Laying bare opportunists in Beijing

f4120906-c01b-11e9-8f25-9b5536624008 image hires 031641Taking advantage of the problems facing the United States and its in Iran in the Gulf region and the fact that international opinion is focusing on the developments in the area, China has sent 08 Hai Duong Coast Guard ship to the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam (in the Southern part of the South China Sea) to conduct surveys since the beginning of July 2019. Escorting ships are Chinese law enforcement vessels and many militia fishing vessels (ships of the marine militia covered as fishing vessels), including China’s 12,000 tons 3901 Coast Guard ship.

From legal perspective, the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam (South Eastern Sea) are entirely within the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam's continental shelf of 200 nautical miles from the southern baseline of Vietnam or from Vietnam’s islands of Con Dao and Phu Quy which are eligible for a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under Article 121 of the UN Convention on 1982 Law of the Sea). Under provisions of the UN Convention on 1982 Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Vietnam has sovereignty and jurisdiction over this sea area, which mean that it has exclusive right to exploit and to use Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Other countries can carry out the above activities only if permitted by Vietnam in the most common form of treaties with strict provisions on exploitation.

The area of exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam (South of the East Sea) is completely unrelated to the Spratly Islands, not overlapping waters with disputes in the Spratly Islands as under the July 12 2016 judgment by the International Court of Arbitration in the lawsuit between the Philippines and China claimed the entities in the Spratly Islands could not establish seas beyond 12 nautical miles around it. The July 12, 2016 decision by the Court of Arbitration also completely rejected China's "Nine dash line" claim, so China has no basis for claiming Vietnamese exclusive economic zone and shelf continent (South of the South China Sea) on conducting survey activities in this area without Vietnam’s consent.

China calculates that as the United States and other countries and public opinion are being drawn away to the Gulf situation, they do not pay attention to China’s contradictory actions in the South China Sea. But China has miscalculated. Shortly after the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson's July 19 2019 statement which confirms that the area being surveyed by China is completely within Vietnamese continental shelf, protests again China's operation and demands China to withdraw its survey ship, on the morning of July 20 2019, the US strongly protested again China's actions aimed at bullying the countries around the South China Sea.

In his statement, US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus stressed that the US concerned about the information that China has intervened in Vietnam's long-term oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities in the South China Sea; China's continuing provocations against oil and gas exploration of multiple countriesare threatening regional energy security and affecting free and open energy market in Indian-Pacific Ocean; He demanded China to immediately stop bullying and provoking actions that cause instability. Madam Morgan Ortagus used many strong words to condemn China to militarize the South China Sea, saying that China is using militias to "overwhelm, coerce and threaten other countries, endanger regional peace and security".

Although he was very busy dealing with issues related to the Gulf, on July 19, 2019 evening, Mr. John Bolton - American National Security Advisor, who was close to US President Donald Trump, criticized China when mentioning sovereignty and freedom of navigation. In a statement on Twitter, John Bolton wrote: "Respect for sovereignty and freedom of navigation is cornerstone of the vision of Indian-Pacific Ocean that the US and Association of Southeast Asian Nations share". "China's coercive behavior with ASEAN countries is counterproductive and threatens peace and stability in the region."

In addition to official statements by US officials, many South China Sea scholars and experts have also commented on China's behavior. Mr. James Kraska, professor of international maritime law at the Stockton Center of International Law of the US Naval University, affirmed that Chinese ships have violated Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and Beijing’s approach was "clearly unacceptable", according to the ruling in the lawsuit between the Philippines and China in 2016. "This is a clear violation of Article 56 of UNCLOS," Professor Kraska said. Article 56 of UNCLOS provides for sovereign rights, jurisdiction and obligations of coastal countries to the exclusive economic zone.

Professor Carlyle Thayer from the University of New South Wales - Australia emphasized that according to UNCLOS, China was not eligible toconduct hydrological and seismical survey in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam if it was not allowed by Vietnam beforehand. Vietnam may call on the regional countries and other members of the international community to support Vietnam to protect its rights under UNCLOS. Carlyle Thayer also pointed out that China wants to complete the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea with terms that would benefit them such as removing "outside countries" from oil and gas exploration and military maneuvers in the South China Sea. China is promoting joint development between China's state oil companies and ASEAN members. China's surveying actions at Simona Beach is the clearest evidence of China’s intention. ASEAN countries need to be very alert in negotiating COC with China, it is impossible for China to turn COC between ASEAN and China into a legal foundation against any intervention of superpowers outside the region.

Mr. Poling, a CSIS researcher, emphasized that in light of Chinese 08 Hai Duong Coast Guard ship operations in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam (South of the East Sea), it can be concluded that: (i) China do not want neighboring countries to participate in new oil and gas activities, but simultaneously it is ready to deploy their own activities wherever it wants; (ii) China prefers to use threatening measures with coast guard vessels and militia ships, instead of military forces; (iii) When other claimants restrain themselves, China often retreat instead of military escalation. Mr. Poling said that there might be risks when China sent many ships with such aggressive behavior, "if an unintentional collision occurs, tension can escalate"; according to the decision on July 12, 2016 by the Court of Arbitration for the South China Sea following lawsuit initiated by the Philippines, China has no rights to make claims in this area, if Vietnam files a lawsuit to the Arbitral Tribunal Court in accordance with Appendix 7 of UNCLOS, the Court is very likely to prosecute a case which is similar with the lawsuits of the Philippines against China.

Analysts have criticized Beijing for deliberately ignoring the international Arbitral Tribunal Court's decision during the past three years and argued that countries complying with the law need to support each other to "resist encroachment of China". That is the only way to stop China. Otherwise, UNCLOS will be merely meaningless and weaker countries in the region will lose their rights to exploit marine resources for economic development. The United States and other outside powers may play an important role in promoting enforcement. Multiple countries need to coordinate in pointing out the economic and diplomatic prices to China will have to pay for to force China to change its behaviors.

After two weeks of silence, Vietnam has expressed its desire for the related countries and the international community to joining hands to contribute to the protection and maintenance of common interests in the South China Sea. The fact that Chinese survey ship operation in the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of Vietnam (South of the East Sea) is not merely violation of Vietnam's waters but also a disregard for the international law. It is time for the international community to act together to lay bare true faces of the opportunistic authorities in Beijing and to protect international law./.

Image: Internet