By Tran Minh (VPDF)
Is the South China Sea hot or cool?
Is the situation in the South China Sea normal and stable, as claimed time and again by certain in an attempt to distract the international community from attention and concern? Is that true?
What actually happens is quite opposite.
In the field, tension and conflict risks are constantly increasing, with China's rapid militarization and expassion of military presence on an unprecedented scale, using its force to elarge the scope and intensity of its control over most of the South China Sea area, intensifying pressure on and deterring lawful activities of coastal states, bringing drilling rigs and survey ships for exploration and other illegal activities as well as using coast guard vessels to cover their ships’ operations in other countries' exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, unilaterally imposing fishing bans in the South China Sea, and attacking by force other countries' fishing vessels operating normally and lawfully at sea. Military exercises, including live-fire drills, have been intensified with an increasing scale; confrontation between major powers is growing ever more fierce.
The truth is that many countries' sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction related to the sea are being increasingly challenged; peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea are ever more seriously threatened; risks of collision, conflict and war is growing. According to many leading international experts, the South China Sea has now become a world’s major maritime sovereignty dispute hotspot, a main center of big-power strategic confrontation, and a gunpowder keg that may explode into further conflicts, even a new war.
That is why ASEAN meetings, despite repeated obstractions, have constantly expressed "concern" over the South China Sea situation, and the South China Sea issue has always been a hot topic at all regional security forums throughout the past years.
That is also why the world has witnessed over recent months a series of notes and statements of different countries related to claims and conduct in the South China Sea, in which the main and sharpest antagonism lies between "claims and stance" according to China's interpretation of international law on the one hand, and the legal foundation of remaining countries on the other.
And if you ask any Vietnamese about what worries him/her most for Vietnam's territorial sovereignty as well as security and development environment at present, the answer definitely will be, "South China Sea!". And that seems not just a thinking of the Vietnamese.
Who causes tension in the South China Sea?
According to certain sources, the South China Sea is inherently peaceful, and has heated up only recently due to US involvement. Is that true?
In fact, after the war in Vietnam, the US has gradually reduced its military presence in the region, including withdrawal from the Subic and Clark bases in the Philippines and withdrawal of the 7th Fleet from the South China Sea. The South China Sea situation began to heat up following China's increasing sovereignty claims and its unlawful moves for their realization, notably the Chinese attacks on and occupation of 6 islands and reefs belonging to Vietnam in Truong Sa (Spratly) in March 1988, and conluded a contract with a foreign company for oil and gas exploration and exploitation at Tư Chính (Vanguard) Bank, on Vietnam's continental shelf and 600 miles from China's Hainan island, in May 1992.
Increased tension forced ASEAN to issue its first declaration on the South China Sea on July 22, 1992. But China continued its infringements upon coastal countries' exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, notably its occupation by force of Vành Khăn (Mischief) Reef in Trường Sa (Spratly), then under Filipino control, in 1995, and imposed unilateral fishing bans over the sea since 1999. In an attempt to prevent conflicts, ASEAN tried to push negotiations with China for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). After a prolonged period, China has finally accepted the signing of a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 but only with non-binding nature.
However, the South China Sea’s situation continued to experience prolonged and more and more complicated developments and has became increasingly tense since China overtook Japan as the world's second largest economy and formalized at the United Nations its "Nine-dash line" claim covering more than 80% of the South China Sea area in 2009, and began intensifying the use of force with ever more assertive actions for the unilateral realization of its claim. At the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi in July 2010, faced with reaction from ASEAN countries' foreign ministers, then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said, "China is a big country, others are small ones, and that is a fact!". China has declared the adding of the South China Sea into a type of its "core interests", and intensified infringements upon other countries' waters, using force to prevent coastal states from survey, exploration and exploitation activities right in their exclusive economic zones and continental shelfs, constantly pressurizing them into "joint exploration" with China right in areas under their sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and intensifying intimidation and attacks against their fishermen legally operating at sea. Most noteworthy have been the cases of Chinese coast guard vessels cutting down cables of Vietnam's ships Binh Minh 2 and Viking conducting surveys on Vietnam's continental shelf (2011), China's use of force to seize and impose control over Scarborough Shoal within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines (2012), the sending of HYSY981 drilling rig for operation in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf (2014), the sending of HY8 survey vessel into Vietnamese and Malaysian seas (2019 and 2020), and the repeated sending of coast guard and survey ships for illegal operations and making pressure in Vietnam’s Tư Chính (Vanguard) Bank, James Bank and Luconia Shoal off Malaysia's seacoast, waters in the Philippines' and Brunei's exclusive economic zones, and areas near Indonesia's Natuna Islands.
In particular, China has conducted a massive build-up the seized banks and reefs thousands of miles from its seacoasts into artificial islands, and turned them into powerful military outposts with runways for fighter jets. China has rapidly increased its military budget and builds up its armed forces, especially the navy and the air force, at an unprecedented speed and with a size and strength many times superior to all other countries in the region altogether. At the same time, China has significantly expanded its paramilitary forces for coordination with the military in enlarging actual control over most of the South China Sea area. On July 5, 2020, the Chinese Global Times officially declared: "The South China Sea is fully within reach of the Chinese People's Liberation Army".
To understand who is causing tension in the South China Sea, one only need to see who has the most ambitious, irrational and unlawful maritime claims there? Who is most accelerating militarization and unilaterally using force to change the status quo at the largest scale to realize those absurd claims in the South China Sea? And who has been making most provocations and intensifying aggressive actions against other coastal countries?
It is China's extravagant ambition and its moves for the latter's realization that are seriously threatening and infringing upon other coastal states' sovereignty and survival’s space. It should be noted that all these countries wish to have friendly relations with China, completely do not want to have any tension or confrontation with China. So none of them has sought to provoke China, they have only been compelled to act in defense of their legitimate interests; in fact, most provocative acts in the South China Sea in recent years have come from China.
It is China's ambitions and moves for unilateral control of the South China Sea in disregard of international law that has caused concern by regional countries and the international community over peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above these particularly important international waters. That is also a reason opted by US administrations of recent years for launching the "pivot", "rebalance" and then "Indo-Pacific" strategies with the main connotation of re-engagement and increased presence in the region for containing China. And that is also the main cause of the declining trust, increasing suspicion and negative reactions with regard to China among the regional and international community, leading to new complication in the regional and international environment disadvantageous to China itself.
Regarding China's so-called "indisputable" sovereignty claim
China has always asserted that it has full "historical and legal grounds" on China's "indisputablesovereignty" in the South China Sea.
The issue of sea-related sovereignty, in a broader sense, mainly includes sovereignty over islands, banks and other sea features, and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over waters and seabed resources.
Concerning sea features, the emerging disputes include mainly bilateral disputes between China and Vietnam over the Hoàng Sa (Paracel) Archipelago and disputes among 5 countries, 6 parties (China,Taiwan/China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei) over the Trường Sa (Spratly)Archipelago. The islands now under Chinese administration include the Hoàng Sa (Paracel)Archipelago seized by China from Vietnam in 1956 and 1974 and a number of islands and banks in Trường Sa (Spratly) seized by China from Vietnam in 1988 and from the Philippines in 1995. This whole process was carried out by China by armed force, in contravention with basic principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.
However, China now recognizes only disputes over Trường Sa (Spratly) islands and rejects allnegotiations concerning Hoàng Sa (Paracel) on the grounds that it is "completely undisputed". Recently, China has even invoked a 1958 Official Letter from the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to assert that Vietnam had recognized Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa as belonging to China, while this Official Letter actually expressed support and approval only for China’s "decision on a territorial sea” (or territorial waters) of 12 nautical miles, with absolutely no mention of Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa. In fact, the main intention of the Letter then was to express political support for China in the context of increasing US presence in the region to put pressure on China following conflicts in the Taiwan Strait. For this reason, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam did not include in the Letter any protest against China's claim over the Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa archipelagos,which were then administered by the Republic of Vietnam according to the Geneva Agreements[*]. This Vietnam’s goodwill has been abused and distorted by China today to consolidate its irrationalclaims. Although Vietnam has on many occasions clarified its standpoint with China, China keepsinvoking the above argument in its Notes to the United Nations, causing possible misunderstanding theinternational public about the true nature of this issue.
Regarding sea areas, the story is much more absurd. The Chinese Kuomintang administration first realeased a map of China with a "dashed line" covering more than 80% the South China Sea area in 1948 without any explanation about its actual contents and meaning. The Declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China announced by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai on September 4, 1958, officially determined that "the width of the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China is twelve nautical miles” from the mainland’s coasts and offshore islands.
However, over recent years, with an utterly vague "historic rights" concept, China has made this "dashed line" its claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, turning other littoral countries’ exclusive economic zones and continental shelves into "disputed areas" between them and China. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued a ruling on July 12, 2016, affirming that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’” and"there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters of the South China Sea”, China announced a "Three NO" policy, namely non-acceptance of the jurisdiction of the Court, non-recognition of its ruling, and non-implementation of its decisions.
In fact, China had been mobilizing all its experts for “creation” of “legal arguments” to justify its irrational claim. Recently, in a Note to the United Nations on April 17, 2020, China put forward an additional concept -- "Four Sha" -- arguing that China has sovereignty over four archipelagos in the South China Sea, each of these with a territorial sea, a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf, therefore, “China has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof". The "relevant waters" drawn by China encompass all the 200-nautical-mile areas around these island groups with a total expanse larger than that covered by the "nine dash line", or more than 90% of the South China Sea area.
Let’s have a closer look at historical and legal grounds of this China’s “renewed” claim.
Historically, the South China Sea has been the traditional living space of all littoral states, and never belonged exclusively to China. China has used armed force to seize Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and part ofTrường Sa (Spratly) from Vietnam. That is an undeniable truth.
In legal terms, China's "Four Sha" claim is utterly irrational, and runs completely counter to international law, in particular the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which serves as aConstitution on oceans governing all activities in determination of sea areas, exploitation and use of seas and oceans ..., and to which China itself is a party.
First of all, the claim is based primarily on China’s assertion that it has full legal sovereignty over all the four island groups, called Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha by China. But, according to international law, sovereignty is only recognized legal when established by peaceful means, while China has seized Hoàng Sa (Paracel) and part of Trường Sa (Spratly) from Vietnam by armed force. That is why, until now, China’s claim of sovereignty over these two archipelagos has not been internationally recognized, and China itself has admitted that there are “disputes” regarding Trường Sa(Spratly). In addition, the Macclesfield Bank, called Zhongsha by China, is actually just a reef and, according to international law, including UNCLOS, cannot be subject to claims regarding sovereignty and water areas. Also, the merging of Scarborough Shoal and St. Esprit Shoal into an "archipelago" forsovereignty claim is completely inconsistent with international law. Thus, in the first place, China has no legal grounds for sovereignty over at least three of the four "Sha" of its claim. The remain fourth islands called Dong Sa by China is under control of Chines Taiwan at present.
On the other hand, China is not at all an "archipelagic state" and, according to UNCLOS, “islandswhich cannot sustain human habitation or sovereign economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf”. The PCA's ruling of July 12, 2016 also clearly determined that no features in Trường Sa (Spratly) could generate an entitlement beyond 12 nautical miles. The remaining features in the South China Sea have basically similar structures and conditions. Thus, China’s claimof a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone for the above-mentioned four "archipelagos" also runscompletely counter to international law.
The fact that even the China’s newly created legal argument submitted to the UN still cannot march with the existing international laws exposes China’s incapability of finding “historical and legal grounds” for its ambitious claim. The reason is very simple: there are no “historical and legal grounds” exist for such a claim.
That is why China’s unlawful claims have been officially rejected by all other countries in their recent notes and statements in connection with the South China Sea.
In term of practical implication, if China's "nine dash line" or "Four Sha" claim were realized, over90% of the South China Sea, including the crucial international maritime and air routes passingthrough it, would fall under China’s monopoly control, almost all the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves of many coastal countries would become "disputed" areas with China, and Chinaalone would be entitled to make decisions on "joint exploration" or other countries’ exploration. Please imagine a similar situation happenning in the Mediterranean, Caribbean or any other international waters, and you will understand why it is impossible for countries in the region and the international community to accept those irrational claims. And you can also imagine what would happen if a bigpower unilaterally used its might for the unilateral realization of such claims.
Just very recently, China has changed the official status of the large area of the sea between Hainan island and Hoang Sa (Paracel) from “high sea” to “coastal waters”, visibly for the subsequent expansion and intensification of its control of this area.
Difficulties in "diplomatic and legal processes" or the issue of "do-not-dispute sovereignty"
Sovereignty and territorial disputes have existed between many countries and in many parts of the world. Diplomatic and legal measures have always been considered appropriate for their peaceful settlement. However, in the case of the South China Sea, such processes have faced with numerous obstacles, mainly due to China’s position.
The best solution that should always be given priority is direct negotiation between the disputants. It is by this way that Vietnam and China have solved satisfactorily the problem of land border delimitation and issues concerning the Bắc Bộ (Tonkin) Gulf.
But negotiations related to the South China Sea have been much more difficult.
While there is real need to address the issue of Hoàng Sa (Paracel) Archipelago, which belonged to Vietnam and seized by China using armed force in 1956 and 1974, China has been always rejecting any mention of this matter, asserting that “there is no dispute exists”. In practical term, the failure to clarify the Hoàng Sa issue obstructs a possibility to clearly delimitate the sea areas off the mouth of the Bắc Bộ (Tonkin) Gulf and leads also to many other serious consequences. For instance, with its claim that Hoàng Sa belongs to China and has a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, China hasattacked Vietnamese fishing vessels, preventing Vietnam from lawful activities right in its exclusive economic zone, and sent survey ships and drilling rigs for exploration in waters under Vietnam’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
While refusing any discussion on such a practical issue, China has been constantly pressurizing other countries into negotiations for "joint exploitation" with China, and China alone, in their exclusive economic zones and continental shelves, which China considers as under "disputes” with areas covered by its “nine-dash line” or " Four Sha". For example: China has been constantly trying to obstruct Vietnamese surveys at Tư Chính (Vanguard) Bank in Vietnam’s continental shelf on the grounds that it lay within a 200-nautical-mile range from rocks described by China as belonging to the Trường Sa (Spratly) Archipelago (despite a PCA ruling that all features in Trường Sa do not generate an exclusive economic zone, and despite China’s recognition that there remained “disputes” in Trường Sa, i.e. Trường Sa did not fully belong to China). A similar state of things has occurred between China on the one hand and the Philippnes, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei on the other. Please note that the real meaning of Chinese “joint exploitation” concept requires that China would participate not simply as a foreign partner-investor like any other country, but as the one having “sovereignty” over the sea area concerned. To accept such negotiations would mean acquiescence of this China's absurd claims. That was the main reason for Indonesia’s rejection of China's proposal for negotiations on water areasnear Indonesia's Natuna islands in this July.
Following the US announcement of its "pivot" to Asia, and at the urging of ASEAN countries, China finally agreed to hold negotiations with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC),and has been using this to show that the South China Sea situation is "developing positively", "under control", and being resolved between China and ASEAN, with no need for outside involvement. In reality, however, the COC negotiations have been facing with numerous difficulties, for China is unwilling to have a truely effective and legally binding code of conduct (which is essential, but still lacking, for ASEAN countries to help create favorable conditions for maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea). Meanwhile, China keeps pressurizing ASEAN countries into accepting a stipulation that all cooperative activities for exploitation in the South China Sea should be conducted only with China or China’s consent, which would means at the same time an official recognition of China’s sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and an agreement with China to “close the door” of these international waters to all other countries.
In fact, China has turned the existing and real issue of Hoang Sa (Paracel) into an "undisputed” oneand large parts of legal exclusive economic zones and continental shelfs of other littoral countries into "disputed" areas, and at the same time has been trying to compel other countries to negotiate on the basis of recognition in the first place of China’s "nine-dash line" and "Four Sha" claims. That is whymany "bilateral negotiations" have been deadlocked or unable to come into real substance, and there is no sight that China might adjust its claims to conform to international law. Meanwhile, China is getting ever more drastic in unilateral use of force for on-site realization of its illegal claims.
Legal solutions constitute a widely used and effective tool for the peaceful settlement of territorial sovereignty disputes between countries, including those with friendly relations, and therefore should not always be seen as an act of confrontation or hostility. For example, Malaysia and Singapore, Australia and Timor Leste, Cambodia and Thailand, Qatar and Bahrain, India and Bangladesh, orNicaragua and Colombia ... have found fruitful and mutually acceptable solutions to sovereignty disputes through international jurisdiction. As shown by history, if parties to a dispute cannot come to a solution through direct negotiations, due to impossibility to compromise on matters of principle or internal factors, recourse to international jurisdiction, such as a court or an arbitral tribunal, serves as a necessary, effective and appropriate solution. However, China has always been fiercely opposed to such a way of solution with regard to the South China Sea issue, despite its repeated assertion that China "has ample historical and legal grounds" for its "indisputable" sovereignty. China has rejected the Philippines' proposal for a joint settlement through an arbitral tribunal, and exercised non-participation in the lawsuit, non-recognition of the ruling by the Court of Arbitration, and non-implementation of its decisions, although, as stipulated by international law, decisions rendered by such a court “shall be final and shall be complied by all the parties”. At the same time, China then has conducted economic sanctions and political campaigns against the Philippines, pressurizing the latter into side-stepping the Court’s ruling, and mobilizing the international public to stand against it. China has also threatened to take "stronger" measures against other countries should they dare bring China to an international arbitral tribunal. Meanwhile, peaceful settlement of disputes, including through agencies of international jurisdiction recognized in international treaties, UNCLOS or stipulations on the PCA’s establishment…, constitutes one of the fundamental principles of international law contributing to the preservation of peace and stability in the world. China's defiance of international law, disregard of the PCA, and boycott of its ruling cannot help raising doubt and concern among many countries about China’s real motives at a time when China is busily campaigning for theappointment of an additional judge of its own to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, another agency established in accordance with UNCLOS.
Although ASEAN has always advocated "respect for diplomatic and legal processes" in resolving the South China Sea issue, China's aforementioned stance constitutes a large obstacle blocking the way toward substantive negotiations or the use of legal instruments for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea. And thus, what China has claimed as "indisputable" has in fact been turned by China itself into an "do-not-dispute" matter.
Is the South China Sea just a bilateral issue?
China has always asserted that the South China Sea issue is just a matter between China and the other disputant countries, and that it should be resolved only through direct negotiations between the parties concerned. China has even demanded that, whenever a conflict emerges, disputant countries should conduct "internal exchanges" only with China and refrain from "publicizing" it. Always standing opposed to the "multilateralization" and "internationalization" of the South China Sea issue, China has tried to prevent ASEAN and other regional and international forums from having substantive discussions or statements on this issue, pressurizing, threatening and even "punishing" countries which dared to "publicize" or "internationalize" the issue. As a result, some countries have been compelled to adopt a "tactic of silence" even when China had infringed upon their lawful sovereignty in the South China Sea. China, on its part, has used this to demonstrate that the South China Sea situation was "basically stable" and "under control", in an attempt to forestall and restrict international concern about the issue. In schools, such a behavior is usually called "bullying", but the South China Sea is not a classroom and nations are not primary school pupils.
Clearly, there are sovereignty disputes between coastal states in the South China Sea. But the way these disputes are handled itself always impacts directly common peace and stability, and naturally constitutes a common concern of the region and the international community. That is why there must be stipulations of the United Nations Charter and international law on how to settle disputes and conflicts between nations. That is also why there have been international conferences and agreements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on Korea, on Cyprus, etc.... Certainly, such was also China's understanding when it had pro-actively pushed the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir in August 2019 toward discussions at the United Nations Security Council. What is unjustifiable, therefore, is the reason for China's constant obstruction to the inclusion of the South China Sea issue in the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and other international forums.
But the South China Sea is not only related to the issue of sovereignty of coastal states. It is also the fourth largest international sea area of the world, with the most important international maritime and air routes at present. Maintaining and ensuring peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea represent the common interests and responsibility of all countries and the international community, in which ASEAN shoulders a primary obligation. It would be ununderstandable if ASEAN, as a Security Community, could issue a declaration on the situation on the Korean peninsula in Northeast Asia, but were unable to make any statement on the South China Sea - an issue directly related to the sovereignty of many ASEAN member countries and peace and security in Southeast Asia itself. And while the African Union has recently convened a summit for discussions on the Grand Renaissance hydroelectric project, under dispute between Ethiopia and other North African countries, there have been so far not any summit of ASEAN or EAS for exclusive discussions of such an burning and important issue as the South China Sea. Who doesn't want it the most, we may guess.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that China's position has not always been consistent as such. On the contrary, China has even, on many occasions, pro-actively "publicized" and "internationalized" the South China Sea issue by launching propaganda campaigns, trying to influence and persuade governments, political parties, organizations and individuals of various countries to make pro-China declarations in this regard. In fact, China just wants to obstruct the voice of those with positions that differ from China's.
US-China strategic competition in the South China Sea and the slogan “Asia for Asians”
Apart from the ever-fiercer sovereignty disputes between China and other coastal states, the South China Sea has become a center of increasingly acute strategic competition among big countries, between the US and China in particular.
China has often criticized US interference, describing it as the main cause of the heated and complicated situation in the South China Sea. Yet, the US’s role should be seen and evaluated in the light of specific developments in the region and its approach to the issue.
According to many international experts, one of the China’s immediate strategic objectives in the roadmap of becoming a maritime superpower is to establish its monopoly over the South China Sea by controlling the ‘first chain of islands” and implementing the A2/AD strategy to minimize the role of the US and other countries in this area. It is not difficult to understand that US re-involvement in the region is first and foremost also determined by US interests, namely containment of China,maintenance of US influence in East Asia, and preservation of its predominance in the world.
Meanwhile, countries in the region all share an aspiration for the maintenance of peace, stability, cooperation and development, and are averse to being drawn into big-power competition. That is why many ASEAN countries have expressed the concern that confrontation and strategic competition between the US and China might increase tension and instability in the region, and they are not willing to choose between the US and China, still less to ally with the US against China.
However, actual developments in the current regional situation, in particular China’s claims and behavior in the South China Sea, have increased the anxiety of the regional and international community. China’s concerted and rapid moves to increase its military strength and speed up militarization in the South China Sea have led to serious imbalances in the regional co-relation of forces, with China holding absolute supremacy. Among countries bordering the South China Sea, China alone possesses nuclear weapons and aircraft carriers. Its defense expenditures and military might, including the navy and air force, have increased much more rapidly than those of the other coastal states, and are many times larger than the combined strength of all the latter. You may argue, as an explanation, that China is a big country with 1.4 billion inhabitants and the world’s second largest economy, but you may also imagine what would be the outcome when such a power superiority is used for the materialization of China’s ambitious claims in the South China Sea. Also, you may ask yourself why has China so rapidly developed landing ships and militarized banks and rocks in the high sea, while there is certainly no country that is foolish enough to attack features currently occupied byChina. Such a thing also has not occurred throughout the past more than 70 years, during which Chinahas been the sole country using armed force to attack and occupy islands belonging to others.
Paradoxically, while standing opposed to a US "unipolar" order in the world, China itself seems to be trying to impose its own "unipolar" order in East Asia, particularly in the South China Sea. While often upholding multilaterism and international law in many global issues, China has opted for a quite opposite position in relation to not a few regional issues, especially the South China Sea. China’s constant obstruction to the “multilaterization” of the South China Sea issue, its rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the Filipino lawsuit, its then Foreign Minister Yiang Jiechi’s July 2010 comment on “big country / small countries”, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s May 12, 2020 statement that "Vietnam has no right to comment on China's fishing ban in the South China Sea" are just some of the many examples of China’s real attitude on its relations with neighboring countries and its approach to a regional order.
China’s slogan "Asia for Asians" has been viewed as targeting the exclusion of all extra-regionalpowers, thus enabling the consolidation and maintenance of a Monroe-doctrine-style unipolar order in this region under China’s domination. And this has given rise to much doubt and suspicion about the actual essence of the "community with a shared future" that China is eagerly inviting other countries in the region to join.
It should be noted that the role and approach of the US with regard to the South China Sea are considerably different from its role and approach regarding many other issues, and from China’s. First, the US has no sovereignty ambitions or claims in the South China Sea. Second, although the US has in many cases violated international law and has not joined the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has been, in connection with the South China Sea, for respect of and abidance with international law, for maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, and against unilateral control of the South China Sea. And this corresponds with the positions and shared interests of regional countries,
Meanwhile, the South China Sea constitutes an international water area of great importance for the entire world, and maintaining peace and stability there, and ensuring safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above it in line with international law represent the common interests and responsibility of not only coastal countries but the whole international community as well. China’s ambitious claims and its unilateral use of force to impose its control over the South China Sea pose not only a threat to the sovereignty of coastal countries but also a challenge to international law and the common interests of all countries.
Above are the main reasons for regional countries to welcome constructive and responsible contributions from all countries in the international community on the South China Sea issue (whileChina’s position is just the opposite). This does not mean any attempt to motivate, or ally with, the US or other countries against China. Quite the contrary, all countries wish to maintain and develop cooperative and friendly relations with China, and are opposed to any provocation and act leading to tension and confrontation; all infringements upon the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity; or any interference in the internal affairs of other countries, China included. The ASEAN Statement on maintaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia dated August 8, 2020 once more reiterated its commitment to a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability, and to values in line with international law. What is most aspired for is that big countries should serve as examples with a responsible behavior and full respect for the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter and other instruments of international law, and that China should act in line with its promise on “mutual trust, mutual accommodation, mutual benefit and mutual assistance” in its relations with neighboring countries as well as its leaders’ oft-repeated commitment “never to become a hegemon”.
What can be solutions for the region’s future?
As has been shown in world history, unilateral use of force to materialize territorial sovereignty ambitions in disregard of international law poses a serious danger to peace, and only abidance to norms of conduct under effective supervision by collective security mechanisms can prevent conflicts and wars.
The growing tensions in the South China Sea, along with accelaration of armament, militarization, unilateral use of force in defiance of international law, growing radical nationalism, and increasingly fierce confrontation and strategic competition between the US and China will inevitably lead to further instability in the whole region’s security and development environment and, in general, will be disanvantageous to all countries, including China. Peace, stability and cooperation for development and prosperity always serve the fundamental and long-term interests of all nations. A proper awareness and responsible coordination of actions from all countries in the region and the international community are required for building trust and eliminating emerging threats and challenges.
First and foremost, the South China Sea should be understood as a traditional living space and an essential security and development environment for all coastal countries on the one hand, and aninternational body of water and a maritime and air route of primary importance of the world, on the other. Therefore, no country shall be allowed to exercise unilateral domination or control of the South China Sea, and maintenance of peace, stability, and safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in line with international law shall be a common primary responsibility of all countries in the region and the international community. With a view to clarifying and fortifying such an awareness, researchers of different countries have of late suggested the use of “Southeast Asia Sea” as the official international name of this body of water, in order to better reflect its geographical position and its “common” character, instead of “South China Sea”, which is linked to just one of the coastal countries.
Second, it should be made clear that in relation to the Souht China Sea, there are 3 main issues have emerged that need to be addressed: first, disputes over sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction among coastal states, of which the biggest and most acute are between China and the others; second,strategic confrontation and competition between the US and China in the region; and third,maintenance and ensurance of peace, stability, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight, andecological environment protection in the South China Sea. The three issues are closely inter-connectedand inter-act with each other.
Third, a satisfactory solution to the South China Sea issue could only be found on the principle of respect for the law, abidance by the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter and other instruments of international law, especially strict and full compliance with stipulations of the 1982United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as a Charter of Mankind on Oceans today. Any unilateral action in defiance of international law shall only increase tension and risks of conflict in the region.
Therefore, claims by all parties relating to sovereignty over sea features as well as to water bodiesshould be consistent with international law, especially UNCLOS. Priority should be given to the settlement of differences or disputes through direct negotiations between the parties concerned. In case no consensus is possible, the parties may resort to other peaceful means, such as mediation, conciliation, or arbitration by international jurisdiction agencies, the rulings of which shouldnecessarily be respected and enforced strictly. In the meantime, no party might act unilaterally to change the status quo and expand control, or to conduct exploration and exploitation beyond their respective exclusive economic zones and continental shelves as defined in accordance with UNCLOS stipulations.
At the same time, coordinated efforts are urgently needed to focus on stopping the arms race in the South China Sea, or even demilitarizing the South China Sea through gradually reducing and minimizing the presence of offensive weapons and military operations at sea of all parties.
Finally, it is of great importance that studies be conducted and consideration given at an earliest possible time to promoting the formulation of regional collective security arrangements and mechanisms with the participation on an equal footing of all stakeholders in order to develop and monitor the implementation of regulations and norms on the settlement of disputes, clashes and other problems that may arise, on armament and military operations, on management, control and exploitation of resources, on the protection of the marine ecological environment, with a view to preventing conflicts, maintaining peace and stability, ensuring safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, and enabling development cooperation for the shared prosperity of the region and the world. For the exercise of the above-mentioned function, ASEAN-centeredregional security structures, such as the ARF, the ADMM+, and especially the EAS, could and should be upgraded into regional collective security mechanisms. Consideration should be given to the convening of an International Conference on the South China Sea and then an International Conference on Security and Cooperation in East Asia for discussions of and decisions on relevant issues. Meanwhile, to perform its responsibility and centrality, ASEAN should consider the possibility of establishing a special task force on the South China Sea, with the voluntary participation of member states sharing direct interests in and highest concern about this issue, for regular research, monitoring and evaluation of the situation, and timely submiting reports and recommendations to ASEAN.
Such is the best way to build trust, ensure sustainable peace and promote development cooperation in the South China Sea in the interests of all countries in the region and the world./.
By Tran Minh (VPDF)