Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute
The raging COVID-19 pandemic provides China with the golden opportunity to flex its diplomatic and military muscle against other claimant states in the South China Sea.
The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) held several naval exercises in March. In early April, a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. In the same month, China started the operations of two maritime research stations in Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands.
Meanwhile, the United States and Japan are currently distracted by the urgency to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, China is actively pressing its territorial claims in the disputed waters while these two major powers are preoccupied in controlling the pandemic.
Despite China’s fervent denials, the COVID-19 pandemic, by default, is providing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the PLAN, and CCG, opportunities to secure vital military and strategic gains in the South China Sea imbroglio.
Vietnam relies on multilateral diplomacy as it took a seat on the United Nations Security Council and assumed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair to confront China’s full-court press in the South China Sea.
Unfortunately, the pandemic and the ASEAN member states preoccupation to address their respective public health crisis have severely limited Vietnam’s ability to exercise its leadership role in ASEAN as it might have wanted to.
Nevertheless, Vietnam is currently the only Southeast Asian country that is likely to find the political courage and use the appropriate diplomatic means to challenge Chinese maritime expansion in the South China Sea.
On March 30, 2020, the Vietnamese Permanent Mission in the United Nations submitted a Note Verbale to the UN secretary general challenging China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea as mentioned on its March 23, 2020 diplomatic note to the UN.
According to Vietnam, China’s claims seriously violated its sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the East Sea (South China Sea). The March 30 note states that Vietnam has substantial historical evidences and legal basis to exercise its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands and Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands.
Vietnam further affirms that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides the sole and only legal basis for the claimant states’ respective maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.
Accordingly, the maritime entitlement of each high-tide feature in the Hoang Sa Islands and the Truong Sa Islands shall be determined in accordance with Article 121(3) of UNCLOS; the baselines of the groups of islands in the East Sea, including the Hoang Sa Islands and the Truong Sa Islands, cannot be drawn by joining the outermost points of their respective outermost features; low-tide elevations or submerged features are not capable of appropriation and do not, in and of themselves, generate entitlements to any maritime zones.
In essence, Vietnam opposes any maritime claims in the South China Sea that go beyond the limits provided in UNCLOS, including claims to historic rights that have simply no legal basis. Vietnam then requested the UN Secretary General to distribute its diplomatic note to all member-states of UNCLOS and the UN.
Vietnam is also using its position, as chair of ASEAN, to keep the South China Sea issue active and relevant despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, Vietnam is exasperated with the slow progress of the negotiations for an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct.
However, it would never give China a free hand in its maritime expansion. Vietnam pursues several diplomatic options by either relying on the regional organization or with fellow claimant states to check China’s muscle flexing.
Last April 20, 2020, Vietnam filed a diplomatic protest against China after it created two administrative units on islands in the South China Sea.
On April 18, the State Council of the city of Sansha announced the establishment of two new districts to administer the disputed waters in the South China Sea. They are: Xisha District to administer Xisha (Paracel) and Zhongsha islands; and Nansha District that has jurisdiction over the Nansha Islands (Spratlys).
This move is again part of China’s gambit to demonstrate its assertiveness in the disputed waters while other claimant states are preoccupied with addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
The following day, Vietnam Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang, through a statement, declared that the “establishment of the so-called Sansha City and related activities seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty” and that “Vietnam demands that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and abolish its wrongful decisions.”
Vietnam is not alone in sounding the alarm bells against China’s recent aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
Earlier on April 10, American senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties joined hands in denouncing aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea at the time the world is consumed with containing the spread of COVID-19 that originated in China.
The chairman of the influential US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Jim Risch said that “China’s deeply concerning activities in the South China Sea are examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s “blatant intimidation” of its neighbors to assert its claims in the contested waterways.”
Another member of the committee, Sen. Ed Markey warned China that “the United States will not turn a blind eye to military coercion of Southeast Asian countries.”
This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: CSIS/AMTI via DigitalGlobe.