Why Vietnam is set on a dangerous course over China's maritime operations

Hanoi will put itself in a dilemma that it cannot handle, writes Gong Yingchun

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 10:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 May, 2014, 10:31am

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

Such provocative actions not only pose a serious threat to the safety of the Chinese drilling rig and the lives of those working on it, but also infringe upon the right of jurisdiction of China’s government vessels carrying out maritime law-enforcement tasks within the sea areas 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, but there is not any dispute between the two countries over the Xisha Islands in which the Zhongjian Island is included.

It is also true that delimitation is yet to be done for the waters between China’s Xisha Islands and Vietnam’s coastline. However, the drilling operation by the Chinese company is only 17 miles away from the Zhongjian Island, yet 150 miles from the Vietnamese coastline.

The location obviously falls within China’s offshore waters, notwithstanding the lack of an official delimitation between China and Vietnam in this area. There is not any possibility for overlapping claims between the two countries.

According to Article 56 and Article 60 of the United Nations 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 excuse that maritime delimitation has not been done, Hanoi has chosen to view the whole sea between China and Vietnam as disputable sea areas and sent a flotilla of ships to disturb the normal offshore drilling operations of the Chinese company. Vietnam’s activities, a violation of international practices, have also set a dangerous precedent for a country to brazenly interrupt another country’s normal maritime operations in the sea waters under jurisdiction of the latter, which is obviously in breach of the UNCLOS.

The actions of the Vietnamese authorities are a serious provocation. The harassment by Vietnamese ships of the Chinese oil rig operating normally within the waters under China’s jurisdiction infringed upon China’s exclusive sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the natural resources within the sea waters under China’s jurisdiction. Vietnam should be held accountable for the consequences of its actions, which are in violation of international law, and China certainly has the right to take countermeasures in accordance with international law.

The Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation and the Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf, two documents passed by the International Maritime Organization in 1988, formally came into effect on March 1, 1992. China and Vietnam have both ratified and are party to these two international conventions. As stipulated by the two documents, China has legitimate rights to exercise its jurisdiction and impose some sanctions, against any country whose activities endanger the safety of navigation and its fixed platforms on its continental shelf.

By mobilizing armed vessels to ram Chinese ships in the waters only 17 miles away from China’s Zhongjian Island, Vietnam has made clear its intention of provoking a head-on clash with China and exerting pressure on China.

With such reckless and risk-taking behaviour, Vietnam has turned a blind eye to the overall picture of Sino-Vietnamese relations and ignored the ongoing efforts made by both countries to create a good atmosphere and environment for all-round cooperation, and seriously jeopardized bilateral mutual trust.

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

The author is a Beijing-based expert on international studies.