East Sea: 100-year experience for Vietnam

VietNamNet Bridge - For over 100 years, settling inland or marine disputes by international law has been chosen by many countries in the world.

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The second part of the article by Thai Van Cau on the relations between the freedom of navigation and sovereignty over the archipelagos of Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) will be the author's suggestions on the choice of solutions for Vietnam.

east sea, china, hoang sa, truong sa, international law 

Military action is not available

"Chinese dream" is a phrase raised by Xi Jinping for the first time when he became the Chinese to leader in late 2012.

Although Xi Jinping emphasized the "peaceful rise" of China, the most significant danger in the "Chinese dream" is that it highly highlights the nationalism and, through the massive propaganda machine, it can make Chinese people to hardly realize the great mistake of the Chinese leadership in the claims over the East Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands of Vietnam.

To serve the "Chinese dream" via the so-called "peaceful rise," China's defense budget has been increasing in recent years. The budget for 2014 is $132 billion dollars, up 12.2% compared with 2013. According to the IHS Jane's journal, the budget may be up to $148 billion.  

The 12.2% increase in the defense budget of China is equivalent to $15 billion, a figure that is higher than the total defense budget of the three countries of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.  

In order to deal with China’s increasingly obvious ploy to dominate the East Sea, including islands of Vietnam, Vietnam needs to modernize the military to defend its sovereignty and national interests.

However, due to the asymmetry of power relationships between the two countries and by the policy of Vietnam of not allying with any other country, settling disputes with China by military action might not be the best way for Vietnam.

Resolving disputes by peace talks

In late September 1975, during a meeting with Chinese leaders, when the First Secretary of the Vietnam Workers' Party, Le Duan, raised the issues of the Paracel-Spratly Islands, Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping admitted the dispute and suggested that the two countries discussed later.  

After normalization of bilateral relations in the early 1990s, besides regularly calling Vietnam to respect "the 16-word motto," "four good", China has constantly developed its soft and hard power in the East Sea, for instance participating in the International Court of Justice and International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), having hundreds of doctoral theses, seminars on the subject of the East Sea, developing its navy in the East Sea, etc.

Since the early 2000, China annually imposes ban of fishing on the waters of Vietnam. Chinese patrol ships have constantly caused damage to Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracel and prevented projects to survey and explore within Vietnam's EEZ, etc.

In January 2005, the Chinese patrols serious violated international law when they fired on Vietnamese fishing boats, killing nine fishermen, then falsely accused the victim as "pirates".  

In early October 2011, at the witness of Vietnamese and Chinese leaders, the two sides signed an agreement to resolve maritime disputes "through negotiations and friendly consultations".  

Despite the agreement, China did not abandon the ancient ambition: China continues to infringe upon the waters of Vietnam, continue beating, looting Vietnamese fishing ships, escalating the unlawful acts in the Paracels and Spratly Islands.

Nearly 40 years after Chinese leaders proposed that the two countries would discuss the the dispute over the Paracel-Spratly Islands later, although the situation becomes much worse, Vietnam still maintain the policy of resolving disputes through peaceful negotiations, in parallel to the diplomatic protest against aggressive or provoking actions, blatant invasion of China in the East Sea.

If China keeps its tough attitude, does not cooperate, while positively exercising "sovereign act" in the islands of Vietnam that it has illegally seized by force from 1974, then Vietnam’s current policy may not be the best.

Solving disputes by international law

Article 1, Paragraph 1 of the Charter of the United Nations declares the purpose of this organization:

"To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace."

As an agency of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice’s function is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted by States, and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorized UN organs and specialized agencies.

For over 100 years, settling disputes over land or sea by international law has been chosen by many countries in the world.

Since 1959, especially in Southeast Asia, there are three cases using international law: the case between Cambodia and Thailand on the Preah Vihear temple, between Indonesia and Malaysia on the two islands of Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Ligitan, and between Malaysia and Singapore over the Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge.

On the basis of the stated importance to the world in freedom of navigation in the East Sea, across the Paracel area, and the evidence on Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel-Spratly Islands, Vietnam should simultaneously perform the two following steps:

1. Calling China to bring the dispute over the Paracel to the International Court of Justice. In case China does not support the call or refuses to cooperate, Vietnam should launch a lawsuit against China over the sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, in accordance with Article 53 of the Regulations on the International Court of Justice.

2. Suing China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), in accordance with Annex VII of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for China’s activities inconsistent with the Convention in the Paracel-Spratly Isands.

In the last 30 years, China has achieved many outstanding accomplishments to become one of the top three largest countries economically and militarily.  

Besides its great achievements is its indispensable responsibility to the world community, the United Nations, especially in the case that China is one of the five official members of the UN Security Council.

The policy of "no negotiation" with Vietnam on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, "Hoang Sa is not a disputed area", "China has sufficient evidence for its sovereignty over the Paracel-Spratly Islands", etc. is invalid when the UN Charter is violated severely; when the US, India, Japan, etc. recognized that the Paracel Islands is the disputed areas, and emphasized the value of freedom of navigation in the East Sea.

Of the 23 disputes over land and the sea between China and neighboring countries since 1949, China resolved the dispute through negotiations 17 times and used force 6 times.

China has two choices today: Cooperating with Vietnam at the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, or engage in serious negotiations with Vietnam to solve, firstly the Paracel dispute, and then other issues about Vietnam's islands.

The above choice can help China prove to the world that the "Chinese dream" is truly a peaceful rise; it is a useful contribution to the common prosperity of the world; although it is a powerful country, China respects international law.

Shortly after the trip to four European countries to seek support for its methods to resolve disputes with China, the Philippines’ leader said: "Ultimately, if we do not protect our rights, we will lose it because we do not think anyone else will stand up to defend the rights that we cannot protect."

After nearly 20 years of peace negotiations with China without any progress, the Philippines decided to sue China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in accordance with Annex VII of UNCLOS, in early 2013.

With more than 3,200 km long coastline, with convincing evidence of sovereignty, Vietnam is the country that will be affected the most by China’s ambition in the East Sea.

in this situation, Vietnam must be determined and take action to not only protect national interests but also contribute to maintain peace, regional security and beyond, as a responsible member of the United Nations.

Thai Van Cau 

east sea, china, hoang sa, truong sa, international law