Vietnam, the U.S. and assorted pundits are slamming China for its recent behavior in the South China Sea. Some of the criticism is deserved. But some has been humorously hypocritical.
China has been surveying areas and allegedly intimidating Vietnam’s oil contractors in what is clearly Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). These actions appear to be based on China’s historic nine-dash line claim that was rejected by an international arbitration panel. The panel also declared that none of the Spratly features could generate 200 nm EEZs. Thus there is no legitimate reason for China to be undertaking scientific research in Vietnam’s EEZ without its permission or to implicitly claim rights to resources there by interfering with the exploration activities of others. Moreover its implied threat of use of force by having its Coast Guard and maritime militia accompany the research ship is particularly egregious. China should modify its approach to achieving its goals.
According to US National Security Advisor John Bolton, “The United States stands firmly with those who oppose coercive behavior and bullying tactics which threaten regional peace and security.” https://twitter.com/AmbJohnBolton/status/1163793051128672256 This is like the pot calling the kettle black. The U.S. has repeatedly challenged with warships via so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) what it considers “excessive” maritime claims. Many see these challenges as a threat to use force– or in other words– “bullying”. Indeed, China sees US FONOPs as ‘gunboat diplomacy.’ As a senior US naval officer put it, FONOPs the are ” _ an in your face, rub your nose in it operation that lets people know who is the boss”. https://icps.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs1736/f/downloads/Etzioni_Freedom%20of%20Navigation%20AFS.pdf Given that US FONOPs are directed against the claims of almost all South China Sea coastal countries, this perception is not confined to China.
More generally some think the U.S. has militarized the South China Sea by assertively and aggressively projecting power there – – like two aircraft carrier strike groups the epitome of ‘gunboats’. The U.S. has also recently significantly increased its naval and air force presence and operations there. Now the U.S. plans to deploy intermediate range missiles in Southeast Asia. This is all clearly an escalation of its militarization of the region. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2019/08/04/esper-us-to-soon-put-intermediate-range-missile-in-asia/ Yet the U.S. has the unmitigated gall to single out China for militarization of the area. China deserves to be criticized for its behavior but not by the U.S. whose regional and global bullying are obvious and legendary.
Vietnam has seized the opportunity to launch a propaganda campaign against China using both official statements and supportive analysts. It has accused China of trespassing in what it said was “completely in the sea area of Vietnam”. It said it had “persistently requested them to _ _ withdraw all these ships from Vietnam’s waters_ _”.https://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/235854-vietnam-accuses-china-vessels-trespassing-disputed-waters
In the run up to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent visit to Vietnam, Vietnamese ambassador to Australia Ngo Huong Nam said “China’s activities in the South China Sea have infringed upon the lawful rights and legitimate interests of not only Vietnam but also other countries within and outside the region. Vietnam and other ASEAN member states will work closely with ASEAN dialogue partners, including Australia, to promote the compliance with international law, especially UNCLOS, in order to uphold the legal order of the oceans _ _ _.” He proclaimed that “maintaining freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea have become not only the shared interest but also a shared responsibility of all countries.” https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/vietnam-s-south-china-sea-plea-to-morrison-20190819-p52ikl
That may be but China has never threatened freedom of navigation for commercial vessels. It does object to what it calls abuse of rights and lack of due regard to its rights by US warships and war planes in and over waters under its jurisdiction. But the U.S. conflates the two.
However, as if it were dogma, this view was echoed by Huong Le Thu in an article in The Strategist. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-incursion-into-vietnams-eez-and-lessons-from-the-past/ Tuan Anh Luc reinforced this view in the Diplomat chastising Australia for its “strange silence” on these issues and calling on it to support Vietnam. https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/decoding-australias-strange-silence-over-chinas-transgressions-in-the-south-china-sea/
But Vietnam itself is not a shining example of upholding the rules – based maritime international order. It claims illegal baselines and prior permission for warships to enter its territorial sea, both contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) . The U.S. has repeatedly challenged these claims with FONOPs. Yet Huong calls on the U.S. to help it support “the rule – based international order.”
Vietnam is also retarding progress on the Code of Conduct for he South China Sea. (COC). One major reason that progress has been so slow is that Vietnam is trying to use ASEAN and the negotiations of the Code to back its claim to the China-occupied Paracel Islands that– unlike the Spratlys –are not claimed by any other ASEAN country. This is self-serving and devious and is a main reason why negotiations are ‘stuck’.
Huong claims that China’s incursions in others’ claimed maritime zones is a “real test for the willingness of both ASEAN and the international community to defend nations’ sovereign and economic rights under the rules-based order.” But each nation calculates what is in its best interests. In this case many may perceive that backing Vietnam in its bilateral dispute with China is not in their best long-term interest.
China’s behavior in the South China Sea has been ‘bad’ – even egregious at times. But there are no angels in the saga of the South China Sea. All claimants—including Vietnam– have violated the agreed Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea and continue to take unilateral actions that violate both other claimants’ rights and the so – called “international order.”
As the old adage goes “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”