China’s apparent intentions emerge one month after oil-rig deployment

VietNamNet Bridge –  As of June 1, it had been one month since China had deployed its illegal mobile oil rig HD-981 deep in the continental shelf and the exclusive economic (EEZ) of Vietnam.

east sea, oil rig, china, UNCLOS

The HD-981 oil rig is located deep in the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam. Photo: Vietnam Coast Guard.

On May 1, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in Vietnam’s continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone and announced that it would maintain the oil rig until August 15.

Vietnam stated that according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), the oil rig is located deep in the continental shelf and the EEZ of 200 nautical miles. Vietnam demanded China immediately remove its rig out of Vietnam’s waters.

In response, China said it is the normal exploitation of natural resources in the waters of China and slandered Vietnam as the aggressive party.

China has continued to increase the number of its vessels, including naval and warships in Vietnam’s waters, and has attacked Vietnamese vessels with water cannons.

The position of the HD-981 oil rig is 130 nautical miles from the coast of Vietnam and 119 nautical miles from Vietnam’s Ly Son Island. The rig is off the coast of Hainan by 182 nautical miles; 17 nautical miles from Tri Ton Island of Vietnam’s Hoang Sa Archipelago (Paracel Islands); and Phu Lam Islands (also part of Hoang Sa) by 103 nautical miles.

According to UNCLOS of which Vietnam and China are members, each country has the right to have an EEZ of 200 nautical miles and the continental shelf from the baseline.

From Vietnam’s coast and China’s Hainan Island, the position is located in the overlapping area in the EEZ of the two sides. However, UNCLOS clearly defines that, in the overlapping areas, the parties are not allowed to have unilateral exploration beyond the median line.

The fact shows that islands rarely enjoy the same effect as land territory. So, based on both fact and the theory, in the correlation between Vietnam’s coast and the Hainan Island of China, this position lies deep in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Vietnam or at least in Vietnam’s waters through the median line.

The issue becomes more complex when it comes to the correlation between the Vietnam’s coast and the Hoang Sa Archipelago.

Vietnam has established its sovereignty over this archipelago from the 17th century, but it has been under the management of China since 1974 after China invaded the archipelago of the Republic of Vietnam by force.

China announced a baseline for the islands in 1996, and Tri Ton Island protrudes the most to the south of that baseline.

This statement has been criticized by the world for adopting a national baseline for a disputed island. However, China has always said that Xisha (Paracel Islands) belongs to them and there is neither dispute nor negotiation.

More seriously, in July 2012, China announced the establishment of Sansha City based on Phu Lam Island to control the entire waters in its U-shaped line or nine-dotted line that covers 80 percent of the East Sea.

Vietnam has never accepted Phu Lam Island, Tri Ton Island and the Paracel Islands belonging to China. Applying Article 121 (3) of the UNCLOS, islands not suitable for humans to live or have no economic life as Tri Ton will possess only 12 nautical miles of territorial water, without a separate exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Even for the 200ha Phu Lam Island, if it has a separate exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, it would be very small. In the delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf, the island of 2.5 km Bach Long Vy Island only enjoys one-quarter. In the delimitation of the Gulf of Thailand, the island of Tho Chu enjoys only one-third.

The judgment by the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has confirmed the trend that islands have no equal effect in relation to the mainland in delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

In the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, the coastal states have sovereign rights over natural resources and jurisdiction of the installation, use, maintenance and repair of equipment on the sea.

Therefore, China’s unilateral implementation of exploration acts in the waters of Vietnam is considered a provocative violation.

Since 1988, the time of the latest conflict between Vietnam and China, there have been a few noteworthy points related to this incident.

First, China's actions are aggressive and are against international law and the latest agreements between it and Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Second, Vietnam’s response has been restrained, and has not used military measures, but Vietnam’s attitude is the most determined, not only in the field.

For the first time, the Vietnamese Prime Minister criticized China's illegal activities in Vietnam’s waters at ASEAN and international forums.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung also stated: "We always want peace and friendship but this must ensure independence, self-reliance, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and maritime zones. These are sacred and we will never trade them off for some kind of elusive, dependent peace and friendship".

Third, the international community has reacted strongly to China's actions. The criticisms came from Washington, the EU, Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia.

Fourth, ASEAN has expressed itself as a united block in front of China’s pressure with a separate statement of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on the East Sea after 19 years since the Mischief Reef incident in 1995.

Beijing does not want to internationalize the East Sea dispute. And contrary to its calculations, ASEAN showed its strength of unity by adding East Sea tensions in the documents of the ASEAN Summit (Nay Pyi Daw statement and the Chairman's statement) in May.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged ASEAN to express common views on the East Sea as the "conflicts have happened right at our gate."

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa confirmed that China must respect its commitment to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC).

According to the foreign minister, Beijing wants to resolve the East Sea disputes on a bilateral basis and does not want to have the participation of a third party. However, its illegal deployment of the HD-981 oil rig in Vietnam’s waters is not a bilateral issue but an issue of the region, so ASEAN has "special responsibility" to ensure that both parties will enter into a dialogue to resolve the situation.

Five, the demonstrations showing patriotism of the Vietnamese people broke out not only in Vietnam but over the world. Vietnam has won the support of its people and the world community.

Viet Long

east sea, oil rig, china, UNCLOS