in slamming US criticism as baseless and slanderous. Beijing did not take kindly the reports by SCIS and A4ADS either. In particular, Beijing is miffed that the US has criticized what it calls Beijing’s militarization of waters by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs. China blames the US for tension by repeatedly sending warships close to Chinese-held islands, and that China’s sovereignty in the area is irrefutable.
However, China’s words and deeds are always at variance and it is difficult to trust China always as demonstrated by its ambitious programs globally to extend its strategic footprint, from the so-called string of pearls in South Asia to creating military bases as far as in Djibouti in Africa, or through its Belt and Road Initiative, which is why US Senator James Inhofe, chair of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in the US, remarked that China may be preparing for a massive conflict that could lead to World War III.
The US statement criticizing Beijing suggested that there is a strong alignment of interests between Hanoi and Washington in challenging China’s maritime claims, which both see as excessive. The truism is that while Vietnam has compelling reasons to protect its lawful maritime interests in the South China Sea, the US seeks to curb China’s maritime ambitions and challenge that they pose to Washington’s regional supremacy.
Given that US-China ties have strained over trade issue under Trump’s presidency, it is against Beijing’s interests to alienate Vietnam and push it further to Washington’s arms. That seems to be a strategic folly for China. If Beijing is serious in respecting Hanoi’s long-standing policy of maintaining strategic balance in its relations with the US and China, it has to change its South China Sea policy and not disturb the existing equilibrium in the region. It is best advised that China must withdraw its vessels deployed in the Vietnam waters and not repeat such adventurism in the future.