President of the Geopolitics Institute of Korea, Professor-Doctor Lee Woong-Hyeon, talks to Vietnam News Agency correspondent Mạnh Hùng in Seoul about the recent activities by China in the East Sea.
Professor-Doctor Lee Woong-Hyeon (R) answering VNA correspondent Mạnh Hùng in Seoul
As an expert on international relations, can you give us your general assessment on the current security situation in the East Sea and speak about the China's intentions?
As far as I know, the Chinese geological survey vessel’s activities in this area are not new. The Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered waters near the Việt Nam-controlled Vanguard Bank on July 3, with the first encroachment of China’s oil rigs five years ago. The first intrusion of a Chinese oil rig triggered fierce anti-China protests in Việt Nam, without any special international reactions. But this time, the incident upset Việt Nam, the Government and people, and went further to make the United States criticise Beijing for “bullying behavior” in the area. This means that July’s action came from the desire to demonstrate China’s presence in this area and reflected the recent the US-China relations including economic conflicts.
As the result of the trade war with the US, China’s economy is reported to continue to stall, and the Chinese government may want to incite nationalism to distract the public’s attention from some difficult diplomatic situations. Of course, China’s political and military intention in this area should not be excluded. China has remained the power with the upper hand over its neighbours, along with about 25 to 30 military outposts from the Paracel islands to the Spratlys. The dominant status in this area will give China a lot of diplomatic cards at the negotiating table with the other great powers and with the states in this area including Việt Nam. China’s intention is said to originate from its ‘national interests, virtual or real’, territorial [maritime], military, economic, diplomatic gains and desire for recognition (in the Hegelian term), which are pursued by all the states in general, especially by the rising great powers.
In your opinion, what are legal frameworks necessary for ensuring the security and freedom of aviation and navigation in the sea?
Personally, I cast doubts on the capability and possibility of the international law in solving the international territorial problems. But I think, for the peace and prosperity of people, we should not resort to only naked power or military force. We should not give up the efforts to cite, utilize and adopt international norms for the peaceful solving of the problems among states. There is a legal framework for security and peace in this sea besides the general and traditional principle of free navigation.
The Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef of the Spratly islands, hosts Việt Nam’s strategic DK1 oil rigs which are called ‘ocean fortresses’, and sits well within the 200 nautical miles of Việt Nam’s exclusive economic zone. The exclusive economic zone, set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is the foremost legal frame of reference with which the Hà Nội Government can strengthen its own position. Although the Chinese government has contested the UNCLOS rule, especially as interpreted by Việt Nam and other countries around this sea, Beijing’s method of justification for its action, the nine-dash line, cannot be said to be an international legal frame consented to by other states.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) dismissed the nine-dash line claim as groundless in 2016, which has not been respected by the Chinese government. But PCA, like other international courts, has no realistic power to enforce of its own decision. This is the limitation of international norms and legal judgments we sometimes look to. But a legal frame would be a weak state’s good weapon for criticizing the illegal action of the stronger state and for getting the world’s opinion support.
Can you predict developments relating to the security situation in the area in the coming time?
Considering the salami-slicing tactics of China in this area and Hà Nội’s cool (this means ‘reasonable’) and wise policy reaction even under the pressure of Vietnamese people’s anger and protests, we can forecast that outright and armed conflicts will not happen. But every statesman should be careful not to escalate an incident into a serious confrontation or conflict especially in a crisis which is stirring public protests like this. Crisis management is a statesman’s vital virtue.
When a claimant intrudes into the area which it claims as ‘its area’ or as having an interest in it, its actions are apt to make itself a recurrent pattern, though not going up to the extreme line. That is the salami-slicing or grey-zone tactic. Of course, those activities threaten the security situation in the area, provoking the concerns of people. This kind of tactic will be witnessed for the foreseeable future in this area.
In your opinion, what should the Việt Nam authorities do to protect its legitimate sovereignty and interests in the Vanguard Bank in particular and the East Sea in general?
Việt Nam, sharing a dozen hundred kilometre border with China and having experienced a war with China in 1979, is evaluated as a state with high tolerance of strategic risk, including during the confrontation with China in 2014. At the end of a very dangerous and collision-possible period of two-month stand-off, China eventually backed down and pulled its energy rig in that year. This is the diplomatically and strategically wise course to be taken in the coming time.
In an international crisis threatening the state’s security and sovereignty, the most important stance a state should take is to maintain strategic, theoretical and policy consistency, which could gather international support and could get the normatively stronger position. And it is needed for academics to study and research the related maritime history of this area, preparing for the possible debate on who the historically and internationally legitimate sovereign of this area should be. Sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword. — VNS