Realising that the International Community is now focused on the Coronavirus war, China has intensified its aggressive activities to usurp the entire South China Sea. The sinking of a Vietnamese boat with a crew of eight on board by a Chinese ship on the 3rd April 2020 near the Paracel Islands is the recent act of aggressiveness in the region. Two Vietnamese fishing boats attempted to rescue the eight fishermen, but they were also detained with their ships. There had been several incidents in the past when China encroached into the EEZ of Vietnam and harassed Vietnamese fishermen or created obstacles in its oil drilling activities. There has been a noticeable increase in such Chinese activities in Vietnamese EEZ since 2014, when it deployed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HYSY 981) oil rig and three Chinese oil and gas service ships. Last year too China had dispatched a ship for a month-long seismic survey, together with armed escorts, into Tu Chinh–Vung May Basin.
Pushed by such activities, Vietnam has sent a diplomatic protest note to UN over the China’s illegal claims over East Sea’ (Vietnam prefers this nomenclature for SCS). This was disclosed by the foreign ministry affairs’ spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang during the regular press briefing held online on April 9. She emphasised that ‘Vietnam asserts its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos in the East Sea in accordance with international law’. While affirming the Vietnamese sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the waters stipulated in the 1982 UNCLOS, she averred Hanoi’s consistent policy to resolve the dispute peacefully.
Notably this time, the Chinese act of sinking Vietnamese boats drew sharp criticism from other countries including US, the Philippines and Russian experts. In a statement, Morgan Ortagus, the U.S. Department of State’s spokesperson, said that the United States was “seriously concerned by reports of the PRC’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.” The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on April 8 issued a statement expressing its deep concern over a Chinese Coast Guard ship’s hitting and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the SCS. The DFA also noted that such incidents undermine the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China. This statement of the Philippines could be indicative of its changing stance towards Beijing. Since 2016, after the formation of new government, the Philippines had decided not to pursue the Ruling of PCA.
Significantly, Russian researchers studying the SCS issues have also severely criticised the Chinese act of sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessel in the waters of Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago, and stated that the international community would support Vietnam. Chairman of the Expert Council of the Eurasian Foundation for Support of Scientific Research Grigory Trofimchuk said such inappropriate acts of the Chinese have been condemned by the public, but China had deliberately ignored. Crucially, he noted that as the number of similar incidents is increasing steadily, researchers will pay attention to and condemn them at international seminars and forums on the SCS disputes. Another Russian expert Prof. Vladimur Kolotov from the St. Petersburg State University clearly indicated that China deviously is trying to use this time to expand its influence in the SCS, when the International Community’s attention is directed to deal with the coronavirus. This could be the early indication of Russia playing a more active role in the SCS dispute which could significantly change the situation.
While sending a diplomatic protest note is a normal procedure to present a country’s point of view on a situation affecting her by the activity of other nation to protect her legitimate rights and interests, this time this is seen as a precursor of a plan to step up her legal action against Beijing’s aggrandisement.
Beijing appears to have realised that Vietnam could not be diplomatically coerced, hence it has indulged in the sinister plan of ‘bullying’ Vietnam through muscular activities. Since Vietnam is not only chairing ASEAN this year and could play a significant role in the formulation of this group’s approach towards the dispute and CoC, it has become a special target of Beijing.
India, US, Japan and Australia are also realising the need for containing the activities of Beijing and strengthening of ASEAN. India and US have understood the need for Quad as was clear from the joint statement in Feb 2020 by Modi and Trump. They also stressed that the CoC should “not prejudice the legitimate rights and interests of all nations according to international law” and that ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific should be maintained”.
With increasing support from the International Community, a unified approach of ASEAN could effectively contain the Chinese sinister design of controlling the entire SCS. Vietnam should take full advantage of its position as this bloc’s chairmanship as also its non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council to pressurise Beijing. The International Community too appears to be willing to play an active role. Beijing must realise that it cannot continue with its bullying tactics and win trust of its neighbours and respect from the International Community. If Beijing does not change its approach, it would get completely marginalised, which can cost China dearly.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.