All nations, big or small, must uphold the rule of law in the South China Sea

September 23, 2019 - 08:35

All nations, no matter their economic development level or scope of influence, must together make efforts to maintain an environment conducive for this trend, in the interests of the international community as a whole, when international integration deepens and mutual dependency grows.

A 2nd Regional Coast Guard patrol vessel is seen accompanying a fishing boat in waters off Lý Sơn island in the central province of Quảng Ngãi. Such activities are aimed at boosting people-military ties, raising awareness on the fishermen's part on the need to comply with international law while the coast guard will provide protection and support for the fishermen if needed. — VNA/VNS Photo Trần Tĩnh

In a recent interview with Vietnam News Agency, Nguyễn Mạnh Đông, head of the maritime affairs department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' National Border Committee, reiterated Việt Nam’s consistent policy that all international disputes, including those in the South China Sea, must be resolved by peaceful means as regulated in the UN Charter and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982).


What do you have to say about the need to maintain a peaceful and stable environment in the South China Sea?

First of all, we need to reaffirm that peace, security, stability and cooperative development is the wish of all nations in the world and an inevitable trend of humanity.

All nations, no matter their economic development level or scope of influence, must together make efforts – with goodwill and via practical and constructive contributions – to maintain an environment conducive for this trend, in the interests of the international community as a whole, when international integration deepens and mutual dependency grows.

Secondly, we have seen that peace, stability and cooperation served as important bases for the dynamic, vibrant growth of the Asia-Pacific region in general, including the South China Sea (known in Việt Nam as the East Sea) region over the last decades.

Thirdly, the South China Sea is a living space and has room for growth of coastal countries – including Việt Nam, and a space for cooperation between countries in and outside the region. The South China Sea also holds vital global maritime routes in terms of both volume of goods and number of vessels.

In consideration of the sea’s strategic position, the respect towards each other’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictional rights, and maritime and airspace freedom as delineated in the UNCLOS 1982, serves as the basis for efforts to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea.

That’s why, in recent years, coastal countries and other countries both in and outside the region have expressed utmost concern over the unilateral acts that encroach upon littoral countries’ legal maritime rights and interests – including stymying legal exploration, surveying, and exploitation activities of the coastal countries, along with stepping up illegal construction and militarisation of geographical features in the South China Sea.

These activities erode the trust, exacerbate tensions and have negative implications for regional and global peace, stability, order, development and growth.

The international community and countries in the region have repeatedly expressed their concerns and protested these unilateral, unlawful acts, and called for respect towards rule-of-law and compliance with international law, including UNCLOS.


How has the role of UNCLOS in settling sea disputes been stressed?

This year, UNCLOS signatories celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Convention’s entry into force.

On the occasion, UN Secretary General [António Guterres] said that UNCLOS is effectively the “Constitution for our oceans” and the “comprehensive framework for the peaceful, cooperative and sustainable use of seas, oceans and their resources.”

I want to underline a few points:

The birth of the Convention is an important step towards forming an international legal order that governs all activities concerning the seas and oceans, meaning that UNCLOS serves both as the most comprehensive legal basis for countries to identify and execute their rights and duties concerning the seas, and also the basis for countries to settle disputes arising from interpretation and application of the Convention in real life.

Most UN members, 168 out of 192 countries, have participated in the Convention and therefore, they have the obligation to observe the Convention, with goodwill and in a responsible manner.

Disputes are inevitable in interpretation and application of the Convention, but all countries have the obligation to settle these disputes in a peaceful manner via measures stipulated in Article 33 of the UN Charter and Article 279 of UNCLOS. I want to point out that there’s a distinction between real disputes and unilateral infringements and in this regard, UNCLOS can be used to determine which is a dispute and which is an infringement.

One of the most progressive properties of the dispute settlement measures stipulated in UNCLOS is the “finality and binding force of decisions,” which means that, in most cases, disputes concerning interpretation and application of UNCLOS could be decided by a third party and the decisions rendered must be complied with by all parties to the dispute.

In recent years, a few countries in the region and outside have made use of this procedure to successfully settle their own disputes concerning the interpretation and application of UNCLOS terms.

International and regional documents have also underpinned the role of UNCLOS in the resolution of international maritime disputes.


How has Việt Nam taken advantage of the accepted peaceful measures to protect the country’s territorial and sovereign integrity, and our legal rights and interests?

Our consistent policy has always been that all international disputes, including ones in the South China Sea, must be resolved peacefully in line with the UN Charter and UNCLOS.

This has been asserted strongly in Việt Nam National Assembly’s resolution ratifying the UNCLOS in 1994, the Law of the Sea of Việt Nam, in addition to several other legal documents.

On that basis, so far, we have concluded the demarcation of and fisheries co-operation in the Gulf of Tonkin with China in 2000, maritime demarcation with Thailand in 1997 and continental shelf demarcation with Indonesia in 2003, signed an agreement on joint oil and gas exploitation with Malaysia in 1992 and a treaty on historical waters with Cambodia in 1988.

We are stepping up negotiations to handle demarcation of the sea off the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin with China and the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with Indonesia.

Việt Nam always shows respect for its neighbouring countries’ territorial waters identified properly by UNCLOS and have been paying attention to educating and raising awareness of our fishermen on the need to comply with international law – especially UNCLOS – and refrain from violations of foreign waters.

At the same time, we have patiently and resolutely fought against infringing acts of the Vietnamese EEZ and continental shelf – as specified in accordance with UNCLOS’ terms – by peaceful measures, including sending diplomatic notes voicing our protests, circulating the notes at the UN, and repeatedly reaffirming that Việt Nam reserves the right to make use of all peaceful measures in line with international law to protect the country’s legitimate rights and interests under UNCLOS.

What particular efforts has Việt Nam taken to enhance the implementation of UNCLOS and international maritime cooperation?

Việt Nam was one of the 107 states to have signed UNCLOS in Montego Bay, Jamaica right after the convention opened for signing in 1982, and it was one of the earliest countries to ratify the convention.

Over the years, Việt Nam has always respected and fulfilled all its obligations under UNCLOS, demonstrated through the country’s integration of the convention’s terms into domestic laws, the continual improvements made to the country’s legal system on the sea and the use of the convention’s regulations as a basis for resolving demarcation issues and promoting maritime cooperation with neighbouring countries that share maritime borders.

On bilateral cooperation, Việt Nam has conducted joint marine science research with the Philippines in 1996, 2000, 2005 and 2007. Based on these successes, the two countries have institutionalised bilateral marine cooperation and expanded the cooperation from marine science research to new fields like marine environmental protection, search and rescue, and oil spill response.

In terms of the partnership in less sensitive areas at sea with China, the two countries have successfully implemented a study comparing the Holocene-epoch deposits in the Red River and Yangtze River deltas, and worked together to release breeding fish and protect aquatic resources in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The two are enhancing collaboration in search and rescue, maritime affairs, the opening of a hotline to deal with fisheries-related incidents at sea, and implementation of some new projects on environmental protection in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Việt Nam has also set up joint patrol mechanisms at sea with Thailand in 1998, Cambodia in 2002 and China in 2005 to maintain order in relevant sea areas, enhancing ties between relevant forces of Việt Nam and the countries, and fostering good-neighbourliness.

Within the framework of ASEAN, Việt Nam has also joined in cooperation on East Sea matters, including the ASEAN Senior Transport Officials’ Meeting, the ASEAN Transport Search and Rescue Forum, the ASEAN Maritime Forum, and the Sub-Committee on Marine Science and Technology.

To implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China and negotiate a Code of Conduct in the waters, Việt Nam has proposed many initiatives and made practical contributions for the sake of the parties concerned and for ASEAN-China maritime cooperation.

Additionally, Việt Nam has actively engaged in activities within the framework of international mechanisms established under the UNCLOS – including participating in the meetings of the UNCLOS member states held annually at the UN General Assembly and the meetings of the International Seabed Authority.

We have also supported the enhancement of activities of the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and for a stronger role of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, taken part in efforts to build international legal regulations governing the conservation and biodiversity at international seas.

These vividly attest to the Vietnamese Government’s goodwill, active participation and determined commitment to respecting and implementing the UNCLOS. — VNS