Maritime experts cry foul on China

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International experts condemn China for disrupting Vietnam's legal marine activities and urged the country to be better prepared for the next encounter


Fishermen unloading tunas in the central province of Binh Thuan. On Sunday, Vietnam condemned China for increasing regional tensions and said it would do everything necessary to protect its territorial integrity after Chinese patrol boats "interfered with" a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship in the East Sea.

International experts have condemned China for its recent violations of Vietnam's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Despite wide criticism from members of the public and local officials, Chinese ships continue to hassle Vietnamese fishermen and research vessels.

On May 26, three Chinese patrol boats illegally entered Vietnamese waters and violently disrupted a routine seismic survey being conducted by a state-owned gas company.

Three days later, members of Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a public demand for China to immediately cease its violations of Vietnam's sovereignty over its continental shelf and EEZ.

"China's actions appear unprecedented. Vietnam has the right under international law to conduct oil exploration activities within its Exclusive Economic Zone," Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at the Australian Defense Force Academy, told Thanh Nien Weekly.

On Tuesday, the Viking 2 a Norwegian-flagged ship hired by PetroVietnam's Technical Services Corporation (PTSC) encountered a pair of Chinese ships well inside Vietnam's EEZ"”the 200 mile marine border extending out from Vietnam's coastline.

The Chinese patrol vessels attempted to approach the Viking 2's rear deck but were blocked by the vessel's security escorts.

Thayer said that Vietnam should be careful not to overreact or provoke the Chinese. But, he said, the country should be better prepared for such encounters.

"Vietnam would help its case if it filmed incidents of this nature, broadcast them on national TV, and made copies available to the press and diplomatic corps," he said. "Vietnam needs to prepare a good information strategy."

He also said the incident calls for greater efforts on Vietnam's part to monitor its EEZ and provide stronger escorts for its exploration vessels.

"This means stepped up air patrols. Vietnam might have to draw up a long-term plan to acquire ships and aircrafts to monitor its EEZ," he said.

China's clear violations

Stein Tonnesson of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in Norway said concerned countries should respect the Law of the Sea that China has violated.

"The recent intervention by Chinese marine surveillance ships to prevent a Vietnamese seismic exploration vessel from operating at a position off the eastern coast of Vietnam, and the news that the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) will soon be able to use a new giant oil and natural gas drilling platform to explore for oil and gas in deep waters of the [South China] Sea once again demonstrate the urgency of moving toward a general understanding and respect for the law of the sea," Tonnesson said.

"If the disruption of operations by the Vietnamese seismic operation ship happened in a position 12 degrees 48'25" north latitude and 111 degrees 26'48" east longitude, it is clear that this is an area which only Vietnam can claim as part of its continental shelf," he told Thanh Nien Weekly via email.

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"The intervention by Chinese maritime surveillance ships violated a part of international law that China has itself ratified. This constitutes a serious problem not just for Vietnam, but for all who seek to enhance respect for international law."

Regarding China's claims to the East Sea, Tonnesson stressed all sovereignty claims should be grounded in international law.

"If China intends to use its growing naval power to prevent oil and gas exploration by others in areas it claims as part of its continental shelf, and to undertake oil and gas exploration of its own in such areas, then it must first make known the precise extension of its continental shelf claim on the basis of principles established in the Law of the Sea Convention, which China has both signed and ratified."

"The Convention allows China to claim a continental shelf up to 200 nautical miles from its coast and, under specific conditions, to extend this claim to a maximum of 350 nautical miles. If China's continental shelf claims overlap with other states' claims, then maritime delimitation must be negotiated on the basis of well-established international principles," Tonnesson said.

"It is high time for China to officially recognize what its legal experts already know, namely that there is no legal basis in international law for China to claim a continental shelf or exclusive economic zone within the whole area inside the so-called U-shaped or nine-dotted line that appears on most of China's maps."

Peter Dutton, at the US Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute said China's claim to a "special economic zone" based on the U-shaped line (which happens to encompass nearly all of the East Sea) is not grounded in international law.

"The behaviors of the Chinese vessels are inconsistent with international law and regional norms," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"To physically interfere with the operation of a foreign-flagged vessel and to damage it violates regional norms against use of force to resolve disputes. It creates tension, rather than diffusing it. Additionally, Vietnam's claim of an exclusive economic zone in this area is entirely consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," he said.

Regional security threats

"The incident last Thursday between a seismic survey vessel belonging to PetroVietnam and the two Chinese patrol boats once again highlights that the"¦ dispute continues to trend in a negative direction with worrying implications for regional stability," said Ian Storey at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.

He said ASEAN and China have failed to implement the confidence-building measures identified in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, measures that if properly implemented would reduce tensions, build trust and promote cooperation.

Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said many analysts, including himself, "saw grounds for cautious optimism late last year that some progress could be made in implementing confidence-building measures in the DOC."

"China's actions put the [East] Sea back on the international agenda at the forthcoming Shangri-la Dialogue and at ASEAN and ARF meetings in mid-year," he said.

The Vietnamese survey boat Binh Minh 02 (top) and two Chinese marine surveillance ships, offshore of Vietnam's central Phu Yen Province on May 26, released by PetroVietnam May 29, 2011.

A Chinese ship destroyed the cabl­e of Vietnamese survey boat Binh Minh 02, offshore of Vietnam's central Phu Yen Province on May 26, 2011

EAST SEA TIMELINE

* May 26, 5:05 a.m.: Three Chinese vessels sever cables linking Vietnam's Binh Minh 02 to exploratory equipment.

The National Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam)'s vessel was in the middle of conducting a seismic survey on the nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The incident took place in an area known as Block 148, about 120 km (80 miles) from the beach town of Nha Trang and some 600 km (370 miles) south of China's Hainan island.

After damaging the ship's equipment, the Chinese vessels ordered the Vietnamese vessel out of the area, claiming the area as Chinese waters.

* May 27: The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues a statement demanding that China immediately cease and desist such behaviors.

Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said Vietnam demanded that China never again violate Vietnam's sovereignty or jurisdiction over its continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.

* May 28: China's Ministry of Foreign Affair described the actions as "regular maritime law enforcement and surveillance activities in the waters that fall under China's jurisdiction."

* May 29: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a press conference in Hanoi on Sunday to protest the illegal Chinese attack on the Vietnamese ship.

* May 31: The Viking 2 a Norwegian-flagged ship that had been hired by PetroVietnam's Technical Services Corporation, encountered a pair of Chinese ships well inside Vietnam's EEZ. The Chinese patrol vessels attempted to approach the Viking 2's rear deck but were blocked by the vessel's security escorts.

* June 1: Three Chinese ship fire warning shots and chase away four Vietnamese fishing boats while fishing off the coast of Phu Yen Province.

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