China's U-shaped line: deliberately abstruse

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Dr. Duong Danh Huy, a UK-based overseas Vietnamese scholar and expert on the East Sea, a section of the Pacific Ocean, spoke with Thanh Nien about the implications of China mobilizing 13 ministries and sectors to make a map of the controversial U-shaped line, also called the "cow tongue line."

What is China really showing with this new move?

China's objective is to occupy all the islands, occupy the biggest area and gain most benefits possible in the East Sea. To achieve these targets, they use a number of negations as a strategy: Not to recognize Hoang Sa (Paracel islands) as an area whose sovereignty is under dispute; not to negotiate the sovereignty of Truong Sa (Spratly islands); not to make clear the sea area they claim; not to confirm their claims to the sea area; not to choose a basis for that claim; not to accept forwarding the dispute to an international arbitrator; not to accept the opinions of countries outside the region. These "not to" measures aim to create a situation where disputes cannot be settled, keep open many possibilities for China's claims on the sea, and create ambiguity in order to stifle criticism.

After creating such an environment, China takes advantage of opportunities to expand and reinforce its control in reality and say this is the recognition of their sovereignty.

Will China announce the details of the U-shape line (very vague so far) as they have implied?

At present, the U-shaped line, with nine disconnected sections, contains the ambiguity beneficial for China. If criticized for setting an unreasonable sea border, China may argue that it is "just claiming islands inside that line claim islands inside that line" in order to avoid criticism about it being an untenable sea border, although saying so does not rule mean that the sea area they claim does not reach that line.

If China announces the location of the U-shaped line to the world, that act in the current circumstance gets the line to take the shape of a sea border. Therefore, announcing the location of the U-shaped line will loose part of the ambiguity. If China announces it, it becomes an escalation in the sea dispute, but on the contrary, it will also make other countries more vigilant.

So far, China has worked hard to propagate its claims, inside the country and outside, using as evidence the "map of letter U," "map of Xisha," "Nansha" and so on. Now, with their further boost, how will the situation go?

Boosting the propagation for the "map of letter U," "Xisha," "Nansha" instills in everybody a wrong idea that "Paracel, Spratly belong to China and the U-shaped line is something ordinary." (If they do this) Year after year, this wrong thinking and impression will be "general knowledge" in the world. Even the few people who know the truth may also judge that Vietnam does not care enough about Paracel, Spratlys and the U-shaped line, thus letting China's view get published everywhere.


First, it is worth considering that the propagation of the "cow tongue" line is not a spontaneous act of a group of extreme nationalists but a policy from the central level, synchronically coordinated between sectors and divisions of China. Earlier, they had propagated this line domestically, but over recent years they have expanded the propagation to the international community, wherever and whenever possible through various ruses like a map of air routes of China's national aviation company and the announcement of research locations for scientific articles. It could be said that China is using the "sea of people" strategy to make nothing into something, especially using science as a means to cover weaknesses in its announcements over its sovereignty.

At the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union in 2011, I was really surprised to see all the maps of the East Sea here feature the "cow tongue" even though the disconnected U-shaped line is not drawn upon it (by using different shading to mark the area, for instance). At the conference, many Chinese researchers also mentioned "Nansha" and "Xisha" in scientific reports on the East Sea.

It is sad that Vietnam is always one step slower than China in propagating its sovereignty. Earlier, when China was propagating among its people that the East Sea belonged to them, Vietnam still regarded it as a "sensitive topic." Recently, Vietnam has publicized this issue and propagated it very successfully in the country, while China propagates it to the world, seeking international recognition for their sovereignty claims in the East Sea. However, Vietnam is making more efforts to expose China's false claims to the international community.

Vietnam should respond in other ways as well. Vietnam should publicly invest in and promote scientific research on the East Sea with long-term plans. The Vietnamese government should announce and allow wide access to information about scientific research on the East Sea in and outside the country. Vietnamese scholars should be given favorable conditions to introduce their studies on the East Sea to the world, and thorough international cooperation should be promoted. Vietnam can also seek the respect for justice from scholars of Chinese origin working overseas, who usually have more objective views compared with the Chinese in mainland China. A number of scientific articles by Chinese authors working overseas did not include the "cow tongue."

Apart from scientific research, Vietnam should carry out other activities extensively. For instance, the National Day for Vietnam's Sea and Islands should not only be organized in the country but also in foreign countries so that overseas Vietnamese can give support. Vietnam can also avail itself of international youth tribunes, cultural exchange programs to highlight the justice in protecting the sovereignty, through which the injustice of China's claims can be exposed and denounced.

Tran Ngoc Tien Dung
The writer is a Canadian Vietnamese scholar

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