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VietNamNews

Experts weigh in on East Sea situation

Update: May, 25/2015 - 11:45
China's reef construction and expansion in the East Sea has seriously violated Viet Nam's sovereignty, causing deep concerns among the international community, including ASEAN. Viet Nam News reporters spoke to experts about the situation and the actions that must be taken to avoid complications and extended disputes at sea.

What do you think about the current situation in the East Sea following China's latest movements?

Tran Cong Truc, former chief of the Government's Border Committee

First, I want to emphasise that we should call the area with its proper name: the Bien Dong Sea (Bien Dong literally means the east sea in Vietnamese).

China cannot justify its acts with Viet Nam. Viet Nam is the owner of the Spratly Islands. Vietnamese people have been living, building, governing, and protecting the islands for hundreds of years, at least since the 17th century. Viet Nam's construction and upgrade work to serve people, economics, security and defense on this land is totally normal, not activities that have changed the status quo, making the situation in the area more tense.

China has been invading some entities in the northwest of the islands since 1988. Its acts to turn these reefs into islands for military purposes in order to dominate this area have not only violated the sovereignty of Viet Nam, but also broken the commitments recorded in articles 4 of the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea). Their illegal acts cannot be compared to Viet Nam's legitimate activities.

Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia specialist, professor of politics at University of New South Wales

China's land reclamation activities in the South China Sea (or East Sea) are a pre-emptive move in advance of any judgment by the UN Arbitral Tribunal hearing the Philippines' claims against China. In 2013, the Philippines classified all these features as either low tide elevations (submerged by water at high tide) or rocks on its continental shelf.

No matter what decision the Arbitral Tribunal makes, China has irrevocably changed "facts on the ground". China has stopped land reclamation, for the moment, on four of the features and moved to the next stage of consolidating its presence through building infrastructure, berths, sheltered anchorages, multi-storey buildings and an airfield.

Major General Le Van Cuong, former director of the Strategy Institute under the Ministry of Public Security

Le Van Cuong

In 2014, China's placement of the giant oil rig 981 in Viet Nam's exclusive economic zone raised huge opposition from the international community. However, I believe the placement of the oil rig was just meant to distract the international community and our attention away from their reef construction and expansion in the East Sea.

Their activities in this area began at the end of 2013 and have progresses at a rapid pace. American satellite images already showed China is making fast progress in reclamation activities and building airstrips suitable for military use. I suspect that these activities will be finished in 2016.

How do you evaluate the risk of escalation in this area? Many countries have voiced their opposition to China's aggressive movements in the East Sea. What can we do to ensure that all sides respect international law?

Truc: The risk is pretty high, especially when China is now ignoring all multilateral and bilateral political agreements. China will continue to ally with other countries or try to split the relations between countries in the region and in the world in order to realise its scheme to exclusively possess the East Sea.

However, whether conflicts and wars happen or not still depend largely on many elements.

It is obvious that the international public and most countries in the world, especially the United States, have realised the dangers of China's acts and its plan, as well as the illegality of its recent work in the area.

China is expanding its territory, turning reefs into islands, building military bases and technical and economic service areas. All of these are aimed at preventing ships and aircraft from other countries from traveling through the East Sea. Soon it will strive to exclusively possess the area.

Viet Nam needs to mobilise its national unity and support from regional and international friends by showing its clear point of view and transparency in all relevant information. It also needs to act in time to protest China's violations of international laws. Enhancement of accurate, timely, subjective and peaceful communications is also essential.

Viet Nam is not alone in this cause, so the country clearly needs to take advantage of support from international friends to ask China to respect the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and follow regulations outlined in the DOC, as well as foster the COC. Meanwhile, it should not commit acts that could complicate the status quo.

The country should also stay alert and make smart political moves. It is critical that raising the ability of consulting agencies and forces is conducted properly.

Legal protests are peaceful means that are accepted and supported by international laws. That's why Viet Nam needs to be fully prepared in this field so that its fight against China's violations are carried out in a manner that is not only legally accepted but also rationally supported by international friends.

Dr. Mark G. Rolls, Director of International Relations & Security Studies Programme, University of Waikato, New Zealand

Mark G. Rolls

It has been apparent for some time now that China's strategy in the East Sea has been to extend the areas over which it can exert control in line with its extensive sovereignty claims. It has preferred to use civilian and paramilitary ships and aircraft to do so and has been ready to challenge the claims and control of those claimant states which it perceives to be weak and/or isolated. The recent land reclamation, therefore, is not so much a change in strategy, but the next step in an existing one. By reclaiming land and constructing facilities capable of supporting naval vessels and military aircraft, it makes it easier to exert control and harder for others to challenge it. It is entirely plausible, as has been suggested, that China is seeking to fully establish its position in the East Sea before making an apparent concession by signing an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC).

The US reaction to China's extension of control in the East Sea in general has been hardening over the last five years so it is not surprising that the US has used strong language and voiced its concerns over the land reclamation directly and at the highest levels.

Thayer: This month's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore will witness a chorus of criticism of China for its destabilising actions. The US and Japan will be more direct while other countries will be more diplomatic. China will not send its Defense Minister but will send a bevy of well prepared officials who will jump up after each speech and launch into a tirade of criticism and counter-charges.

Carl Thayer

ASEAN's 26th Summit issued a statement noting that "some leaders" had expressed concern. China has been given no notice that ASEAN is concerned about the impact of land reclamation on regional stability. Only the Philippines is openly standing up to China.

What should Viet Nam do to protet its sovereignty in the East Sea?

Truc: I think we should carefully follow the current situation.

In my opinion, this is a rather sensitive and complicated issue given the current regional and international context, especially what is taking place in the area. Therefore, any response to it must be taken prudently and responsibly for the sake of Southeast Asia and the world in general.

Viet Nam should continue to watch the US's plan so that the country can take a proper response to it.

If the US's plan complies with UNCLOS, and for the sake of maritime safety and security and navigational freedom to prevent acts that violate the legitimate rights and interests of related parties, then the country would support it.

But if that plan serves military purposes, causes conflict and unrest, and is dedicated to scrambling for power in the area, damaging peace, security and stability, then Viet Nam, as well as other countries, should strongly object and take measures to oppose it.

Rolls: Viet Nam's reactions to the recent land reclamation have appeared, to the outside observer, low key in comparison to those of the Philippines. Having said this, however, clearly Viet Nam showed its concerns by seeking to ensure that the ASEAN Leaders' Summit in Malaysia issued a joint declaration which expressed stronger than expected views on these land reclamation activities.

Viet Nam is in a very difficult position. It is hard to see how China is going to adhere to the international law of the sea when it has a different interpretation of it and even the much-vaunted COC is unlikely to prove that effective in restraining such behavior. After all, there is nothing wrong with the existing 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (South China Sea) other than the fact that some claimants are unwilling to adhere to its stipulations.

Viet Nam, however, has to hope that the robust response to its land reclamation efforts will make China adopt the less confrontational posture which largely prevailed before President Xi's accession to power. Viet Nam has been successful previously in reaching bilateral agreements with China on other disputes so there is some scope for bilateral diplomacy too.

Thayer: At the very least, Viet Nam must be more transparent and explain its land reclamation and construction activities in the East Sea, both before the 2002 DOC and after. The purpose is to undercut China's charge that all countries are equal in reclaiming land. Viet Nam must explain that it has conducted limited land reclamation and explain why it did so. Viet Nam should also argue that its actions do not threaten to complicate or escalate current disputes and do not threaten regional peace and stability.

Cuong: I think China's reclamation activities are much more dangerous than the placement of the oil rig. Last year, we saw Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's strong message that Viet Nam would do everything to protect its sovereignty and called on citizens to defend the motherland. This year, we have not seen such strong reactions. I believe only strong opposition from Viet Nam and the rest of the international community will prevent further complications to the situation.

Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, Deputy Director of the International Law Department, Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam

Starting in September 2013, China started building construction on low tide elevations and submerged features in the South China Sea. To date, China has built constructions on 7 features of the Spratly Island namely the Fiery Cross Reef, Cuateron Reef, Hughes Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef and McKenan Reef. These constructions have been militarized with arms equipment and personnel.

The construction was told by Chinese spokesperson to be used for public good and open for other countries. However, in fact, it is evident that China is increasing their presence in order to control the busy East Sea (South China Sea), project and support the illegal resource exploitation activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf of littoral states.

Militarizing the construction with arms equipment, China also violate the basis principle of international law on non use of force and no threat to use of force that has been enshrined under the United Nation Charter.

Given China's breach of international law, Viet Nam should raise her opinions expressing the opposition of China's activities. Viet Nam may also use the dispute mechanism of the UNCLOS, the convention which both Viet Nam and China are bearing treaty obligations as member parties.

Accordingly, Viet Nam may initiate a case to Arbitration under Annex VII of the UNCLOS or cooperate with other claimants seeking advisory opinions of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea on the legal issues concerning the illegal constructions of China in the South China Sea.

In addition, pending a case at the tribunal, Viet Nam also seeks an incidental procedure by requesting a provisional measure in order to temporarily stop illegal actions of China in the South China Sea. — VNS

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