What are China’s calculations in its move to snatch Vietnam's Vanguard Bank

tải xuống 1Since 1992, the Chinese for many times have dispatched their survey ships to explore oil and gas along with escorting ships from the naval forces, sea surveillance and coast guards from outposts in Hainan Island and further to the coast of Guangdong province in the north, traveling 500 - 600 nautical miles to Vanguard Bank, a water under Vietnam's sovereignty, to conduct illegal oil and gas exploration activities, infringing upon Vietnam's maritime sovereignty. China has sent the so-called "law enforcement forces at sea" to intimidate, chase, provoke, ram those Vietnamese who are taking maritime economic activities in this water. Just a quick review shows that China has for six times “provoked” Vietnam on Vanguard Bank.

In 1992 and 1994, and most recently in July 2019, China dispatched survey and exploration vessels to operate in the area it called Van An Bac - 21, which is actually Vanguard Bank - Rifleman Bank hydrocarbon sedimentary deposit of Vietnam. Also in 1996, 2017 and 2018, China sent maritime surveillance, coast guard and military vessels to block Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration activities in this area. For foreign observers who follow the situation in this area, such actions by Chinese towards Vietnam suggest that the disputes between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea in general, in Vanguard Bank in particular since the early 1990s until now look like a game of chess in which each side takes turn to move the chessmen. In 1992 and 1994, China conducted exploration activities, which was blocked by Vietnam. In 1996 and 2017, Vietnam conducted exploration activities, which was blocked by China. Most recently, in 2018, Vietnam’s continued exploration was blocked by China, and this year (2019), China again dispatched vessels to the area, which was stopped by Vietnam. The game leads the world to wonder: what are China’s calculations in its attempt to have dispute with Vietnam in Vanguard Bank. Then each one with his or her own knowledge, tries to "guess" this or that on these calculations. The author of this article also wishes to have a “simple guess” about China’s attempts and actions to usurp Vietnam's Vanguard Bank.

It should be said first that traditionally and naturally as defined by their characteristics, whatever the Chinese do, they will take into account not just one but various purposes and factors. Also they seem to be the one who has used bow and arrow the most in battles since the ancient times to have a famous saying "an arrow hits many targets". As a result, for Vietnam's Vanguard Bank, they may have the following attempts/ intrigues:

First, in its sovereignty disputes with other countries including Vietnam in the South China Sea, China has for many times aggressively claimed that it has "sovereignty" over almost entirely the South China Sea under its declared "nine-dash line", with the broken lines that represent the maritime boundaries outlined on the map published by China yet without notes on the specific geographical coordinates and specifications about how long it has been drawn, by whom and is based on what legal foundation... However, China keeps recognizing the map as what it has "for a long time" and have submitted documents and reports to the United Nations with request for circulation of this map. Of course, that "nine-dash line" also includes the central maritime zones of Vietnam, including the Vanguard Bank. So now on the one hand, China prevents Vietnam from exercising the latter’s sovereignty in Vanguard Bank, on the other hand it is conducting certain activities in Vanguard Bank, all with an aim to “try its best” to protect its groundless maritime boundary. Otherwise, China may lose face by denying its own idea/product, even though it looks like a disgusting devil. Again if Vanguard Bank and its surrounding waters are well under the sovereignty of Vietnam, then how can China go further down to Indonesia’s Natuna and Malaysia’s Luconia. In other words, China's actions in Vanguard Bank are part of its strategy to impose the illegal "nine-dash line" in the South China Sea and to "maintain territorial claims over 80% of the South China Sea area, towards monopolizing control over the South China Sea"?

Second, in any case China's sovereignty claim over the South China Sea must comply with provisions of international law as a legal basis to defend its arguments. China cannot exercise power over others without being mindful of the international community. China is lucky enough as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS 1982) has some unspecified provisions, leading to different interpretations and explanations. Facing challenges, China must take advantage of this limitations to calling black white and distorting the facts. For the waters over which China has no actual sovereignty or no overlapping claims with other countries, China turn those waters “with no dispute” into “with dispute”. No conventions ever recognize China’s claim over Vietnam's Vanguard Bank which is 500 - 600 nautical miles from the coast of China. However, if China keeps taking provocative actions against Vietnam, gradually these actions will create disputes, which will gradually turn this undisputed sea into a disputed one between China and Vietnam. Then according to international law, in case of dispute, the parties should discuss and negotiate. So, right now, China has vigorously stated that it has "sovereignty" and has aggressively taken steps to exercise its "sovereignty" in the area, causing concern among world public which may recognize its claim, causing difficulties for Vietnam, in the hope that Vietnam may wrongly calculated of which China can take advantage. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson keeps saying, "China believes this is a disputed water and both sides should exercise restraint".

Third, the Vanguard Bank and surrounding area located within Vietnam's 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone are said to be potentially rich in oil and gas. According to limited geological survey data of scientists, sediments of this sea contain about 45 million barrels of oil and 174 billion cubic meters of gas. It is estimated that oil and gas can be used commercially after being exploited for about 10 years. But according to the estimated data of geological and mineral organizations of the US and China itself, this sea has much greater oil and gas reserve up to billions of tons, not to mention the "burning ice" reserve under the seabed. China has claimed its "sovereignty" over such an energy resources – rich area which is so close to its territory even though that "sovereignty" has not been recognized by anyone. China cannot prevent Vietnam from getting benefits from the area. For a long time, the media in China has been voicing repeatedly and loudly that countries in the region, including Vietnam are competing to "steal" China's millions of tons of oil in oil-rich waters in the South China Sea, which are substantial resources for Vietnam’s robust growth while China has not got “any drop of oil". It is calculated that in only fifteen years’ time, a “tough” partner, if not a rival, would emerge next to China. So China has taken a series of actions to prevent Vietnam from oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities in this water, not allowing Vietnam to exploit its own resources.

In the relationship between China and Vietnam, Vietnam often stand for peace, friendship, and addressing differences between the two sides on the principles of equality, mutual benefits and mutual respect while also being mindful of giving concession to avoid making the other side lose face. The main and biggest goal of Vietnam is to maintain “overall” bilateral relations in peace, peace, friendship and cooperation. After all, this is also a wise policy as Vietnam is a small and weak country close to a giant great power. Unfortunately, the Chinese do not understand this and instead follow “give him an inch and he'll take a yard” approach.A number of the Chinese believe that, with the rise of China, with a population of more than 1 billion people and with foreign exchange reserves of trillions of dollars, China can get whatever it wants. China has "robbed" Vietnam’s Paracels, "encroached" and “occupied” part of Vietnam's Spratlys and is now dispatching ships to Vietnam's Vanguard Bank to claim more “sovereignty" rights over the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam. This move is taken by Chinese according to the tactic of "hard and soft power coordination” (“mềm nắn, rắn buông”).

Fifth, in the context of international economic integration, economic engagement between countries, corporations, companies or partners are normal affairs. People often prioritize the criteria of quality, credibility and efficiency in signing cooperation documents over rude political or social criteria or psychological barriers. This practice also works in business cooperation and contracts in oil and gas sector. However, for some narrow-minded people or countries, this is not the case. Regarding China, it is probably not difficult to understand what it is doing. Big oil and gas companies from many countries, including BP of the UK, Rosneft of Russia and Repsol of Spain, have been doing business with Vietnam for quite a long time in exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in the South China Sea in general and in Vanguard Bank in particular since they have carefully studied the areas considering these as under sovereignty and sovereignty rights of Vietnam. What China has been doing in Vanguard Bank and in the South China Sea in general over time shows that it is trying to prevent all international partners who want to cooperate with Vietnam in oil and gas sector.

Sixth, in the sovereignty disputes with other countries in the South China Sea, China has always faced a strong response from the countries concerned. It has also been condemned harshly by the international community, especially when it is using or threatening to use force against the parties concerned. So China has for many times fallen into isolation. China is trying to change its aggressive image by calling on countries and parties having disputes with China to "set aside disputes and jointly exploit". However, the underlying idea of this proposal is to "set aside disputes” but sovereignty still belongs to China, joint exploitation takes place only in the areas under disputes, which are claimed by China but not under China’s sovereignty. China's actions in Vanguard Bank also aim to put pressures on Vietnam in the hope that Vietnam could not do anything and may eventually agree with China to "set aside disputes and jointly exploit". For Vietnam, agreeing with China means admitting that this is a disputed water. Once this goal is achieved, China will get benefits in both ways. This is also the sovereignty "trap" that China is putting to control the waters of other countries.

Seventh, it must be said that the process of China’s rise to a great power has been going on well for China. After every certain period of time, the country takes a great step forward in terms of quality. The scale of economy has grown substantially, the gross national income has increased steadily every year, the export and import markets have expanded, politics has been relatively stable, institutions have been maintained, China’s society has been changing from low to middle income country, foreign relations have been gradually expanded, and defense potential capability have been continuously enhanced. And after a period of time, China wants to show its potential power to test it in practice, at the same time to "show off" to the world, and particularly to threaten countries in the region. This seems to meet the demands of the Chinese leaders and one of the ways for China to make itself felt. It has been found that every time China sends survey or law enforcement vessels to operate in Vanguard Bank to "provoke" Vietnam, it mobilize all powerful forces accompanied by new and modern large cutters with more modern equipment and weapons to gain the vantage point in maritime disputes with Vietnam. It seems that China's actions in sovereignty disputes with Vietnam in Vanguard Bank also aim at showing off China’s strengthened capacity after a period of time, thus threatening and forcing Vietnam to give in. By doing so, China is exercising the tactic of "killing chickens to threaten monkeys" (“giết gà dọa khỉ”) against remaining countries having sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. That tactic signals that China will use force or threaten to use force to prevent neighboring countries from exploiting oil and gas while itself keeps exploiting in disputed waters.

Eighth, in the last few years, negotiations between China and ASEAN on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) have been progressing positively. Even China’s Prime Minister is quite optimistic that this agreement is expected to be finalized by 2021. From now to that point, seeing the way China has built up artificial islands in the Spratlys, it is clear that China has already created a new status quo in this area. So the parties concerned in the South China Sea may follow China to do so in the coming years. Therefore, China's actions in Vanguard Bank also aim at preparation for this end, preventing other parties from taking "extreme" actions to promote sovereignty claims in the South China Sea while creating de facto advantages for one single party before COC negotiations end by 2021. It must be said that in this case the Chinese have such a long-term view.

Ninth, in 2016, China suffered a big defeat in its sovereignty disputes with other countries in the South China Sea when the Permanent Arbitration Court on the Law of the Sea (PCA) had a ruling on the Filipino case against China for violations of sovereignty and sovereignty rights of the Philippines on Scarborough Shoal and related waters in the South China Sea. The Philippines won the case when the ruling did not recognize China's "nine-dash line" and the islands and rocks of the Spratly Islands as features that enjoy the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. China did not take part in the case and refuse to accept the court's ruling. However, China has no ground to reject the court's arguments and ruling. Therefore, to nullify the court's ruling, China must take actions on the ground in the South China Sea as one of the ways to justify its views and arguments.

Finally, in the process to become a rising power, Beijing has expectations and even ambitions that someday (both China's leaders Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping expect that is from 2050 onwards), China will become the world's No. 1 superpower, surpassing the US, China’s "arch" opponent and the current leader of the world, and of course surpass all other powers in the world. However, now its close neighbor sharing with China "mountains and rivers" is keen on engaging with that "paper tiger" by signing a "comprehensive partner" agreement, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), showing efforts towards the “Strategic Partnership”. So, next to China comes a "roadblock" on its way to become No. 1 actor, which may even help the "tiger" to stop China right at its doorstep. So though Vanguard Bank is hot a disputed are, China is still rushing in. In the words of researchers, this series of actions aims at "putting a brake on Vietnam’s effort to become a strategic partner of the US and warn Vietnam against its efforts to move further from China towards the US".

Thus, argueably, we can see ten calculated intrigues by China in its series of activities against Vietnam in Vanguard Bank in Central Vietnam. The above arguments are enough to show that in the struggle to protect its sovereignty over the country’s sea and islands, Vietnam must be very cautious and conscious but also skillful and patient to deal with China’s tricky and carefully-calculated intrigues.