Int'l experts get behind Vietnam in East Sea dispute

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Academics in Singapore and Australia laud Vietnam's diplomacy and resolve in face of Chinese aggression

Vietnamese naval personnel wave to visitors on an island in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago. In recent weeks, China has taken aggressive measures to claim oil and gas reserves around the islands, which belong to Vietnam.

A growing chorus of international experts has expressed support for Vietnam's peaceful diplomatic strategy as well as its decision to proceed with scheduled naval exercises in spite of recent Chinese aggression.

On Monday (June 13), the Vietnamese navy held live-fire "training activity" off the central coast of Quang Nam Province, according to a statement issued by Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga.

The use of live ammunition in the water roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) off Vietnam's central coast was a "routine and annual activity" that had been scheduled by the Vietnamese navy for some time.

"The Navy of the Vietnam People's Military does not currently conduct any exercise in the East Sea," Nga said.

In the past weeks, Chinese surveillance vessels have repeatedly disrupted Vietnam's oil and gas exploration efforts.

On May 26, Chinese boats severed a cable attached to a vessel conducting a seismic survey inside Vietnam's 200 nautical mile (370 kilometers) Exclusive Economic Zone.

Last Thursday, a similar incident occurred inside the zone. According to official accounts, a Chinese fishing boat used specialized underwater equipment to sever the cables of another Vietnamese survey vessel.

Spokeswoman Nga described it as a "˜premeditated' attack.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said the two incidents represent deliberate violations of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Well within its rights

Vietnam has conducted similar training activities for the past years, said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam anlyst at the Australian Defense Force Academy. They "have been conducted side by side with VN's emphasis on diplomacy," Thayer said. "There is no contradiction between pursuing a policy of reliance on diplomacy and maintaining the capacity for self-defense. Vietnam's naval exercises demonstrate [its] capacity to be the guardian of its own national security."

Thayer noted that Vietnam's announcement of naval live-fire exercises followed three major announcements by China.

First, China declared that a new massive oil exploration rig will begin operation in the East Sea in July. The deep sea rig allegedly stands 45-stories high and will be capable of drilling wells 3,000 meters deep. China has not announced where the rig will be established.

Second, China warned Southeast Asian countries to cease all petroleum exploration activities near the Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands. Third, China announced it would hold routine naval exercises in the Western Pacific this month.

"By these actions China has given every indication that it is going to act unilaterally," Thayer said. "China's planned activities could take place within the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines and Vietnam."

"Vietnam has the right to act to protect and exploit its maritime resources," said David Koh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "The live-fire drill demonstrates is resolve to do so."

But Euan Graham, another fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, was more forthright in deciphering the meaning of the exercises.

"Vietnam's live-fire drill appears to be a clear signal from Hanoi that the disruption of energy exploration survey activities well within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone is unacceptable," Graham said.

Toothless accord

The East Sea, which Beijing refers to as the South China Sea, straddles strategic shipping lanes and is thought to hold large deposits of oil and gas.

In 2002, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei signed the Declaration on Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-biding pact that requires all the nations involved to resolve conflicts peacefully, avoid provocation and development of the sea's uninhabited islands.

Analysts have blamed mounting marine tensions partly on the fact that the DOC appears toothless.

According to Thayer, the DOC "was never implemented in spirit or in practice."

"The DOC therefore did not restrain the activities of claimant states because it was a political declaration not a treaty," Thayer said. "The DOC could have been effective if the political will was there."

Ian Storey, a security analyst with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISAS), said the first step is for ASEAN and China to agree on a set of guidelines to implement confidence building measures contained in the 2002 DOC, as these would help reduce tensions, build trust and promote cooperative activities.

The next step would be for ASEAN and China to move forward with a formal Code of Conduct (COC) that would prohibit destabilizing activities, Storey added.

"Unfortunately China does not seem to be very keen on operationalizing the DOC or framing a COC," Storey said.

"To make an international accord more meaningful, the norms underlining the accord must be shared, and there must also be ways to penalize signatories that [violate] the accord," said Koh of the ISAS. "Respecting such agreements and implementing them to the fullest is the best hope for peace and prosperity in this region."

Outside arena

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nga said last week that "every effort by the international community in maintaining peace and stability in the East Sea is welcome."

On Tuesday, China voiced its belief that external powers should not weigh in on territorial disputes in the East Sea.

"We hope that countries that are not parties to the South China Sea dispute truly respect the efforts of the countries concerned to resolve their disputes through consultation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted by Reuters as saying.

According to Reuters, China's latest comments came in response to remarks from Senator Jim Webb"” a major figure in US foreign policy.

On Monday, Webb pledged to introduce a resolution urging China to enter into multilateral talks on maritime territorial disputes with its neighbors.

But international experts have pointed out that the US has vital strategic and economic interests in the East Sea and is always concerned that rising tensions have the potential to undermine those interests.

"The United States has a more general interest in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and in seeing ASEAN play a central role," Thayer said. "The US will provide political and diplomatic support if China attempts to intimidate or bully regional states."

"[But] the bottom line is that the Philippines and Vietnam must look first to themselves to defend their sovereignty in their Exclusive Economic Zones."

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