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The Truth About The South China Sea [*] : A Voice From Vietnam (Part I)

09:57 | 17/08/2020

Increasingly complicated and tense developments related to the South China Sea are attracting international attention. Meanwhile, some information sources are trying to mislead the public in different countries as to the nature of the issue, its causes and actual developments. The Vietnam Peace and Development Foundation (VPDF) would like to introduce the collection of analysis by experts at the VPDF, with the hope of helping international friends and the people of various countries, including China, to have a better understanding of the issue.

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the truth about the south china sea a voice from vietnam part i
Illustrative photo: VNA.

Is the situation in the South China Sea normal and stable, as claimed time and again by certain in an attempt to distract the international community from attention and concern? Is that true?Is the South China Sea hot or cool?

What actually happens is quite opposite.

In the field, tension and conflict risks are constantly increasing, with China's rapid militarization and expansion of military presence on an unprecedented scale, using its force to enlarge the scope and intensity of its control over most of the South China Sea area, intensifying pressure on and deterring lawful activities of coastal states, bringing drilling rigs and survey ships for exploration and other illegal activities as well as using coast guard vessels to cover their ships’ operations in other countries' exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, unilaterally imposing fishing bans in the South China Sea, and attacking by force other countries' fishing vessels operating normally and lawfully at sea. Military exercises, including live-fire drills, have been intensified with an increasing scale; confrontation between major powers is growing ever more fierce.

The truth is that many countries' sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction related to the sea are being increasingly challenged; peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea are ever more seriously threatened; risks of collision, conflict and war is growing. According to many leading international experts, the South China Sea has now become a world’s major maritime sovereignty dispute hotspot, a main center of big-power strategic confrontation, and a gunpowder keg that may explode into further conflicts, even a new war.

That is why ASEAN meetings, despite repeated obstractions, have constantly expressed "concern" over the South China Sea situation, and the South China Sea issue has always been a hot topic at all regional security forums throughout the past years.

That is also why the world has witnessed over recent months a series of notes and statements of different countries related to claims and conduct in the South China Sea, in which the main and sharpest antagonism lies between "claims and stance" according to China's interpretation of international law on the one hand, and the legal foundation of remaining countries on the other.

And if you ask any Vietnamese about what worries him/her most for Vietnam's territorial sovereignty as well as security and development environment at present, the answer definitely will be, "South China Sea!". And that seems not just a thinking of the Vietnamese.

Who causes tension in the South China Sea?

According to certain sources, the South China Sea is inherently peaceful, and has heated up only recently due to US involvement. Is that true?

In fact, after the war in Vietnam, the US has gradually reduced its military presence in the region, including withdrawal from the Subic and Clark bases in the Philippines and withdrawal of the 7th Fleet from the South China Sea. The South China Sea situation began to heat up following China's increasing sovereignty claims and its unlawful moves for their realization, notably the Chinese attacks on and occupation of 6 islands and reefs belonging to Vietnam in Truong Sa (Spratly) in March 1988, and conluded a contract with a foreign company for oil and gas exploration and exploitation at Tư Chính (Vanguard) Bank, on Vietnam's continental shelf and 600 miles from China's Hainan island, in May 1992.

Increased tension forced ASEAN to issue its first declaration on the South China Sea on July 22, 1992. But China continued its infringements upon coastal countries' exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, notably its occupation by force of Vành Khăn (Mischief) Reef in Trường Sa (Spratly), then under Filipino control, in 1995, and imposed unilateral fishing bans over the sea since 1999. In an attempt to prevent conflicts, ASEAN tried to push negotiations with China for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). After a prolonged period, China has finally accepted the signing of a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 but only with non-binding nature.

However, the South China Sea’s situation continued to experience prolonged and more and more complicated developments and has became increasingly tense since China overtook Japan as the world's second largest economy and formalized at the United Nations its "Nine-dash line" claim covering more than 80% of the South China Sea area in 2009, and began intensifying the use of force with ever more assertive actions for the unilateral realization of its claim. At the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi in July 2010, faced with reaction from ASEAN countries' foreign ministers, then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, "China is a big country, others are small ones, and that is a fact!". China has declared the adding of the South China Sea into a type of its "core interests", and intensified infringements upon other countries' waters, using force to prevent coastal states from survey, exploration and exploitation activities right in their exclusive economic zones and continental shelfs, constantly pressurizing them into "joint exploration" with China right in areas under their sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and intensifying intimidation and attacks against their fishermen legally operating at sea. Most noteworthy have been the cases of Chinese coast guard vessels cutting down cables of Vietnam's ships Binh Minh 2 and Viking conducting surveys on Vietnam's continental shelf (2011), China's use of force to seize and impose control over Scarborough Shoal within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines (2012), the sending of HYSY981 drilling rig for operation in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf (2014), the sending of HY8 survey vessel into Vietnamese and Malaysian seas (2019 and 2020), and the repeated sending of coast guard and survey ships for illegal operations and making pressure in Vietnam’s Tư Chính (Vanguard) Bank, James Bank and Luconia Shoal off Malaysia's seacoast, waters in the Philippines' and Brunei's exclusive economic zones, and areas near Indonesia's Natuna Islands.

In particular, China has conducted a massive build-up the seized banks and reefs thousands of miles from its seacoasts into artificial islands, and turned them into powerful military outposts with runways for fighter jets. China has rapidly increased its military budget and builds up its armed forces, especially the navy and the air force, at an unprecedented speed and with a size and strength many times superior to all other countries in the region altogether. At the same time, China has significantly expanded its paramilitary forces for coordination with the military in enlarging actual control over most of the South China Sea area. On July 5, 2020, the Chinese Global Times officially declared: "The South China Sea is fully within reach of the Chinese People's Liberation Army".

To understand who is causing tension in the South China Sea, one only need to see who has the most ambitious, irrational and unlawful maritime claims there? Who is most accelerating militarization and unilaterally using force to change the status quo at the largest scale to realize those absurd claims in the South China Sea? And who has been making most provocations and intensifying aggressive actions against other coastal countries?

It is China's extravagant ambition and its moves for the latter's realization that are seriously threatening and infringing upon other coastal states' sovereignty and survival’s space. It should be noted that all these countries wish to have friendly relations with China, completely do not want to have any tension or confrontation with China. So none of them has sought to provoke China, they have only been compelled to act in defense of their legitimate interests; in fact, most provocative acts in the South China Sea in recent years have come from China.

It is China's ambitions and moves for unilateral control of the South China Sea in disregard of international law that has caused concern by regional countries and the international community over peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above these particularly important international waters. That is also a reason opted by US administrations of recent years for launching the "pivot", "rebalance" and then "Indo-Pacific" strategies with the main connotation of re-engagement and increased presence in the region for containing China. And that is also the main cause of the declining trust, increasing suspicion and negative reactions with regard to China among the regional and international community, leading to new complication in the regional and international environment disadvantageous to China itself.

By Tran Minh (VPDF)

To be countinued

[*] . In Vietnam, the South China Sea is called “Biển Đông - Bien Dong Sea” (East Sea) while Filipino call it “West Philipines Sea”.

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Tran Minh (VPDF) - Translated by Tarah Nguyen

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