UNITED NATIONS (TRNS) – China and Vietnam took their escalating territorial dispute in the South China Sea to the U.N. last week, as both countries filed appeals to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over China’s move to place an oil rig near the Paracel Islands.
In early May, the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation towed and deployed a massive oil rig into waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, kicking off a political battle familiar to many of China’s maritime neighbors.
China claims control over the Paracel Islands after defeating Vietnam in the brief Battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974. Vietnam contends the occupation was and remains illegal, and both countries invoked the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in their written appeals.
The 1982 agreement hands countries exclusive economic zone control over the waters extending 200 nautical miles from the coast, and the treaty was signed and ratified by both China and Vietnam in 1990’s.
When measured from the Vietnamese coastline, the Chinese oil rig is positioned just 120 nautical miles offshore.
China asserts that their control of the Paracels entitles them to 200 more miles of ocean, but that claim is suspicious in the eyes of many maritime experts.
“These are really islets,” says James Kraska, Senior Fellow at the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia School of Law, noting that the Convention contains rules on which types of land generate further territorial control. “These small features are not entitled to generate an Exclusive Economic Zone unless they are capable of human habitation and an economic life of their own. Even if you accepted that China occupied these areas, you still have to come down on the side of Vietnam.”
The irony, according to Kraska, is how much the intent of the Convention has been changed through the years. “The EEZ was created in order to provide subsistence fishing grounds for developing countries. So Vietnam is a classic case for this,” he said. “The EEZ was never designed to try to give great powers access to additional oil and gas on the sea bed.”
Although China’s reading of UNCLOS seems surprising in its aggressiveness, Kraska says Beijing has long wielded the Convention as a weapon, not a shield:
“In the United States we think of the Law of the Sea as something we can use to manage our fisheries and our offshore resources and pursue marine environmental protection…China has very much a legal dimension to its strategy that incorporates and uses the Law of the Sea for strategic purposes.”
Risk of Escalation
China and Vietnam may be engaged in a war of words with their competing statements to the U.N., but their confrontation in the South China Sea is fraught with tangible risks.
In the last month, Vietnamese vessels allegedly rammed Chinese ships a total of 1,436 times, according to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Vietnamese government has likewise blamed China for the May 26th sinking of a fishing boat and accused Beijing with undue aggression on multiple occasions.
The Vietnamese navy is significantly outmatched by China, but belligerent military postures are increasingly common in the region, making a deadly accident all the more likely.
“For the first time in 500 years, Asia is outspending the West militarily, and China has led this trend. As a result, every other country—including most recently with Prime Minister Abe in Japan—every other country in the area from the tiniest, Singapore, to India, Vietnam. All of these states have moved to respond by developing naval and air capabilities.”
Instead of that arms race diminishing risk as forces neutralize one another, a lack of discipline among increasingly anxious militaries is, according to Kraska, inherently destabilizing.
“The area is unstable. The countries, most of them, except for Japan, lack a maritime tradition. They lack the norms, and so the possibility of an accident is real and there are animosities that run fairly deep.”
Despite the risk of violent confrontation, there remain opportunities for political dialogue if China and Vietnam wish to seize them.
A spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General said last Tuesday that, “the Chinese and Vietnamese are welcome to discuss the issue and come to a resolution through mediation in the good offices of the Secretary-General if both parties request such services.”
At press time, neither country has requested such mediation.