From July 3, 2019, Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered the Vanguard Bank in Vietnam’s EEZ to “conduct a seismic survey”. This is the most serious incident by China in the last 5 years since its installation of the Haiyang Shiyou – 981 oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in 2014. Vietnam is now managing and enforcing its sovereignty over the area by building many rigs in her southern continental shelf.
In a Twitter post on July 9, Ryan Martinson, Assistant Professor at the US Naval War College shared that the survey ship was escorted by many China’s Coast Guard cutters, among which he recognized 37111. On July 10, Ryan Martinson twitted that among Chinese maritime vessels were escorting the survey ship, there was the 10,000+ ton CCG 3901. Ryan Martinson also posted a graph showing that four Chinese marine vessels were closely followed by three Vietnamese vessels, including two law enforcement vessels signed Kn-472 and Kn-468, along with Nam Yet 207008 coast guard vessel.
China’s act to dispatch the survey ship into the water around Vietnam’s Vanguard Bank is an act of invasion, violating international law, Vietnamese laws and bilateral agreements on the South China Sea that the two sides signed and publicized. The relationship between China and Vietnam hit its lowest level in a decade in May 2014, when China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation moved Haiyang Shiyou –981 oil platform into waters within Vietnam’s central continental shelf. Vietnam sent vessels to stop the oil rig being fixed to the seabed, leading to collisions between ships of the two countries and anti-China protests outbreak across Vietnam.
For a long time, China often conducted many encroachment activities at sea against Vietnam before or during visits to China by Hanoi’s top leaders. Again, this incident took place just before and during the visit of Vietnamese National Assembly’s Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan to China. This is an extremely dangerous and intentional act by China to block Hanoi’s publicity of the incident. In China’s view, its encroachment act in the South China Sea during the visit to China by Vietnamese leaders will not be made public by Vietnam out of fear of affecting the visits. Hanoi fell into Beijing’s “trap” to remain silent after two weeks since the Haiyang Dizhi 8 started its operation in the Vanguard Bank.
This is not a single act but a carefully calculated one by China to assert its unilateral sovereignty claim over much of the South China Sea on the ground, which is delineated by the “u-shaped line”, also known as the “nine-dash line”. Three years ago, on July 12, 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII to the UNCLOS has ruled against the validity of the “nine-dash line” while at the same time not recognizing features in the Spratly as islands, therefore the Spratly cannot have a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. However, China does not recognize and accept this ruling.
The Vanguard Bank is the area where China once sold its rights for oil and gas exploitation to the US company Crestone in 1992, to which Vietnam then voiced its protest. In 1994, armed Vietnamese vessels forced Chinese survey ship Shiyan 2 (Experiment 2) out of the area after a three-day stand-off. In 2012, China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) announced to open bid for 9 oil and gas blocks covering the area. No foreign company participated in the bidding for these 9 oil and gas blocks because they knew that China’s tender invitation was contrary to international law, violating Vietnam’s waters in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982. This is an area located entirely within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, also within the “nine-dash line” drawn on the sea by China.
What should Vietnam do to protect its sovereignty and jurisdiction over China’s new intrusion in Vanguard Bank? Vietnam should resolutely fight against Beijing’s hegemony, otherwise China will be more aggressive in its strategy to occupy the South China Sea. The fact that Vietnam dispatched coast guard and fisheries surveillance ships to this area to confront Chinese ships as posted on Twitter by Ryan Martinson is encouraging. However, it could be seen that it is a challenge for Vietnam’s coast guard and fisheries surveillance ships to deal with Chinese law enforcement forces. In particular, with China’s construction, expansion and militarization of the Fiery Cross Reef into a military outpost, it would be more difficult for Vietnamese forces to confront Chinese ships on the ground. Some sources also said that in addition to law enforcement vessels, China has also mobilized dozens of its fishing and militia vessels to protect the survey ship.
Earlier, China found it hard to deploy a large number of ships to the area to protect its illegal activities because it is more than 600 nautical miles away from China’s Hainan Island. With the military outpost in the Fiery Cross Reef very close to this area, China could quickly dispatch a large number of ships to protect its activities.
In this context, to protect its interests, Vietnam needs to take media and legal measures to fight Bejing’s intrusion. These are the china’s weakness and the Vietnam’s strength.
First of all, Vietnam needs to quickly bring the case to the world public showcasing Beijing’s real face, taking advantage of international public opinion to condemn China’s intrusion. Given the concerns expressed by the US and other countries about China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s publicity of the case will receive strong support from these countries. Vietnam should highlight and refer to the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea lawsuit, which by July 12, 2019 has been awarded for exactly 3 years, in its fight on public opinion front. In particular, over the time the US has repeatedly voiced its opposition to China’s pressure on littoral countries in the South China Sea. European countries, Japan, Australia and India have also repeatedly affirmed the need to maintain rules-based order in accordance in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, early publicity about China’s intrusion in the Vanguard Bank will be a premise for these countries to voice their opposition to China’s invasion.
On the other hand, Vietnam needs to get ready for filing a lawsuit against China in the Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 for invasions that violate the provisions of the Convention. Vietnam has many advantages in the legal struggle in this case for the following reasons:
First, the relevant content of this case is the application of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 in determining to whom this water belongs. The Arbitration Court has full jurisdiction over the case as in the South China Sea lawsuit filed by the Philippines in 2013.
Second, the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal on July 12, 2016 in the South China Sea lawsuit has completely rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim, rejecting the so-called “historic rights” of China in the South China Sea. Therefore, it is illegal for China to claim a water that is more than 600 nautical miles away from Chinese territory.
Third, in any case, this area is entirely under the sovereignty and jurisdiction of Vietnam. Some people may be concerned that the straight baselines in southern Vietnam are not suitable. However, even if Vietnam narrows the baselines in this area close to the coast, Vietnam’s Con Dao and Phu Quy islands are fully qualified for 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam under Article 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982. Vanguard Bank is entirely within the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam defined from Con Dao or Phu Quy island.
The authorities in Hanoi should continue to take relevant, bold and persistent actions to prevent China from encroaching in its waters./.