Friday, June 13, 2014

Viet Nam is actively pursuing all peaceful and diplomatic means to have China remove its oil rig from within Viet Nam's Exclusive Economic Zone.

"...Viet Nam insists it has established title to the Paracels since the 16-17th century, when no country owned the islands.  Since then, Viet Nam has continually and effectively exercised its sovereignty over the islands, until China illegally took them by force in 1974... 

No official Chinese historical book or map recorded the Paracels or the Spratlys as Chinese territory up until the mid 20th century..."

Why China's claim to Paracels is not 'undisputed'
by Nguyen Hung Son

The month'long "oil rig" crisis in the South China Sea (East Sea) has had the world seized by daily footage of clashes and confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels. The crisis began when China sent its biggest oil rig into water near the Paracels where Viet Nam has claimed as its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Many countries have expressed concern over what they see as China's unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the South China Sea. 

US President Barrack Obama, in his speech to the West Point's Graduation Ceremony, even referred to the incident as an act of aggression in the South China Sea. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers, in their meeting prior to the ASEAN Summit in Nay Pi Taw last month saw the new development as a cause of serious concern to regional peace and stability. China, however, dismisses these criticisms and insists it is conducting regular operations in China's sovereign water.

One of the key problems is the sovereignty dispute over the Paracels. 

China argues that it has indisputable sovereignty over the Paracels, a claim which Viet Nam sternly dismisses. Viet Nam insists it has established title to the Paracels since the 16-17th century when no country owned the islands. Since then Viet Nam has continually and effectively exercised its sovereignty over the islands until China illegally took them by force in 1974. 

Viet Nam dismisses China's claim of sovereignty over the Paracels because it considers the activities of private Chinese individuals, who China claims to have discovered the islands or who might have been aware of the islands for a long time, were insufficient to establish China's ownership over the islands under international law. 

Unlike the Vietnamese State which has shown interests and continuous efforts in establishing jurisdiction over the islands since the 16th century, the Chinese State showed no evidence of wanting to take the islands into possession throughout its long history. 

No official Chinese historical book or map recorded the Paracels or the Spratlys as Chinese territory up until the mid 20th century. In all Chinese official documents and maps, the southern most point of China's territory never exceeded Hainan Island.

The reason for China's lack of interests in acquiring territories at sea might have been deeply embedded in China's history and culture. China had long been a massive land power that did not look at the sea favorably and did not see any need for tiny territories at sea. For thousands of years, China always viewed the sea as a source of piracy and insecurity. Hence, many dynasties in China, as late and the Ming and the Qing, continued to ban maritime activities. The well known Haijin policy prohibited maritime shipping and encouraged people to be inward looking. A radical Haijin law during the Minh dynasty even required every coastal citizens to move 40 miles inland, emptying the coast line. Those who ventured out to the sea were charged with treason against the state and the Emperor.

China often points to a statement made by the late Prime Minister of Viet Nam, Pham Van Dong, in 1958 as proof of Vietnam's acquiescence to China's sovereignty over the Paracels. However, Viet Nam has rejected the allegation pointing to the fact that the statement made no reference to the Paracels and Spratlys. 

It was merely an executive branch document ensuring the Chinese government that the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam's (DRV) government agencies would respect the 12 nautical miles breath of China's territorial sea, and that the statement did not deal with sovereignty issue.

It should be noted that China, as an active contributor to the 1954 Geneva Accord, was well aware at that time that the Paracels were under the administration of the Republic of Viet Nam [South Vietnam] according to the signed Accord, not the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam [North Vietnam] represented by Pham Van Dong. In its historical context, the statement made by Pham Van Dong was an act of support of the DRV to the attempt of its ally to extend its security parameters from 3 miles to 12 miles in face of eminent threats from the 7th Pacific fleet of the United States encroaching upon China's coastline in defense of Taiwan.

Neither did Viet Nam agree with the claim that China's sovereignty over the Paracels received international recognition.

At the San Francisco Conference of 1951, in response to the Soviet Union delegation's request to revise the text of the Treaty to recognise the islands group of Paracels and Spratlys as the People's Republic of China's territories, 48 out of 51 delegations voted decisively against the idea. Until today, there has been no official record of public recognition of China's sovereignty over the Paracels by any country.

On the contrary, Viet Nam sees that many countries have directly or indirectly reminded China that the Paracels do not belong to China.

Most recently, on May 16 2014 the US State Department said that sovereignty over the Paracels is disputed. The statement by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressing serious concerns over the on-going China's oil rig incident issued on 10 May 2014 showed that ASEAN did not view this incident as a regular activity within China's indisputed sovereign waters as China would like to think.

China, therefore, should admit that sovereignty over the Paracels is disputed and withdraw its oil rig from its current location because any drilling that causes permanent change to the seabed in the disputed water is not allowed under international law.

*Dr. Nguyen Hung Son is a researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam. The views expressed are the author's own.


Some thoughts on the issue from Bruce:

Peacefully resolving the dispute between China and Viet Nam over the oil rig in the East Sea, can and must be done.

The confrontation between China and Viet Nam over the provocative placement of a large Chinese oil rig in the East Sea in early May, in an area claimed by Viet Nam as legally within its continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone, is a huge issue here in Viet Nam, with serious implications for the rest of the world as well.

Understandably, many people here have expressed to me deep concern and anger about China’s blatant violation of Viet Nam’s sovereignty, and there have been frequent public demonstrations demanding China withdraw its HD-981 oil rig. Sadly, there is even open talk of the possibility of war between Viet Nam and China. Considering the history of thousands of years of war between these two neighbours, it is obviously in the best interests of everyone that such a terrible disaster be avoided.

Many people here have also asked me how this seemingly-intractable conflict can be resolved. Some see it as impossible to resolve peacefully, as China is “a big bully” and will not back down. However, I see it differently. Actually, I believe a peaceful resolution of this stand-off is absolutely possible, if the situation is managed carefully and responsibly.

So far, I believe the Viet Nam government, social organizations and individual experts have been doing the right things. At this stage, it is essential for Viet Nam to constantly protest China’s actions at a government-to-government level, which they have been doing from the beginning.

It is also necessary to mobilize local and world-wide public opinion to understand and support Viet Nam’s legitimate claims of sovereignty, and use all regional and international forums. This is already happening, and must continue.

Viet Nam and international lawyers should also be actively preparing now to take the matter to the United Nations and international tribunals, in case the issue is not resolved diplomatically in the meantime.

Asian people well understand the importance of “saving face”, a concept that is perhaps not well understood in the West, but which may be critical to resolving this particular dispute. Vietnamese and Chinese know this very well, and I believe this common cultural characteristic is most important in this situation.

Apparently, China has already publicly stated its intention to withdraw its oil rig by a certain date in August. This has been referred to in some news reports, and I believe it could be the important key to settling this particular dispute.

“…The rig may be a powerful message of China's intentions in the region, but it is also an expensive one, said Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, estimating that the operation of a rig on an exploratory drilling mission so far away from regular support costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each day. State-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOO) has indicated that it plans to keep HD-981 oil rig at its current location until August…”

(From - What's really behind China's clash with Vietnam: )

If the intended August withdrawal date is correct, I believe China has been “testing the waters”, so to speak. It will be assessing the level of international response and opposition to its actions, and will act accordingly. So the time between now and August is most critical.

If the reaction is sufficient, China can then decide to withdraw the oil rig, claiming that it is only doing so according to its own August timetable, not international pressure, and thus “save face”. That is why the current peaceful, diplomatic, but strong protests are so important, and must continue.

We should remember there are precedents for this: In 1979, China invaded in the north of Viet Nam, killing many local people and causing destruction to towns and cities. The Chinese suffered more-than-expected casualties from local Vietnamese militia, and the Viet Nam People's Army mobilized. The Chinese Army returned home, thus avoiding a major conflict with the Viet Nam Army. China could claim they only intended to stay for that short time, to “punish” Viet Nam for helping Cambodians overthrow the genocidal Khmer Rouge, and other things, and then return home according to their own timetable, thus “saving face”.

During its long history of conflicts with numerous foreign invaders, including the Chinese, Vietnamese have shown great skills and shrewdness in diplomacy. They always win in the end, no matter how long it takes, even against much greater forces.

In this present crisis with China, I believe it is vital for Viet Nam to continue its tradition of intelligent diplomacy, and play a very delicate balancing act towards China. Too little protest, and China will continue and expand its present course of action in the East Sea. Too much of the wrong form of protest, China may harden its resolve, become even more intransigent, and not back down.

So, what is the wrong form of protest, in this case?

Earlier acts of violence by certain individuals, against local Chinese businesses in Viet Nam, were obviously wrong and unhelpful. This should not be an issue of conflict between the people of Viet Nam and the people of China. The Viet Nam government authorities acted correctly to stop this behavior, punish those responsible, and even financially compensate affected businesses.

Also, protest that is seen by China as strongly and recklessly “anti-China” is also unhelpful. This will only exacerbate the tense situation, and make it harder to resolve the issue diplomatically, based on “saving face”.

In this context, I believe the role played by the U.S. government is one of the most important and delicate considerations.

China, of course, views the U.S. government’s “pivot to Asia” as part of a larger strategic policy of containment of China. If the U.S. chooses to use the oil rig dispute as a convenient way to demonize and attack China, to further its own perceived national interests, this will be most unhelpful to Viet Nam.

An increased U.S. military presence in the area might seem like a good thing to some people, to counter-balance China, but I would urge extreme caution. An escalating military confrontation by nuclear-armed superpowers may start small, but could end in disaster for everyone.

China, along with a growing number of countries and individuals, must also be very skeptical of any U.S. government role in mediating this conflict. The U.S. government track record in peaceful diplomacy is not an encouraging one, with the options “on the table” almost invariably being only violent ones.

China would reasonably view any active U.S. government intervention in the dispute, especially denouncing “Chinese aggression”, as nothing but hypocrisy, and the advancement of U.S. imperial self-interests. U.S. government official pronouncements and aggressive actions, from Indochina in the past, to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, Syria, Ukraine, and many others, would only reinforce their antagonism to any U.S. lecturing of China about peace and international law. This is very clear to China, even if many people in the West do not understand it.

If the U.S. government has any role at all in settling this dispute between Viet Nam and China, it should be very measured and low key, expressing only support for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution according to international law, which is exactly what the Viet Nam government is seeking. Personally, I think the less said and done by U.S. government leaders the better. Any military option should definitely be “off the table”.

On the other hand, perhaps there is a useful role for Russia to play in helping to resolve this conflict. Russia and Viet Nam have a long history of mutual friendship and co-operation. It is also in Russia's national interest to have friendly and mutually-beneficial relations with China, and SE Asia generally, as a counter to US sanctions and attacks on Russia. 

Russia has also shown recent diplomatic skills in helping prevent a massive US bombing of Syria, and reducing the threat of war against Iran falsely based on its non-existent nuclear weapons programme. In Ukraine, despite massive provocations by the US and NATO on its border, including sponsoring an extremist coup in Kiev to put pro-Western, anti-Russians into power, Russia has so far shown considerable restraint, and a desire for a mutually-beneficial and peaceful resolution. 

So, perhaps Russia can use its good relations with both Viet Nam and China to help resolve the current East Sea disputes. 

While the Chinese oil rig has been the focus of world attention, it may in part be a distraction from potentially even more troublesome Chinese actions, which could be more problematic, with long-term consequences.

Several months ago, China began shoveling sand and rock onto shoals and reefs in the southerly Spratly archipelago, which is also contested by various countries, to create islands big enough to house buildings and surveillance equipment. This may be part of China’s intention to create ‘facts on the ground’ to consolidate its territorial claims in the whole disputed East Sea (South China Sea).

Some years ago, China and Viet Nam successfully resolved their land border disputes by peaceful negotiations. I understand that they also successfully signed agreements on the disputed East Sea. So such things are possible.

Apparently, they agreed to disagree about sovereignty while still negotiating about that, and sensibly agreed to jointly exploit mineral, oil and gas resources in the area for their mutual benefit.

Also, I understand that both sides agreed not to build permanent structures on the disputed islands while they were still negotiating issues of sovereignty. This was all very sensible and reasonable, and shows the correct way forward.
What happened to those earlier agreements?

Surely, they are still the obvious basis for China and Viet Nam to resolve their current dispute, allowing both sides to “save face”, and sensibly develop a peaceful, prosperous, mutually-beneficial future for the people of both countries, in the spirit of good neighbourliness.

Peaceful resolution of conflict is the only way forward, but it requires patience, persistence and intelligence. We can all hope that the parties to the conflict are up to the task.

Bruce McPhie
Revised July 7, 2014
Hanoi, Viet Nam

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