Vietnam's maritime provocations against China set a dangerous course

Gong Yingchun says China has the legal right to take countermeasures

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2014, 1:38am

In recent days, the Vietnamese authorities have dispatched a large number of ships, including some naval vessels, to the waters off Zhongjian Island [known by some as Triton Island], forcibly disturbing the normal drilling operations of a Chinese oil rig and ramming China's escorting civilian ships.

Such provocative actions not only pose a serious threat to the safety of the drilling rig and the lives of those working on it; they also infringe the right of Chinese government vessels to carry out maritime law-enforcement tasks within the seas under China's jurisdiction.

It is true that there is a territorial dispute between China and Vietnam over some islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands [also known as the Spratly Islands], but there is no dispute between the two countries over the Xisha Islands [also known as the Paracel Islands], of which Zhongjian Island is a part.

It is also true that delimitation has yet to be determined for the waters between the Xisha Islands and Vietnam's coastline. However, the drilling operation by the Chinese company is only 17 nautical miles from Zhongjian Island, yet 150 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coastline. The location obviously falls within China's offshore waters, notwithstanding the lack of an official delimitation line. There is no possibility of overlapping claims.

According to Article 56 and Article 60 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China has exclusive sovereign rights of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing resources within the waters off the Xisha Islands. It also owns exclusive jurisdiction over the construction and use of all installations and structures operating in these waters, including oil rigs.

It is clear that by taking the line that there has been no maritime delimitation, Hanoi has chosen to view the whole sea between China and Vietnam as a disputed area. Vietnam's activities, a violation of international practices, have also set a dangerous precedent for a country to brazenly interrupt another nation's normal maritime operations in the waters under the latter's jurisdiction.

The actions of the Vietnamese authorities are a serious provocation. The harassment by its ships of the Chinese oil rig has infringed China's exclusive sovereign rights. Vietnam should be held accountable for the consequences of its actions. China has the right to take countermeasures in accordance with international law.

Two international agreements - the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, and the Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf - came into effect in 1992. China and Vietnam have ratified and are party to these conventions.

As stipulated by the two documents, China has a legitimate right to exercise its jurisdiction and impose sanctions against any country whose activities endanger the safety of navigation and its fixed platforms on its continental shelf.

By mobilising armed vessels to ram Chinese ships in the waters only 17 nautical miles from China's Zhongjian Island, Vietnam has made clear its intention of provoking a head-on clash and exerting pressure on China. With such reckless behaviour, Vietnam has turned a blind eye to the overall picture of Sino-Vietnamese relations and ignored the ongoing efforts by both countries to create a good atmosphere and environment for all-round cooperation, and seriously jeopardised bilateral mutual trust.

The Vietnamese attempt to force China to give up its legitimate rights and interests by escalating regional tension is both dangerous and futile. On the contrary, Hanoi will place itself in a dilemma it cannot handle.

Gong Yingchun is an expert on international law with the Beijing-based China Foreign Affairs University