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Oil surveys in disputed waters have been a source of tension between China and Vietnam. Photo: AP

South China Sea: Vietnam hopes Beijing ‘will show restraint’ in 2020 after year of tension

  • Earlier this year, a Chinese oil survey vessel and its escorts spent months within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone
  • ’What China did is very alarming and also kind of threatening not only Vietnam but also other countries,’ Vietnamese diplomat said
Vietnam said it hoped China would show restraint in the South China Sea next year after a Chinese oil survey vessel and its escorts spent months within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which Hanoi regarded as a blatant violation of its sovereignty.
Vietnam, the region’s most forceful challenger of China’s extensive maritime claims to the busy waterway, will take on the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2020.
“I hope that during our chairmanship China will show restraint and refrain from these activities,” Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, Nguyen Quoc Dung, said at a lecture at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “What China did is very alarming and also kind of threatening not only Vietnam but also other countries that see the potential of being threatened in the future.”

South China Sea: message for Beijing in Vietnam, Malaysia defence white papers

China’s claims within its “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea are a source of friction with Asean members Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei as well as with the United States. But China’s closest allies within the Southeast Asian bloc have historically opposed taking tougher words or action against China.

The Vietnamese minister said it wasn’t that other Asean countries supported China’s actions, but that they did not protest in the same way.

Trade worth more than US$3 trillion a year passes through the waterway, which also has oil and gas reserves and historic fishing grounds for the surrounding countries.

The Vietnamese defence white paper released earlier this month deplored “new developments” in the waters, including “unilateral actions, power-based coercion, violation of international law, militarisation, change in the status quo, and infringement upon Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction as provided in international law”.

These activities “undermined the interests of nations concerned and threatened peace, stability, security, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the region”, the document said.

Explained: South China Sea dispute

The Chinese oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 left Vietnam’s extended economic zone in late October after more than three months there. Beijing said it had been carrying out a scientific survey in Chinese-controlled waters.

The stand-off was the first since 2014 when drilling by a Chinese vessel off Vietnam triggered boat rammings by both sides and anti-China riots in Vietnam. China subsequently withdrew the oil rig.

Like China, Vietnam has also built artificial islands in the maritime territories in recent years to stake its claim.

Picture of HaiYang DiZhi 8. Photo: China Geological Survey
Asean nations as well as other nations are seeking to establish a code of conduct for the South China Sea to avoid any unplanned escalation of tensions.

The concept of a code of conduct was first raised in the 1990s but it was not until 2013 that Beijing agreed to begin formal consultation on the code of conduct. It took almost four years for senior officials from China and the Asean nations to agree on a framework.

China’s new ambassador to Philippines begins job amid strained ties

For Asean, finding agreement between all its 10 members remains a challenge, particularly as Beijing, increasingly assertive on maritime issues, is unlikely to make any concessions on its sovereignty claims.

However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July announced that China and the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had completed the first reading of the text to negotiate the code of conduct ahead of schedule.