China's recently announced tourism development plan has been slammed as a Machiavellian ploy to claim sovereignty over Vietnam's Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos.
"This trick is very clever, taking the name of a totally civil and peaceful activity combining culture and tourism to cover an intricate strategy that had been carefully considered," said Tran Cong Truc, former head of Vietnam's Government Border Committee.
Truc was speaking with Thanh Nien about the passage by the State Development and Reform Commission of China of the "2010- 2020 Grand Plan for Construction and Development of International Tourism Island of Hainan."
Under the plan, Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagos will be incorporated in an oceanic multi-purpose complex under the management of the province of Hainan. Also, Hoang Sa-bound tourism by air and sea lanes will be promoted and registration for right to use uninhabited islands encouraged.
However, Truc said the archipelagos offer little or no conditions for tourism and China was using it as a ruse to illegally claim sovereignty over the areas.
"We can see that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa do not have favorable conditions for tourism at present. The two archipelagos are far from inland areas. Hoang Sa is 220 kilometers from Vietnam's inshore island of Ly Son and 260 kilometers from China's Hainan Island."
VIETNAM OPPOSES CHINA'S TOURISM PLAN IN HOANG SA AND TRUONG SA
On June 24, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga reaffirmed Vietnam's "indisputable" sovereignty over the two archipelagos and strongly protested the passage of China's plan.
"Such an action seriously violates Vietnam's sovereignty, runs counter to the common views of Vietnamese and Chinese leaders, and goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which China and ASEAN member states signed in 2002," she said.
Under Provision Five of the DOC, the parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.
"Vietnam demands that China immediately stop actions that violate Vietnam's sovereignty over Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos, and strictly follow the DOC," Nga said, adding that representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had logged the country's protest with the Embassy of China in Hanoi on June 22.
"The islands are small, with the biggest one in Hoang Sa having an area of around 1.5 square kilometers and in Truong Sa, around 0.5 square kilometers. Most of the land is submerged under sea level.... These areas promise little tourism profit, not mentioning the fact that they are under territorial dispute, extremely sensitive and unsuitable for tourism," he said.
Truc said that under the tourism plan, international tourists visiting the archipelagos have to ask for permission from Chinese authorities. "It's a way to claim their sovereignty over the area," he said.
Method to the madness
Professor Carlyle A. Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy's University of New South Wales explained China's actual purpose behind the tourism plan at length.
"China is not developing tourism for tourism's sake but is trying to assert sovereignty over the features in the [East] Sea.
"By developing tourism China is trying to lay the foundations to claim features as islands. In this case Chinese domestic law would regulate the behavior of foreigners using the Exclusive Economic Zone. Second, China is trying to demonstrate that it has sovereignty over the "˜islands' because it administers them on the basis of continuous occupation," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.
"There are two aspects of international law that are important to understand. The first is that a feature (rocks, sand banks, reefs etc.) in the [East] Sea may be considered an "˜island' if it is completely surrounded by water, uninhabited, and has an economic function. Under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea an island can generate its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles. A state has the right to use resources in the EEZ and regulate the behavior of other states."
"The second point is that in cases of a territorial dispute at sea, international law favors the state that can demonstrate continuous occupation or administration."
Le Van Thinh, former deputy head of Vietnam's Government Border Committee, said China's plan threatened other countries as well as the safety of international sea transport and it has violated the Declaration of Conducts, further complicating situations on the East Sea.
Step by step
Truc said China tourism plan was actually a step in a series of actions that aims to claim its sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa that it had partially taken from Vietnam by military force.
"China has taken a series of illegal actions [hidden] in a common plan on East Sea being conducted cleverly, including establishing an administrative agency in Hainan Province to manage Vietnam's Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, issuing an annual fishing ban, sending fishing patrol ships to East Sea and detaining Vietnamese fishermen and fining them," he said.
Truc said China had also taken advantage of "international channels" in its strategy, including requesting the World Meteorological Organization to recognize a Chinese meteorological station replacing a Vietnamese one in Hoang Sa in 1975; submitting a report to the 26th International Geological Congress in Paris in 1980 stating that Hoang Sa and Truong Sa as extended parts of Chinese continent shelf; and presenting a map illegally depicting its sovereignty over most of the East Sea at a Asia Pacific Aviation Summit in 1983.
"Vietnam has officially opposed all these acts by China," he said. "All islands in the archipelagos occupied by China are through military forces, and that is illegal in international law.
VIETNAM URGED MORE ACTION OVER EAST SEA
Tran Cong Truc, former head of Vietnam's Government Border Committee, said Vietnam has never changed its stand on resolving East Sea disputes, seeking negotiation based on international laws, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in a bid to maintain peace and stability on East Seas and in the region.
However, he said, Vietnam should make relevant information more widely known about the purpose of China's plan and warn international tourists against unwittingly joining an apparently benign activity like tourism that is a violation of Vietnam's sovereignty.
Professor Carlyle A. Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy also advised more action by Vietnam as he slammed China's so-called tourism plan.
"China is acting unilaterally and its actions violate the spirit and letter of the DOC of Parties in the [East] Sea. China's actions definitely complicate matters because they make it more difficult for sovereignty disputes to be adjudicated by an international court. China is taking pre-emptive action.
"If Vietnam takes no action, this is viewed in international law as evidence that Vietnam has abandoned its sovereignty claim. Vietnam must protest each and every time China takes a unilateral action to advance its sovereignty claims," Thayer stressed.
He warned further: "Chinese unilateral assertiveness and Vietnamese diplomatic protests are a game Vietnam cannot win. China will step by step assert control continuous occupation and put itself in a strong position under international law.
"Vietnam must get its fellow ASEAN states to agree on a common stand and raise the matter in their discussions with China... In short, Vietnam must use diplomatic means to convince the international community that Chinese unilateral actions are in violation of an agreement already reached and undermine regional security.
"China [states that it] stands for a harmonious world and win-win solutions, and Vietnamese diplomacy must be aimed at getting China to match words with deeds."