Carl Thayer: China intentionally violated international law

Update: 15:23 | 05/08/2019
TGVN. Sharing his opinions about the recent developments in the South China Sea (East Sea), Carl Thayer - Emeritus Professor of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy said that China broke international laws on purpose. Even so, Vietnam still needs to address this issue with China through diplomatic negotiations.
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Carl Thayer - Emeritus Professor of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. (Photo: Internet)

Recent developments in the South China Sea have seen some complicated changes. Can you summarize what happened for our readers and also your point of view on these developments?

Three years ago, the Arbitral Tribunal that heard the case brought by the Philippines against China ruled that China’s claim to historic right over the South China Sea were extinguished when it acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and that China’s nine-dash line had no foundation in international law.

China refused to recognize the authority of the Arbitral Tribunal and since 2016 has persisted in asserting its claim to sovereignty and sovereign jurisdiction over the land features and adjacent waters within its nine-dash line. For example, China strongly objected to Vietnamese oil exploration activities in the waters near Vanguard Bank and in July 2017 Vietnam stopped operations in block 136/03; and in March 2018 Vietnam suspended operations in block 07/03, known as the Red Emperor, in response to Chinese pressure.

Despite Vietnam’s measured response, China has continued to exert pressure on Vietnam in the South China Sea.

In May this year, Rosneft Vietnam contracted Japan’s Hakuryu 5 to drill a well at block 06-01 in the Nam Con Son basin. Two Vietnamese offshore supply vessels, the Crest Argus 5 and the Sea Meadow 29 regularly travelled from Vung Tau port to block 06-01 to provide support to the Hakuryu 5. On 16 June, China Coast Guard vessel no. 35111 took up station in the waters northwest of Vanguard Bank and began patrolling block 06-01. On 2 July, China Coast Guard vessel no. 35111 began harassing the Hakuryu 5and its support vessels.

On 3 July, the China Geological Survey ship Haiyang Di Zhi 8 entered Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and commenced a seismic survey in waters to the northeast of Vanguard Bank. The Haiyang Di Zhi 8 was escorted by four China Coast Guard ships, including no. 3901 and 3711, and a maritime militia vessel. China Coast Guard ship no. 3901 is a behemoth weighing 12,000 tons. The Chinese vessels were confronted by four Vietnam Coast Guard ships.

Both Chinese actions were a deliberate violation of international law. Vietnam has sovereign rights over the marine and seabed resources in its Exclusive Economic Zone.

carl thayer china intentionally violated international law
On 19 July, Spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said that Vietnam had delivered diplomatic notes demanding that China stop all illegal activities and withdraw its ships from Vietnam's waters. (Photo: Bao Chi)

Initially, news of these maritime confrontations appeared on Vietnamese social media but could not be officially corroborated. On 12 July, the South China Morning Post broke the story on the same day that Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China was determined to protects its interests in the South China Sea but “we are also committed to managing our differences through negotiations with relevant countries.”

On 16 July, Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, said “all relevant parties and the international community should contribute to the joint effort to protect and ensure our common interests.” Three days later, spokeswoman Hang revealed that Vietnam had contacted China on numerous occasions through different channels and delivered diplomatic notes demanding that China stop all illegal activities and withdraw its ships from Vietnam’s waters, respect Vietnam’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

The situation has not changed until today. The Haiyang Di Zhi 8 continues to conduct seismic surveys. And Vietnam has announced that the Hakuryu 5 will continue its operations.

In your opinion, what are the reasons behind China’s violating Vietnamese waters?

China’s actions over the past three years reveals that Beijing has two prime objectives. The first objective is to establish hegemony over the development of marine resources (including oil and gas) in the maritime area within its nine-dash line. China therefore disrupts oil exploration activities by the littoral states and pressures these states to enter into joint development with China.

carl thayer china intentionally violated international law
China still maintains illegal activities in the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP)

China’s second objective is to exclude the involvement of outside powers in marine resource development in the South China Sea. This is evident from China’s submission to the South China Sea Code of Conduct Single Draft Negotiating Text adopted by ASEAN members and China in August last year. China’s submission proposed that cooperation on the marine economy is to be carried out by China and the littoral state “and shall not be conducted in cooperation with companies from countries outside the region.”

So how to do to prevent China from repeating these wrong activities, further complicating the situation in the South China Sea, Professor?

This matter can only be solved directly by China and Vietnam through diplomatic consultations and negotiation. International law enjoins both parties to resolve their dispute through peaceful means. Vietnam must continue with diplomatic efforts, in part, to lay the basis for possible legal action under UNCLOS. Vietnam will have to demonstrate it has exhausted diplomatic discussions with China without result.

Vietnam must follow up its call for the international community by diplomatically lobbying other members of ASEAN, major powers and other maritime states to condemn China’s actions. The United Stated has already accused China of bullying.

Vietnam should enhance its maritime law enforcement cooperation with friendly states, such as the U.S. and Japan, by conducting exercises in the waters around Vanguard Bank.

Vietnam should lobby members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs to bring the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2019 to the floor of the Senate for a vote.

Thank you so much, Professor!

Carl Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
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(TGVN)