By Joseph A. Klein
June 11, 2014
Tensions have risen in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China since early May 2014, when the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation deployed the drilling rig Hai Yang Shi You 981 (HYSY 981) in waters claimed by both countries. The oil rig is located about 20 miles from the China-controlled Paracel Islands, which China calls the Xisha Islands. Vietnam is also claiming sovereignty over these islands, which it calls the Hoang Sa Archipelago .
Both China and Vietnam have now brought their respective cases to the United Nations.
Vietnam asserts that the Chinese rig lies on Vietnam’s continental shelf. Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (Convention), to which both Vietnam and China belong, if the only continental shelf that is relevant is the one emanating from Vietnam’s coast line, Vietnam would be able to assert a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, which gives it exclusive rights to all mineral and hydrocarbon resources within that zone.
However, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has insisted that China’s rig was placed “completely within the waters of China’s Paracel Islands” and lies within a separate and more proximate continental shelf that those islands would generate under the terms of the Convention. Based on this premise, China would be able to assert its own 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone within which its rig lies, assuming that it does indeed have lawful sovereignty over the islands themselves.
Thus, there are competing claims of “exclusive economic zone” as defined under the Convention. There are also competing claims over which country has legal sovereignty to the Paracel Islands, as to which the Convention provides no direct guidance. Indeed, China claims that it is Vietnam which is violating international law, whose basic principles supporting China’s rights to the islands and related maritime space are broader than the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea alone.
Vietnam’s UN mission sent Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a letter enclosing a diplomatic note from the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry dated May 4, 2014, outlining the basis for its claims and accusing China of refusing to end violations of Vietnam’s alleged sovereignty and jurisdiction over what it claims as its exclusive economic zone. The Vietnamese mission’s letter to Ban Ki-moon asked him to circulate it as an official document of the 68th session of the General Assembly.
China rejects Vietnam’s accusations as “slander” intended to mislead the international community about the actual situation in the South China Sea.
“On the one hand, they have been increasing their damaging and harassing activities on the scene, while internationally everyone has seen they have been unbridled in starting rumours and spreading slander, unreasonably criticising China,” its foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing on June 10th. She added that China had to explain the “real situation” to be clear “about Vietnam’s real aim in wantonly hyping things up.”
To back up its side of the dispute, China’s deputy ambassador Wang Min sent China’s position paper to Ban Ki-moon on June 9th and, just as Vietnam had done, asked him to circulate it to all UN General Assembly member states. China’s position paper accused Vietnam of infringing on its sovereignty and “illegally and forcefully disrupting the normal operation of the Chinese company on the sea.” China said in its position paper that it has exercised “great restraint” while taking “necessary preventive measures.” These measures consisted of the dispatching of Chinese ships to the site “for the purpose of ensuring the safety of the operation, which effectively safeguarded the order of production and operation on the sea and the safety of navigation.” China claimed that it has reached out to Vietnam on multiple occasions to request that it “stop its illegal disruption,” but that such disruption is still continuing.
Both countries have professed that they want to find a peaceful solution, but a top Vietnam official warned that “all restraint had a limit.” The “limit” on Vietnam’s “restraint” has evidently already been reached. Vietnam has taken a series of provocative actions, according to China’s position paper, which provided several examples. Shortly after the Chinese drilling operation started, Vietnam has sent dozens of vessels, some armed, to the site in an attempt to disrupt the operation. Vietnamese ships have rammed Chinese ships guarding the drilling rig, China’s position paper said. “Vietnam also sent frogmen and other underwater agents to the area, and dropped large numbers of obstacles, including fishing nets and floating objects, in the waters,” the paper added.
The Vietnamese government’s provocative actions have set off anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam, which has led to violence against Chinese nationals and property. Four Chinese nationals were killed and 300 others injured, according to China’s position paper.
The Vietnamese government has not denied outright that such events took place, but essentially has laid the blame completely on China. It has accused China of ramming its boats and claimed that a Chinese vessel plowed into one of its fishing boats before it sank on May 26th. The Chinese said they were on the defensive while Vietnamese vessels were attacking Chinese fishing boats.
China said that it is only continuing explorations that have gone on in related waters for the past 10 years. China’s position paper set forth the historical basis for its claim that the “Xisha Islands are an inherent part of China’s territory.” It traced the establishment of Chinese jurisdiction over the islands back to the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126 AD). China added that Vietnam’s current posture of confrontation is at odds with the prior acknowledgment or acquiescence by successive Vietnam governments of China’s sovereignty over these islands.