Tag Archive | "EEZ"

Map: Scarborough Shoal

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Fishermen caught out by politics of South China Sea – by Tomas Etzler | CNN

02 March 2013





    

Luzon, Philippines (CNN) – A year ago, a fisherman Efren Forones came back from fishing trips with up to three and half tons of fish. In return he was able to buy 15 to 20 kilos of rice for his family every month and was planning to send at least one of his six children to college.

Not any more.

He now returns with just 400 kilos of catch at best, meaning he can only afford one to two kilos of rice a month, while school for his children is an expensive luxury and out of the question.

The reason? He says he can longer fish in the fertile waters around Scarborough Shoal.

A cluster of uninhabitable sand banks and small rocks set in a shallow azure water lagoon about 130 miles (200 km) west from the Philippine island of Luzon, Scarborough Shoal is one of a number of territories at the center of an international dispute in the South China Sea.

Both the Philippines and China lay claim to it.

Tense standoff

The long-term tensions between the two nations escalated last April during a one-month stand off between the two nations, after Manila accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally in the area. When a Philippines navy vessel inspected the boats it found “large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks” inside one of the boats, according to the Philippine government. Manila then reported that two Chinese surveillance ships had taken up position at the mouth of the lagoon, blocking the way to the fishing boats and “preventing the arrest” of the fishermen. The vessels stretched a cable across the mouth of the lagoon, which also prevented Filipino fishermen from going there, according to the Philippines coast guard.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government took its feud with China to a United Nations tribunal, a move that Beijing has rejected. In an article on state-run CCTV last month, China pointed to a code of conduct it signed in 2002, known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It said the declaration expected that relevant disputes be solved through friendly talks and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.

That brings little comfort to the struggling fishermen in communities in west Luzon, the nearest region to Scarborough Shoal — also known as Panatag Shoal here or Huangyan Island to the Chinese. One of them is Masinloc, a municipality of 40,000 people, which relies on the seas for almost 80% of its income, according to the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. It says thousands of fishermen have lost their regular jobs as catches decline.

Forones is one of them.

The 52 year old has been fishing in the waters off Masinloc for 22 years. He lives with his family in a traditional bamboo house mounted on pillars above the sea. His youngest daughter is four years old. Forones does not own a boat but used to be hired as a fisherman and paid a minimum of $85 dollars for a trip. Nobody is hiring now. He has tried to rent boats on his own and fish with his neighbors, but the little catch they bring back barely covers the rental fee and fuel.

Map: Scarborough Shoal

He says the Shoal is the most important fishing ground in this region. “They (the Chinese) shoo us away, will not allow Filipinos to come near the area,” he says. “They are the only ones that can fish there, not us. We lost Scarborough and it is hard. We earn nothing.”

Beijing is unwavering in its claims. As recently as last month, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Chinese surveillance vessels were carrying out regular missions in the South China Sea.

The Xinhua report cited Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, as saying that China would continue the patrols “to secure the nation’s maritime rights and interests” in areas it claims as its territorial waters.

China’s claim on the area dates back to 1279 during the Yuan Dynasty, when Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing conducted a survey. Then in 1935, China declared sovereignty over 132 islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, with the Scarborough Shoal — or Huangyan — included as a part of the Zhongsha Islands, according to Xinhua.

However, Forones is in little doubt who the lagoon, which lies within what the Philippines declares as its Exclusive Economic Zone, belongs to.

“Of course it is ours. We own Scarborough,” he insists. “But China is trying to get it from us. Our government should fix that. We should seek help from the United States if the Philippine government cannot handle it alone.”

Nowhere else to go

Forones and his wife plan to stay in Masinloc, for now. He will try to start diving for shellfish. By selling clams, mussels and oysters, they can make around $5 a day. Enough to buy rice and other basic food to feed the family. “There is no other place where we can go. I will stay here, get shells from nearby and help my husband to make living,” Forones’ wife, Gemma, says.

The situation is similar in Subic, a town 55 miles (88 km) south of Masinloc. It used to host one of the biggest American naval bases outside the United States, before it closed in 1991.

Operators of the fishing market on the outskirts of the town of 90,000 say business is down 50% since the fishermen were blocked from fishing where they wanted to at Scarborough. Many fishermen here share a similar story to their counterparts further north.

“When we went there, a Chinese vessel, the Chinese Marine Surveillance blocked our path,” says Ronnie Drio, 46-year-old father of eight children. “As we managed to get past through it, it looked like they called another one because a different ship appeared and blocked our way again.

“That’s when we got trapped. Then a Chinese man stepped out. He looked like their highest officer. He flashed a sign that we had to leave immediately. We were kicked out like pigs.”

A number of fishermen have already left Subic and Masinloc and many more are considering it. One of them, 58-year-old Tolomeo “Lomi” Forones, is Efren’s cousin. He’s been a fisherman for 30 years but now makes a living as a motorbike taxi driver. He makes around $2 on a good day.

“Our income was higher when we used to fish at Scarborough. I even used to save money. But now we earn just enough for daily consumption and sometimes what we earn is not even enough to provide food.”

Dangerous waters

He still does occasional fishing trips but against his wife’s wish. Janet Forones wants to leave Masinloc and their low income is not the only reason: “Who would not get worried when they are out there? What if they get shot?” She was referring to the presence of the Chinese boats.

What puzzles the fishermen here most is the speed the whole situation has changed. Although the Philippine and Chinese governments have disputed each other’s claim to the lagoon for many years, they could fish at Scarborough alongside Chinese fishermen up until a few months ago.

“I do not know why they don’t like us or why they do not want us within that area. If Americans were still in the region, the Chinese would have never came to Scarborough because they would be scared. If our government allows the U.S. to come back over here, its OK with me,” she says, referring to Washington’s commitment to its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed last year.

But the solution to the dispute is as distant as ever. Litigation at the United Nations could last years. Most of the local fishermen do not have so much time. So while the governments squabble, many of these fishermen and their families will have to leave the only life they have known and start from scratch somewhere else.

 

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Unhappy Neighbors – by Ngo Vinh Long | The Cairo Review

10 February 2013

by Ngo Vinh Long | The Cairo Review - Speaking to diplomats, businessmen and journalists at the British Foreign Office in November, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia emphasized the need for “norms and principles” in resolving disputes in the South China Sea. Why did PresidentYudhoyono, who was spending a week in London at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II as the first leader to visit Britain during the year of her Diamond Jubilee, feel that he had to bring up the South China Sea disputes at such a time?

 

Chinese marines in the South China Sea, near Nansha Islands, April 10, 2010. Zha Chunming/ Xinhua Press/Corbis

After a member of the audience asked what Indonesia, the leading nation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could do if China did not share his views, President Yudhoyono recalled what he had said to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a summit conference in Bali and again to Chinese President Hu Jintao at a meeting in Beijing: without forward movement on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, the whole region could “easily become a flashpoint.” He added that the two Chinese leaders had concurred with his assessment.

President Yudhoyono added, however, that he had become quite concerned after ASEAN foreign ministers failed to reach a CoC agreement at a meeting in Cambodia in July 2012. He did not mention the role played by China in getting the Cambodian government to sabotage the pact. He only said that since then, Indonesia has done its utmost to bring about a consensus among ASEAN nations on the issue. He also did not mention the fact that at an international conference on “Peace and Stability in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific Region” held in Jakarta in September, most of the participants expressed pessimism as long as China continued to exert military and economic power in area within the U-shape line demarcating its self-declared zone of sovereignty.

The U-Shape Line

What is the U-shape line and why is it seen as such a threat to peace and stability in the South China Sea area and the Asia Pacific Region?

On May 7, 2009, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) officially submitted—in two separate letters—to the secretary general of the United Nations a map with a nine-dotted, U-shape line with the following identical words: “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.”

This was the first time China sent the map, without any coordinates, to an intergovernmental body, principally in response to the Vietnamese-Malayan joint submission and Vietnamese individual submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) of the United Nations. Under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the littoral states of Southeast Asia are entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in waters up to 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. In order for coastal states to expand the outer limit up to 350 nautical miles, they have to obtain approval from the CLCS.

The origin of the U-shape line can be traced to a map published by the Department of the Interior of the Republic of China (ROC) in 1946. The map included a U-shape line consisting of eleven intermittent dashes enclosing most of the South China Sea, supposedly because Chinese had discovered the area during the Han Dynasty. Even though the dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin were erased from the map presented to the UN in 2009, partly because a bilateral agreement between China and Vietnam on the demarcation of the area had been reached, the U-shape in the latest map still cut deeply into the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines responded with their own notes to the CLCS to reject China’s claim and its map. Vietnam’s note maintained that China’s claim as represented by the U-shape line “has no legal, historical, or factual basis, therefore is null and void.” Indonesia’s note said that the map “clearly lacks international legal basis” and is tantamount to upsetting the UNCLOS. The Philippines’ note said that China’s claim to most of the South China Sea “would have no basis under international law, specifically UNCLOS.”

Under UNCLOS, the South China Sea is divided into three areas:

—The 200 nautical mile EEZs stretching out from the coastal lines of Vietnam, Chinese Hainan Island/Province, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

—The islands, islets, rocks, and reefs in the Paracels and the Spratlys. According to Article 121 of UNCLOS: “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” And islands cannot have maritime space beyond twelve nautical miles.

—The international waters area outside of the EEZs, the Paracels, and the Spratlys. Many of the islands, islets, rocks, and reefs in the Spratlys are actually situated inside the EEZs of the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

In 1974, China used force to take over the entire Paracels, which at that time was under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), killing at least fifty-three Vietnamese sailors. Again, in 1988, China took possession of the Johnson Reef in the Spratlys from the Vietnamese. Chinese gunboats sank Vietnamese transport ships supporting a landing party of Vietnamese soldiers, killing sixty-four Vietnamese soldiers and injuring many others. In 1995, China also took over the Mischief Reef, which is 150 miles west of the Palawan, the Philippines’s nearest land mass, and proceeded immediately with the construction of military structures on the reef.

It is seemingly based on these and other occupations that China claims “indisputable” sovereignty over all the island groupings in the South China Sea and uses them to justify attempts to control maritime space 200 nautical miles beyond them. For example, in response to an official protest by the Philippines following China’s assertive activities in the region, especially in the Spratlys (called the Nansha Islands by China), China sent a note to the United Nations on April 14, 2011, that asserted: “China’s Nansha Islands is fully entitled to Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zones, and Continental Shelf.”

In June 2012, China’s State Council announced the establishment of the City of Sansha (Three Sands), a prefectural-level city to be headquartered on Woody Island in the disputed Paracels, to directly administer “the Xisha, Nansha, Zhongsha Islands and their adjacent islets and waters.” Xisha (Western Sands), Nansha (Southern Sands), and Zhongsha (Middle Sands) are Chinese names of three disputed archipelagos—otherwise known as the Paracels, the Spratlys, and the Macclesfield Banks—respectively. On July 24, 2012, Sansha officially announced that it had established a prefectural government; and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also said that it would soon establish a military garrison there to serve as the command headquarters for military units operating in the South China Sea area. The headquarters of China’s Southern Fleet—the most powerful of China’s three naval fleets—and China’s entire marine force with some 20,000 soldiers, are presently stationed on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province.

Many countries in Southeast Asia—among them the Philippines and Vietnam—protested China’s provocative actions, especially the establishment of the new military garrison. In August, the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying that the move risked raising tensions and was “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences.” On the same day, the Chinese foreign ministry called in a senior U.S. diplomat to protest the State Department’s remarks. Chinese Foreign Ministry
Spokesman Qin Gang also issued a statement, which repeated China’s contention that it has absolute sovereignty over the sea and islands in the South China Sea, and so has the right to set up a city to administer the region. In September, the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, declared flatly during a four-hour appearance with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square that “China has sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and the adjacent waters. There is plentiful historical and jurisprudential evidence for that.”

Even if China could rightfully claim sovereignty over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and exclusive zones as well as continental shelf rights around them, this would still not justify the U-shape line given that it cuts deeply into the EEZs and undisputed territories of other countries. Thus, China’s actions raise the question of whether its real intention is to turn undisputed territories into disputed ones in order to flex its muscles and force other countries to yield to its demands, and not only in the South China Sea but also in other domains.

In 2011, for example, Chinese ships twice cut the cables of oil exploration vessels well within Vietnam’s EEZ and drove off an oil exploration vessel in Philippine waters. Then in late June 2012 China’s National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) issued nine exploration leases in blocks that fall entirely within Vietnam’s EEZ. CNOOC executives and officials at China’s Ministry of Land and Resources have given estimates that there are approximately 40 billion tons of oil equivalent in the South China Sea, most of which is believed to be natural gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, one Chinese estimate puts the sea’s gas reserves at 2,000 trillion cubic feet. That would be enough to meet China’s gas needs for more than 400 years based on 2011 consumption levels. According to a May 2012 statement by Zhong Hua, CNOOC chief financial officer, the company aims to produce 500 million barrels of oil equivalent a day from the deepwater of the South China Sea by 2020—up from nothing today.

Oil is but one factor in China’s strategy of roiling the troubled waters. Since 2009, China has also enforced an annual unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea, confiscating fishing boats from other countries—mostly from Vietnam—as well as arresting and injuring many fishermen. In April 2012, when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating illegally in the Scarborough Shoal, China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels arrived on the scene and blocked the entrance to the lagoon thus preventing the arrest of the Chinese illegal fishing boats. During a two-month stand-off, China dispatched nearly one hundred fishing craft to occupy the shoal. In June, the Philippines announced that an agreement had been reached with China for a mutual withdrawal of ships. Later, however, Chinese ships returned and have maintained effective control of the shoal and the waters around it ever since. In addition to the occupation of the shoal, China also applied economic sanctions on the Philippines by banning the import of bananas and cancelling tourist charter flights.

China and Vietnam

For Vietnam, pressures from China have been multi-faceted and more heavy-handed than those applied on the Philippines and other countries in the region. And because of historical, ideological, geopolitical, economic, and cultural considerations, reactions from Vietnam have also been much more circumscribed compared to those from the Philippines. Here it is useful to consider some of the key periods in the history of Chinese-Vietnamese relations since the establishment of the Chinese Communist regime in 1949.

The Vietnamese resistance to the French colonial re-conquest of Vietnam after the Second World War had consistently been interpreted by the U.S. State Department as a case of “nationalist groundswell” under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. But after the Communist victory in China, it came to be seen by top U.S. leaders as a Communist threat that had to be destroyed. Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented: “The question of whether Ho is as much a nationalist as a Communist is irrelevant.” Consequently, Acheson argued in 1949 that “no effort should be spared” to assure the success of a pro-French Vietnamese government. On the eve of the Korean War in March 1950, Acheson observed that French military success “depends, in the end, on overcoming [the] opposition of indigenous population” and that the U.S. must help the French protect Indochina from communist encroachment. Thereafter, the United States supplied the French with some 80 percent of the total cost of its colonial re-conquest.

In late 1950, Chinese economic and military aid also began to enter Vietnam. Though much more limited in scope than U.S. support for France, Chinese aid enabled China to increasingly exert influence and dictate demands on the anti-colonial front—the Vietnamese League for Independence, or Viet Minh—and provoke factional disputes among its leadership.

French military setbacks by the Viet Minh, such as the humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, led to the Geneva Conference (held from May 8 to July 21 in that year) to provide France with a face-saving means of disengagement. On her part, France did not want anything more than a graceful exit from Indochina. But, after the United States attempted to sabotage the negotiations and create an opportunity for direct intervention in Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union forced the Hanoi delegation to make repeated and significant compromises so that a peaceful settlement could be concluded quickly. These powers were uneasy over the possibility that the United States might intervene massively, with consequences that would extend beyond Indochina. The Chinese and Russian leaders were also afraid that once the United States intervened, nuclear warfare that had begun in one corner of Asia would not be confined there. China’s leaders also wished to avoid giving the U.S. any pretext for introducing forces on her southern flank, especially after as many as one million Chinese “volunteers” had lost their lives in Korea.

As a result of the significant concessions made by Hanoi, the Geneva agreements on Vietnam were reached on July 20 and 21: the bilateral armistice agreement between France and the Viet Minh was signed on July 20, and the multilateral final declaration was signed by all participants—except the United States—the following day. Secretary of States John Foster Dulles had said however, two days before the signing of the agreement by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and France, that the United States “will not do anything to upset any reasonable accord sought by the French.” This promise was no doubt quite instrumental in encouraging the DRV delegation to make its final concessions in reaching the accords. Both accords spelled out in detail a temporary partition of the country, at the 17th Parallel, into “two military regroupment zones” with military forces of the Viet Minh regrouped to the north of those of the French to the south of the line. National elections under international supervision were to be held in two years to reunify the country.

Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, head of the American delegation, read an official unilateral declaration from the United States saying that it would not do anything to threaten the stipulations of the agreements and that it specifically endorsed the call for elections to reunify the country. In spite of the public promise, the United States immediately went about violating the agreements and promoted the country’s division into so-called “North Vietnam” and “South Vietnam” until 1975. The Second Indochina War fought over this decision would cost more than two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives. In a meeting with a group of U.S. scholars in 1971, Premier Zhou Enlai, the head of the Chinese delegation at Geneva, admitted that his “mistake and inexperience” at Geneva had contributed to the Vietnam tragedy.

In the meantime, however, China was able to use the northern half of Vietnam as a buffer zone to protect its territorial integrity from possible U.S. encroachments. Furthermore, in order to secure its “lips-and-teeth” relationship with the Hanoi leadership, China pushed its Maoist model on the northern regime with disastrous consequences for the economic, social, and political structures of the region. As a result, again, many innocent Vietnamese lives were lost.

The most grievous destruction during the mid-1950s was the land reform program carried out simultaneously with the rectification program applied against so-called rightists within the Vietnamese Workers Party and the state bureaucracy. Of course, this was done in the name of building socialism and creating a solid base for resisting imperialist aggression in the south. A report by the politburo to the tenth plenary session of the central committee of the party in October 1956 stated that thousands of lives had been lost as a result of the land reform program, and that “the land reform machine, in fact, became the institution that was placed both above the party and the government.”

The politburo report said that 2,876 village party branches or cells (out of 3,777) were subjected to the rectification program. These branches represented 150,000 out of the total of 178,000 party members. Of the party members who were forced to go through rectification, 84,000 (or 47.1 percent of the total number of party members) were purged. Many village party branches were summarily disbanded, and many good party members were arrested and executed.

The report went on to say that often the best village party branches and the best local cadres were the ones who were most severely punished. Many village party branches that made the biggest contributions during the resistance war against the French were regarded as reactionary and hence their party members and party secretaries were either jailed or killed. One of the aims of the rectification program was to replace party members with those with “property-less peasant background.” As a result, the percentage of members with this background in the village party branches rose to 97 percent.

The rectification program was also applied against sixty-six district party branches and seven provincial branches with similar damaging results. Yet, the land reform and rectification programs enabled China to exert increasing control over the economic, social, and political structures in the northern half of Vietnam. Partly because of their realization of China’s influence over Vietnam and of the China-Soviet split, President Richard M. Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, began to play the “China card” in the early 1970s to get China to apply pressures on Vietnam in favor of American objectives.

Nixon in China

In 1972, President Nixon undertook his historic trip to China, which to the Vietnamese conveyed the implication that the Vietnam question could be settled not via representatives of the Vietnamese people, but between these two great powers. In response to this, Nhan Dan (The People’s Daily), the central organ of the Vietnam Workers’ Party, wrote: “Nixon is heading in the wrong direction. The way out is open, yet he rushes headlong into a blind alley. The time when the great powers could decide the fate of small nations is past and gone.”

Although China was not able to force Vietnam to end the war on Washington’s terms, after the signing of the Paris agreement in late January of 1973 China began cutting all military aid and most economic aid to Hanoi while the United States gave the Saigon regime more than $1 billion a year from 1973 to 1975. After the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, the United States immediately imposed the strictest possible trade embargo under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

Partly because Hanoi refused to heed China’s advice in sparing Saigon from a military takeover as suggested by France and some other countries, China lost face and decided to cut off all aid to Vietnam. Furthermore, while China began to mass several hundred thousand troops along Vietnam’s northern border, it increased both economic and military aid significantly to the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, which also started to build up its forces along Vietnam’s southern border provinces. According to the scholar Damodar Sardesai, “between 1975 and 1978, China supplied Cambodia with 130-mm mortars, 107-mm bazookas, automatic rifles, transport vehicles, gasoline, and various small weapons, enough to equip thirty to forty regiments totaling about 200,000 troops… An estimated 10,000 Chinese military and technical personnel were sent to Cambodia to improve its military preparedness.” Beginning in January 1977, Khmer Rouge forces attacked civilian settlements in six out of seven of Vietnam’s border provinces. Khmer Rouge troops brutally murdered about 30,000 Vietnamese civilians during attacks in 1977 and 1978, and forced tens of thousands to flee the border provinces. Several hundred thousand Cambodian refugees also fled to Vietnam during those years.

It was during these two years that officials from Vietnam and the United States met to negotiate the normalization of relations between the two countries. In meetings between Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1978, the two agreed on normalization without any preconditions. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoirs, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance sent a report on the details of the agreement to President Jimmy Carter and recommended that normalization should proceed immediately after the Congressional elections in early November. But Brzezinski succeeded in persuading Carter against it.

Fearing that the negative position of the United States would encourage Cambodia and China to stage a pincer attack on Vietnam, in November 1978 Vietnam signed a treaty of friendship and mutual assistance with the Soviet Union. On December 15, the United States announced the normalization of relations with China. On December 25, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in order to preempt a pincer attack, publicly saying, however, that it went into Cambodia to save the Cambodian people from the genocidal Pol Pot regime. In January 1979 China’s top leader, Deng Xiaoping, visiting the United States, announced that China would “teach Vietnam a lesson,” and asked President Carter for “moral support” for the forthcoming Chinese punitive war against Vietnam.

In February 1979, with the blessing of the United States, China launched its invasion of Vietnam, laying waste to six northern provinces and killing an estimated 30,000 Vietnamese (Chinese sources have claimed from 60
70,000 Vietnamese were killed.) Brzezinski called this a “proxy war” against the Soviet Union and was satisfied that it imposed “major costs on [the Vietnamese], produced a great deal of devastation, and above all, showed the limits of their reliance on the Soviets.”

For the next ten years, China and the United States exerted maximum economic and diplomatic pressures on Vietnam. China rejected all proposals by Vietnam Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach for a peaceful settlement to the Cambodian conflict under the auspices of the United Nations. The Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989 and Vietnam’s withdrawal of all its troops from Cambodia by September of the same year should have led to favorable international support for such a settlement.

Then came the collapse of communism in Europe. Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh had gone to East Germany to attend the fortieth anniversary of the Democratic Republic of Germany in early October 1989 just before the Eastern European communist regimes began to collapse one after another. Vietnamese Communist officials rushed to reestablish relations with China at all cost in order to defend socialism under the leadership of China. Linh even went so far as apologizing to Chinese leaders for all the mistakes that Vietnam had made in its the relations with China, while proposing a solution to the Cambodian situation that only involved the remaining communist countries in the region (known as the “Red Solution”).

In 1991, Nguyen Co Thach, the foreign minister who had pushed for a multilateral settlement to the Cambodian conflict, was evicted from the Vietnamese central committee and politburo. Later that year, Vietnam signed the UN-sponsored settlement for Cambodia, which represented the positions of China and the United States. In 1992, China and Vietnam established full diplomatic relations and the policy of cooperating closely with China for ideological reasons and for regime maintenance has been reinforced ever since between top Chinese and Vietnamese leaders.

For example, a joint declaration between Vietnamese General Secretary Nong Duc Manh and Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2008 spelled out the details of “total and effective cooperation” between central committee organizations of the two parties to “promote the mechanisms between the agencies of foreign relations, defense, public security, national security, and to expand practical cooperation in the economic, trade, scientific, technological, cultural, educational and other fields.”

It is difficult to know the real extent of Chinese-Vietnamese cooperation. But even official information publicly given by the two countries has shown that Chinese penetration in many sectors has been quite deep and detrimental to Vietnam’s interests. For example, although bilateral trade between the two countries has increased rapidly since 2000, Vietnam’s trade deficits with China have also accumulated to unprecedented levels. In fact, Vietnam’s trade deficits in the last decade have been principally with China. In 2011, Chinese and Vietnamese governments reported in glowing terms expanding bilateral trade of some $40 billion. This represented a 30 percent increase over the 2010 figure of $27 billion. But Vietnam’s trade deficits with China also grew significantly to over $11 billion in 2009 and $14 billion in 2011. In the first seven months of 2012, Vietnam’s trade deficit with China was over $8 billion. According to both governments, this bilateral trade will increase to $60 billion in 2015 when the ASEAN-China trade agreement goes into effect. This is when Vietnam will have to discard trade barriers over almost all items imported from China.

China’s trade surplus with Vietnam will certainly grow significantly after this date. Already, there are three principal reasons for China’s rapid increase in trade surplus with Vietnam in the last decade: 1) most of Chinese exports to Vietnam are manufactured goods while most of its imports from Vietnam have been agricultural products and raw materials; 2) China subsidizes its producers, manufacturers, and traders at all levels and hence the cost of products exported to Vietnam have been much lower than the production costs of most items produced in Vietnam; 3) Chinese exporters resort to a wide variety of questionable means including outright bribery—which are often reported even in the highly-censored Vietnamese press—to penetrate the Vietnamese market.

Bribery has also enabled Chinese corporations to win most of the bids for significant projects in Vietnam. According to many estimates, more than 50 percent of the total value of the all the contracts during the last ten years have been won by Chinese companies. In particular Chinese companies have won 90 percent of all the contracts in the sectors of electricity, oil and gas, telecommunications, metallurgy, machine tools, and chemicals and 100 percent of all contracts in the mining sector. Many of the contracts are worth several billion dollars each.

Vietnamese press reports have also disclosed that Chinese companies, armed with insider information, often tendered bids lower than those by Vietnam or other foreign countries, in order the win contracts. But after they have won the contracts, the companies jack up prices to levels much higher even than those tendered by Western companies whose technology and equipment are much more modern. The Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology disclosed this year that many “turn-key” projects with outdated technology and equipment have been imported from 1,800 dismantled Chinese industrial plants. The ministry added that it has come up with a policy to limit this kind of practice.

It remains to be seen how the ministry will be able to minimize these problems that will certainly grow by leaps and bounds. According to current plans, government outlays for infrastructure alone will be $117 billion by 2025 and many Vietnamese have wondered aloud how much of this money will again end up in Chinese hands. In the meantime, however, implementation of the projects that are already under contract with Chinese companies have been mostly been prolonged because of all kinds of excuses, causing huge cost overruns that the Vietnamese side has had to pay. Completed projects also have to depend on these Chinese contractors for maintenance and spare parts. In addition, tens of thousands of Chinese workers have been brought to projects in Vietnam and have, according to frequent reports in the Vietnamese press, caused many security problems in the surrounding areas.

Partly as a result of the outlays for such projects, the Vietnamese government budget deficit increased 31 percent in 2007, increased 29 percent in 2008, and 46 percent in 2009. Government borrowing from China increased tenfold during those years. In 2009 alone, official borrowing from China was $1.4 billion. Worse, the bad debts to Vietnamese banks from state sectors are threatening a series of bank collapses. According to sources in the financial sector and reports by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), and Vietnamese press, the 2011 figures for the overall debt of the state sector is $52.2 billion, about 43 percent of GDP. The state sector debts to Vietnamese banks run to $24.5 billion, 47 percent of which is considered bad debt.

Both the IMF and the ADB have issued warnings to Vietnam about the danger of the collapse of its banking system. The IMF also stated in September 2012 that it might have to provide bail-out supports for Vietnam. However, Prime Minister Nguyen Tien Dung announced after a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Xi Jinping in September 2012 that “we will not have to resort to help from the IMF.” Sources close to the prime minister have gloated that this was a meeting between bosom friends and that Chinese leaders were prepared to loan the Vietnamese government $10 billion to shore up its banking system should the crisis worsen.

Cleaning up the Neighborhood

Reporting on the meeting between the Chinese vice premier and the Vietnamese prime minister on September 20, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Xi Jinping as saying that the South China Sea issue will have a negative impact on bilateral relations if not handled properly. The Xinhua report also disclosed that the two sides reaffirmed the agreement reached between President Hu Jintao and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in mid-October of the previous year on “finding solutions to maritime disputes based on negotiations and dialogues.”

The Vietnam News Agency’s report of the same meeting quoted Dung as saying that “the two sides need to properly implement the general understandings of the top leaders of the two countries and seriously abide by the agreements on the fundamental principles directing efforts at solving maritime issues and disputes… through friendly negotiations based on international laws, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, as well as on the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct in order to move forward to an effective Code of Conduct (CoC).”

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was signed in 2002 by ASEAN countries and China, and committed them to respect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea in accordance with international laws and UNCLOS, and to resolve their disputes through peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force. The parties must also exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the region. But the declaration was non-binding, thus enabling activities that have heightened tensions and instability for the entire region. Hence, in 2009 the ASEAN countries decided to come up the idea of the Code of Conduct to create a rules-based framework for managing and regulating the conduct of the parties in the South China Sea. The aim of the CoC is to dampen conflicts and manage disputes, not to solve them. Even so, China has put up obstacles to such an agreement, including providing aid and loans to some ASEAN countries in order to get them to sabotage such an agreement.

A gathering of ASEAN and Chinese officials to discuss the CoC was held in October 2012 in Pattaya, Thailand, to work out the final details of the document so that it could be presented to the ASEAN summit meeting in November for ratification. On October 31, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh stated that ASEAN countries had already reached a consensus of the basic points of a CoC. After the meeting in Pattaya, however, First Deputy Foreign Minister Nopadol Gunavibool of Thailand, the coordinator of meetings between ASEAN and China, said that he did not have much hope for the passage of a CoC at the ASEAN. Then the spokesperson of the Cambodian foreign ministry announced flatly on November 3 that the CoC would not be adopted in 2012.

Recently, China made further moves that alarmed its neighbors. Perhaps the most serious was the announcement in late November by Hainan Province, which administers China’s South China Sea claims, that starting January 1, 2013, Chinese police and coast guard will board ships entering what China considers its territory in the South China Sea. According to a report by Jane Perlez of the New York Times on December 1, the announcement was made by Wu Shicun, the director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan Province. The article stated: “Mr. Wu said the new regulations applied to all of the hundreds of islands scattered across the sea, and their surrounding waters. That includes islands claimed by several other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines… The Chinese foreign ministry said last week that China was within its rights to allow the coast guard to board vessels in the South China Sea.”

On January 22, Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that his country had exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of maritime disputes with China and that his government would take the South China Sea issue to an UNCLOS tribunal. That was a direct challenge to China, whose deputy foreign minister, Fu Yuing, had asked del Rosario not to internationalize their dispute by going to the United Nations, raising it with third parties including allies or holding high-profile press conferences.

China has annexed Scarborough Shoal by maintaining a continuous deployment of surveillance ships there. If the Philippines took no action, it would appear to be acquiescing to the enforcement of Chinese jurisdiction by its civilian surveillance ships. The Philippines is trying to get a ruling on international law on specific matters involving maritime jurisdiction under UNCLOS. The Philippines is making four claims: 1) China’s U-shape line is illegal under international law; 2) China has occupied and built structures on submerged banks, reefs and low-tide elevations in the South China Sea and illegally claims that these are Chinese islands under international law: 3) China has illegally interfered with the Philippines’ exercise of sovereign jurisdiction within legal maritime zones; and 4) the Philippines is seeking a judgment in international law on matters that China has not excluded from consideration in its 2006 declaration exempting itself from compulsory arbitration by UNCLOS.

Although the Philippines has chosen to focus on highly specific legal aspects in its case, any favorable ruling would not only undermine China’s U-shape claim but would also represent a breakthrough for a peaceful resolution to the maritime disputes in the region.

China’s stonewalling and resistance with respect to addressing South China Sea issues come from the confidence that in bilateral negotiations with each of the far less powerful ASEAN countries she can impose her will on them. Vietnam is the most vulnerable to China’s pressures in part because Vietnam has the longest coastline in the region and has had the most maritime territories taken over by force by China. Hence compromises by the Vietnamese government in the face of further Chinese assertiveness inside Vietnam’s EEZs and around the areas of disputed islands would certainly invite further pressures from China as well as strong reactions from Vietnamese citizens.

In 2007, protests against China’s arrest and maltreatment of Vietnamese fishermen erupted at the PRC’s embassy and consulates in Vietnam, but were quashed by the Vietnamese government. In 2011, after Chinese Maritime Administration ships cut the sonar cables of Vietnamese oil prospecting boats, protest rallies were staged again, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City simultaneously, every Sunday for nearly two months. But arrests and violence against the protestors by security forces again put an end to the rallies.

In September, before going to Nanning to meet with Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Dung ordered a crackdown on blogs that have attacked his leadership and opposed China. Subsequently at least five bloggers were put on trial, resulting in jail terms of up to thirteen years. One of the bloggers had composed a song in which he urged the citizens to rise up against invaders and “cowards who sell the country.” On October 14, ten policemen stormed into the dorm room of the female student, Nguyen Phuong Uyen, at the Ho Chi Minh City Food and Technology University and put her in a jail in Long An province. An open letter for her release, signed by her classmates and addressed to President Truong Tan Sang, stated that she had been arrested because she had been suspected of participating in anti-China activities and joining anti-corruption campaigns.

The Vietnamese government’s repressive activities in the face of pressures from China have exacerbated tensions with its own citizens and eroded its legitimacy. Furthermore, these activities might have soiled the Vietnamese government’s image regionally and internationally and hence weakened its effectiveness in dealing with China’s increasing assertive activities in a region through which 60 percent of the entire global sea-borne trade moves each year.

In order to promote peace and stability in the region, all countries that utilize the South China Sea for trade and other reasons should unambiguously support efforts to settle the disputes.

A Proposal

In the interest of regional peace and global development, this writer made the following proposal based on UNCLOS’s definition of three South China Sea areas at an international conference attended by specialists and officials from most Asian countries, the United States, and many European nations. The conference, “The South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development,” was held in Ho Chi Minh City in November. The main idea of the proposal is to open up areas for cooperation among all parties involved:

1. Reaffirm the EEZ of each individual country and negotiate all overlapping claims. Form an international consensus on getting China to abandon its U-shape line.

2. Rally international support to bring all disputed claims in the island areas (islands, islets, rocks, and so on) to an international court for judgment if solutions could not be agreed upon by the claimants. In the meantime, occupants of undisputed areas should be willing to declare publicly that no island should have more than twelve nautical miles of territorial waters around it.

3. In the international area beyond the EEZs and the territorial waters of the islands all resources extracted therein (such as oil, gas, seafood) should be divided to each country in the region, after extractive expenses have been deducted, according to a formula to be negotiated.

Ngo Vinh Long is a professor of history at the University of Maine, where he has taught for more than twenty-five years. He is also a research associate at Duy Tan University, Da Nang City, Vietnam. He has contributed to the Journal of Contemporary Asia, American Historical Review, and other publications. He is a frequent commentator on Asian affairs on the Vietnamese-language broadcasts of Radio France Internationale, the BBC, and Radio Free Asia.

 

(Original version is available at The Cairo Review)

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Dangerous waters: Behind the islands dispute – by Kevin Voigt | CNN

24 September 2012

by Kevin Voigt | CNN - Hong Kong – When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping called Tokyo’s territorial claims on a group of East China Seas island “a farce,” he echoed national sentiment of protesters who took to the streets in anti-Japan protests in recent weeks.


Islands’ former owner comments on furor par CNN_International

“Japan should rein in its behavior, not utter any words and prevent any acts that undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Xi — who is expected to become China’s new president next month — at a Wednesday meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, state media reported.

As Beijing’s presumptive new leader wades into the Japan-China dispute, analysts say the stakes are being raised in a dispute that is largely being led by nationalist fervor rather than government policy or underlining economic interests. And the détente that usually follows these territorial disputes is muddied by the leadership change in Beijing expected next month.

“This is where it’s becoming dangerous,” said Alan DuPont, defense expert at the University of New South Wales. “No incoming Chinese leader can be perceived to be weak on territorial claims.”

On Monday, the Japan Coast Guard said two Chinese surveillance ships entered its territorial waters, while 10 other Chinese ships patrolled nearby. Meanwhile, China announced Sunday it was postponing planned celebrations later this month marking the 40th anniversary of normalization of relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

The bellicose rhetoric also charts the rise of an assertive China and a sea change in the forces shaping Pacific politics that are writ small in the battle over the uninhabited island chain, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

“China’s feeling more confident both in its position and in its right to the area both legally and politically,” Mark Valencia, a fellow at the National Asia Research Program and expert on the South China Sea dispute. “And nationalism in China has gained strength and influencing the government.”

Rising tensions in China waters

The East China Sea isn’t the only flashpoint for territorial tensions among China and its neighbors. The South China Sea is dotted with hundreds of largely uninhabited islands and coral atolls, many of which have competing claims from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Just like the friction with Japan, there have been increasing incidents of tension between China and its South China Sea neighbors over island claims.

In 2011, Vietnam claimed that Chinese patrol boats cut cables from PetroVietnam boats during oil and gas surveys in disputed waters. Beijing said that Vietnamese vessels have been illegally surveying in Chinese waters and harassing Chinese fishing boats. The same year Philippines also reported boats cutting cables of a survey ship and threatening to ram its boats.

“A lot of this wouldn’t be happening if China wasn’t becoming more assertive and being more confident, and that’s one important issue why all these issues are becoming more salient,” DuPont said.

The difference in the East China Sea is the collective might of China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world, respectively. “When you have two major nation states involved, it’s more dangerous than the (South China Sea),” DuPont said.

A nationalist wave

The often violent protests that broke out in dozens of Chinese cities — from Guangzhou in the south to Qingdao in the north — came to a head after the Japanese government bought the disputed islands from the Japanese family that have privately owned the islands on September 11 for 2.05 billion yen (US$26.2 million).

Dozens of Japanese factories and businesses temporarily shut their doors in the wake of the violence as angry crowds overturned Japanese brand cars and looted Japanese stores in some areas. The island dispute, which traces back centuries, have reached diplomatic boiling points in 1996, 2005 and most recently in 2010, when a Chinese boat allegedly rammed a Japanese patrol boat, resulting in the arrest of the Chinese sailors.

“I don’t think anyone thought the Chinese reaction would have been as strong as it was, and I don’t think anyone expected the level of violence that we saw, especially looking at past incidents,” said James Manicom, an expert on maritime disputes at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.

The “nationalization” of the islands infuriated Chinese, although analysts say Tokyo’s move was an effort to wrest the issue away from Japanese nationalists, led by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who launched an online appeal to buy the islands. Donations poured in, prompting a sharp rebuke from China and forcing the Japanese government to wade into the dispute with its own offer for the contested land.

“If you’re interested in stability, the Japanese government is better than owning the islands than a group of nationalists, because who knows how they might raise tensions,” Manicom said. “(Prime Minister) Noda’s calculation is, this is going to explode in the short-run, in the long run it’s better.”

Economic interests

Although nationalistic ardor on both sides of the dispute have brought the current situation to a boil, national interest in the territory can be traced to a 1969 United Nations geological survey that contains this tantalizing line: “A high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reserves in the world.”

Also under its South China Sea lie potentially huge reserves of natural gas and oil. A Chinese estimate suggests as much as 213 billion barrels of oil lie untapped in the South China Sea – which, if true, would make it the largest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At the heart of all these island disputes in China Seas is a term of international maritime law known as “;Exclusive Economic Zone,” where nations are allowed sole rights to fish and develop resources within 200 nautical miles of a country’s shores. That has created interest in nation’s grabbing uninhabited islands – often little more than rocky atolls – to thereby extend their zone.

“The area is starting to look a little bit like Alaska, at first looked worthless, now may not be worthless,” Valencia said. “The East China Sea is virtually all continental shelf, which means it’s all relatively easy digging except in typhoon season.”

But the likelihood the areas will be developed dwindles as the political storm brews between China and Japan. If this fracas follows past contretemps, the two sides will cool for a few months before rapprochement from high-level officials on both sides. But with the leadership change coming in China, and leadership elections imminent in Japan’s two major parties, the likelihood is tensions will remain high. “No one wants to be perceived as soft on China,” Manicom said.

Meanwhile, as historic enmities over Japan’s war past inflame tensions in China, public sentiment is changing in Japan toward China.

“The result is the average Japanese person views China with more suspicion than the past,” Manicom said. “You can now be anti-China in Japan and not be conservative, which is a development that I think took Beijing by surprise.”

(Orginal version is available at CNN)

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China’s Invented History – by Philip Bowring | The Wall Street Journal

04 June 2012

by Philip Bowring | The Wall Street Journal - The conflict between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal may seem to be a minor dispute over an uninhabitable rock and the surrounding waters. But it is hugely important for future relations in the region because it showcases China’s stubborn view that the histories of the non-Han peoples whose lands border two-thirds of the South China Sea are irrelevant. The only history that matters is that written by the Chinese and interpreted by Beijing.

The Philippine case for Scarborough is mostly presented as one of geography. The feature, known in Filipino as the Panatag Shoal and in Chinese as Huangyan Island, is some 130 nautical miles off the coast of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippine archipelago. It’s well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which, as per the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, extends 200 nautical miles off the coast. On the other hand, the shoal is roughly 350 miles from the mainland of China and 300 miles from the tip of Taiwan.

China avoids these inconvenient geographical facts and relies on historical half-truths that it applies to every feature it claims in the South China Sea. That’s why it’s now feuding with not just the Philippines, but other nations too. Beijing’s famous U-shaped dotted line on its maps of the South China Sea defines territorial claims within the 200-mile limits of Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, and close to Indonesia’s gas-rich Natuna Islands.

In the case of the Scarborough Shoal, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives the historical justification that the feature is mentioned in a Chinese map from the 13th century—when China itself was under alien Mongol rule—resulting from the visit of a vessel from China. This “we were there first” argument is nonsense. Chinese sailors were latecomers to the South China Sea, to say nothing of onward trade to the Indian Ocean. The seafaring history of the region at least for the first millennium of the current era was dominated by the ancestors of today’s Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos and (less directly) Vietnamese.

As China’s own records reveal, when Chinese traveled from China to Sumatra and then on to Sri Lanka, they did so in Malay ships. This was not the least surprising given that during this era, Malay people from what is now Indonesia were the first colonizers of the world’s third largest island, Madagascar, some 4,000 miles away. (The Madagascan language and 50% of its human gene pool are of Malay origin). They were crossing the Indian Ocean 1,000 years before the much-vaunted voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He in the 15th century.

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Malay seafaring prowess was later overtaken by south Indians and Arabs, but they remained the premier seafarers in Southeast Asia until the Europeans dominated the region. The Malay-speaking, Hindu-ized Cham seagoing empire of central Vietnam dominated South China Sea trade until it was conquered by the Vietnamese about the time the European traders began to arrive in Asia, while trade between Champa (present-day southern Vietnam) and Luzon was well established long before the Chinese drew their 13th century map.

The Scarborough Shoal, which lies not only close to the Luzon coast but on the direct route from Manila Bay to the ancient Cham ports of Hoi An and Qui Nhon, had to be known to Malay sailors. The Chinese claim to have “been there first” is then like arguing that Europeans got to Australia before its aboriginal inhabitants.

Another unsteady pillar in China’s claim to the Scarborough Shoal is its reliance on the Treaty of Paris of 1898. This yielded Spanish sovereignty over the Philippine archipelago to the U.S. and drew straight lines on the map which left the shoal a few miles outside the longitudinal line defined by the treaty. China now conveniently uses this accord, which these two foreign powers arrived at without any input from the Philippine people, to argue that Manila has no claim.

The irony is that the Communist Party otherwise rejects “unequal treaties” imposed by Western imperialists, such as the McMahon line dividing India and Tibet. Does this mean Vietnam can claim all the Spratly Islands, because the French claimed them all and Hanoi has arguably inherited this claim?

China also asserts that because its case for ownership dates back to 1932, subsequent Philippine claims are invalid. In other words, it uses the fact that the Philippines was under foreign rule as a basis for its own claims.

Manila wants to resolve the matter under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, but Beijing argues that its 1932 claim isn’t bound by the Convention, which came into effect in 1994 since it preceded it. That’s a handy evasion, most probably because China knows its case for ownership is weak by the Convention’s yardsticks.

China is making brazen assertions that rewrite history and take no account of geography. Today’s naval arguments won’t come to an end until the region’s largest disputant stops rewriting the past.

Mr. Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

(This article was originally published at The Wall Street Journal)

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China’s U-Shaped Claims – by Huy Duong | The Diplomat Blog

09 June 2011

by Huy Duong | The Diplomat Blog – Late last month, tension in the South China Sea was ratcheted up a further when three Chinese marine surveillance ships threatened the Vietnamese seismic survey ship Binh Minh 02 and sabotaged its seismic equipment. The incident took place 120 nautical miles from Vietnam’s mainland coast and 340 nautical miles from China’s Hainan Island, well inside Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

China's U-Shaped ClaimsFor anyone wondering if this incident is somehow tied to the Paracels and Spratlys disputes, then the answer is no. The Binh Minh incident took place closer to the Vietnamese coast than the Paracels or the Spratlys. According to international law and state practice, the Spratlys and Paracels’ islands and rocks are only entitled to either a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles or, at most, a territorial sea plus an EEZ that doesn’t extend much beyond 12 nautical miles. By no stretch of the imagination, then, could their EEZs extend to or past the midlines between them and the coastlines surrounding the South China Sea.

With this in mind, it has been interesting to follow the ensuing war of words between Vietnam and China.

On May 27, Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Ambassador in Hanoi accusing China of violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Vietnam’s sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

The following day, China retorted that what it did was ‘completely normal marine law enforcement and surveillance activities in China’s jurisdictional sea area.’

But as ‘jurisdictional sea area’ isn’t one of the maritime zones defined in the UNCLOS, it remains unclear what exactly China meant by that term, and what might be the legal basis for it.

The exchange of barbs continued on May 29, when Vietnam retaliated by saying that it was conducting its exploration entirely within its 200-nautical-mile EEZ and continental shelf, ‘in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is neither a disputed area nor is it an area “managed by China.” China has deliberately misled the public into thinking that it is a disputed area.’

Effectively, Vietnam was saying that the area wasn’t part of the Paracels and Spratlys disputes.

Two days later, China hit back, claiming that its action was, ‘law enforcement activities by Chinese maritime surveillance ships against Vietnam’s illegally operating ships are completely justified.’ It urged Vietnam to ‘immediately stop infringement activities and refrain from creating new troubles.’

Once again, China failed to state its claim in terms of UNCLOS maritime zones. Nor did it specify any limit or cite international law to support its claim.

This latest development bears a striking resemblance to the Reed Bank incident in March, when two Chinese patrol boats threatened a seismic survey ship operating on behalf of the Philippines. That incident also took place nearer to the Philippines’ Palawan coast than to the contested Spratlys. In both cases, China asserted its claims without any limit or justification based on the UNCLOS or international law. The Philippines’ riposte was that the Reed Bank isn’t part of the Spratlys and therefore isn’t subject to the Spratlys dispute.

In the past, China has made similar claims against Malaysia at James’ Shoal, against Indonesia over the waters near the Natuna Islands, and against Vietnam in the Vanguard Bank and Blue Dragon areas. These claims, together with the Reed Bank and Binh Minh incidents, should dispel any doubts that China is trying to expand its control well beyond the disputed Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Reef, and their associated waters.

A common feature with all these claims and clashes is that they all involve areas inside the mysterious ‘;U-shaped line’ that, some time during the last century, China started putting on its maps. Over the years, this U-shaped line gradually expanded until it covered most of the South China Sea, to within less than a hundred nautical miles of other countries’ coastlines, without any justification based on international law or customs.

Although the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei are all directly affected by this expansionist policy, the first two, being the countries that are nearest to China, will bear the brunt of Chinese expansion, for a number of reasons.

First, these two nations’ maritime spaces will clearly be affected the most. Second, if China doesn’t try to claim the Philippines and Vietnam’s maritime spaces, its claims over Malaysia’s, Indonesia’s and Brunei’s will disintegrate. This means that while China might make compromises at the southern tip of its notorious U-shaped line to keep Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei quiet while it deals with the Philippines and Vietnam first, it can’t do the reverse and give up its claims in the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s maritime spaces in order to gain the southern tip. Of course, if China is successful in getting its way against the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia’s, Indonesia’s and Brunei’s turns will come.

As a result, both the Philippines and Vietnam have been put in a situation where they need to resolutely protect their legitimate maritime spaces. At stake are more than economic interests: they also have reasons to fear that their security and national independence are threatened.

Although there remain differences between the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratlys, there’s much more scope for the two nations to co-operate in defending their respective maritime spaces that don’t belong to the Spratlys. Given China’s extensive claims, these maritime spaces may be far more significant than those belonging to the disputed Spratlys.

The Philippines’ note verbale to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf after the Reed Bank incident highlights how the country is using UNCLOS to defend its rights in the South China Sea. With Vietnam relying on the same body of law, the two nations have a common framework for co-operation.

For example, if Vietnam and the Philippines could voice their diplomatic support for each other in incidents such as the Reed Bank and Binh Minh ones, it would benefit both nations. More fundamentally, though, analysts and diplomats from the two nations should get together with their counterparts from Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia to decide what exactly the Spratlys consist of and how much maritime space can be attributed to them, which would lead to a collective agreement on the extent of the contested areas in the South China Sea. This will help these nations in individually and collectively opposing China’s attempts to expand the South China Sea dispute into previously uncontested areas. It will also help to convince the world of the merit of their case.

Another path that the Philippines and Vietnam could explore is making joint submissions of their continental shelf claims to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, possibly with the participation of Malaysia and Brunei.

Either of these actions would be without prejudice to the question of sovereignty over the Spratlys, and would benefit the Philippines and Vietnam enormously in counteracting China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

Huy Duong contributes articles on the South China Sea to several news outlets including the BBC and Vietnam’s online publication VietNamNet.

 

(Original version is available at The Diplomat Blog)

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