East Sea undercurrents

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International experts remain skeptical of China's recent claims to clarity and diplomacy in the East Sea

Motorboats anchor at an island in the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago. International experts raised eyebrows at China's recent pledge to maintain peace and stability in the East Sea.

Despite China's recent vows to maintain peace and stability in the East Sea, international experts remain skeptical of its intentions.

Rodolfo Severino, head of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said that China's relations with Southeast Asian countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are "good, mutually beneficial and almost trouble-free, except for the disputes" on the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea).

"China's increasingly aggressive actions in that area arouse suspicions about China's intentions toward countries to its south," he told Thanh Nien Weekly in an email.

Earlier this week in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and his Vietnamese counterpart, Phung Quang Thanh, both pledged to maintain peace in the East Sea.

The presentations were closely watched by the international community following last month's incidents.

Unchecked aggression

On May 26, three Chinese boats severed the seismic survey cable of a Vietnamese ship operating within Vietnam's 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The incident caused "considerable concern about the maintenance of peace and stability in the East Sea, in the region and the wider world," General Thanh told the security summit, also known as the Shangri-La dialogue, on June 5.

Other clashes have occurred in the East Sea, he said, "giving rise to concerns for the littoral states."

Last week, the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported, the Viking 2, a Norwegian-flagged ship hired by PetroVietnam's Technical Services Corporation for oil exploration, encountered "foreign" boats (including the Fei Sheng No.16, and a ship marked BI2549) in Vietnam's EEZ, the 200-mile marine border which extends out from its coastline, on two separate occasions on May 29 and 31.

The vessels attempted to approach the Viking 2's rear deck but were blocked by the ship's security escorts, the paper reported.

On June 1, three Chinese military vessels used guns to threaten a Vietnamese fishing boat off the coast of Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During his address, General Thanh pledged that Vietnam would be patient and employ "peaceful measures" in dealing with the aggression.

However, he stressed, "We hope no similar incidents will occur again."

He called on ASEAN and China to "respect one another's national sovereignty and territorial integrity while seeking proper solutions to maritime disputes.

"Above all, we must uphold and fully abide by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982)," he said.

In his statement at the Shangri-La dialogue on the same day, Minister Liang Guanglie pledged "peace and stability" in the East Sea.


Vietnam is determined to protect the "incontestable" sovereignty of two East Sea archipelagos, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said Wednesday (June 8).

"We continue to affirm strongly and to manifest the strongest determination of all the Party, of all the people and of all the army in protecting Vietnamese sovereignty in maritime zones and islands of the country," Dung said at a ceremony in Khanh Hoa Province on Vietnam Sea and Islands Week 2011 (June 1-8).

He also reaffirmed "the incontestable maritime sovereignty of Vietnam towards the two archipelagos, Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly).

In late May, Vietnam protested against China's violations of its exclusive economic zone stretching to 200 nautical miles.

On May 26, Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said three Chinese marine surveillance vessels severed the exploration cables of a Vietnamese oil survey ship, violating the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

At a regional security summit last weekend in Singapore, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned clashes may erupt in the East Sea unless nations with conflicting territorial claims adopt a mechanism to settle disputes peacefully. (Source: AFP)

"At present, the general situation in the South China Sea remains stable. China has been actively engaged in dialogues and consultations with ASEAN countries in implementing the [Declaration on Conduct on South China Sea (DOC)]," he said.

Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, Vietnam's Deputy Defense Minister, said ASEAN members agree that developing the declaration to a binding code of conduct is "essential."

"ASEAN leaders concluded that we will negotiate a Code of Conduct (COC) with China as soon as possible," said Vinh, who also attended the security summit.

International skepticism

Several international experts say they doubt these measures will do much to ease tensions in the East Sea.

Nazery Khalid, senior fellow at Maritime Institute of Malaysia, said that last week's incident involving the Vietnamese seismic survey ship "proved that the DOC, a non-legal binding declaration, is not adequate to resolve disputes between the signatories."

"Although efforts are being made to elevate the DOC into a stronger and legally binding [Code of Conduct], doubts have been cast if the Code of Conduct will have a conflict prevention mechanism that can avert conflict in the South China Sea," he said.

Despite the platitudes heard at meetings like Shangri-La Dialogue, "There is ["¦] tension bubbling underneath the calm waters of South China Sea."

Severino of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies said that international treaties or conventions, such as the DOC, are "˜seldom binding,' because "no authority can enforce them, except notably in the case of the UN Security Council or WTO."

Ian Townsend-Gault, a professor at University of British Columbia's Law Faculty in Canada, said "it is noteworthy that General Thanh made reference to the Law of the Sea Convention, while General Liang's only legal reference was to the ASEAN treaty which has nothing to do with the [East Sea]."

The lecturer said that China's lack of reference to international law begs a number of questions about its claims to the East Sea.

"It is time that China made a clear, unequivocal declaration about the nature and extent of its sovereignty and jurisdictional claims in the East Sea," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"Any state or person asserting a right should be prepared to justify that claim," he said. "Since the 1982 Convention is law between all [East Sea] littorals, there should not, in theory, be a problem here."

Townsend-Gault said that Vietnam should continue to root its position in law. He further urged Vietnam to support a dispute settlement mechanism (e.g. binding arbitration) and demand that China submit to such a process if it is sure that it has the legal right to do what it did.

"China keeps saying its jurisdictional claims are clear," he wrote. "They aren't and Vietnam should demand a much, much higher level of clarity."

Ramses Amer of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs said Vietnam should use diplomacy to address the actions and issues causing tension with China.

"Given the geo-strategic importance of the South China Sea I believe that a resolution of the East Sea disputes would be welcomed by the rest of the world," he said.

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