Vietnam must take responsibility for escalating tensions in South China Sea

Updated: 2014-06-01 07:22

By Chen Qinghong (China Daily)

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The recent situation in the South China Sea is really worrying. In spite of international law and the repeated representations, warnings and dissuasion from the Chinese side, the Vietnamese side not only continues to forcefully disrupt the normal drilling operations of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and take dangerous actions, but has also incited and indulged domestic anti-China riots, resulting in casualties and heavy damage to foreign enterprises. The backwash stirred up by Vietnam in May in the South China Sea had an impact on the China-Vietnam friendly relationship and regional stability.

The Xisha Islands have been China's inherent territory since ancient times. The Chinese people discovered the Xisha Islands when they cruised in the South China Sea during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Historical documents show in detail Chinese fished and traded around the Xisha Islands during the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, which serves as proof for China's jurisdiction of the area.

During the Song Dynasty, the imperial court organized a patrol naval squad, whose regular cruises and patrols in the South China Sea established China's jurisdiction over the Xisha Islands. During the Yuan Dynasty, an observatory was set up on the Xisha Islands. Afterward, the Ming and Qing dynasties both put the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters under their jurisdiction, and since then it has become a common practice for China's naval forces to make inspection tours for coastal defense and exercise sovereignty over them. China has continued exercising its sovereignty over the Xisha Islands since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Vietnam appeared to acknowledge and respect China's sovereignty over the islands before the mid-1970s. In 1956, Vice-Minister Dung Van Khiem of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam received Li Zhimin, charge d'affaires ad interim of the Chinese embassy in Vietnam, and told him that "according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha Islands are historically part of Chinese territory". In September 1958, Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong solemnly stated in a note to Premier Zhou Enlai that Vietnam recognizes and supports the Declaration of the Government of the People's Republic of China on China's territorial sea that the breadth of the territorial sea of the People's Republic of China should be 12 nautical miles and that this provision should apply to all territories of the People's Republic of China, including the Xisha Islands and the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea. Pham Van Dong's note suggests that the Vietnamese government acknowledged China's sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands.

The drilling site of the CNOOC oil rig is only 17 nautical miles away from China's Zhongjian Island of the Xisha Islands, and relevant exploration and drilling activities are being carried out in waters that are indisputably under China's administration. China owns the right for exploration and management of the waters off its Xisha Islands and the drilling in the waters off the Xisha Islands should be China's sovereign right that accords with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The provocative actions taken by Vietnam, such as sending ships to ram into China's vessels at the site, not only infringe on China's sovereignty and jurisdiction, but also seriously endanger the freedom and safety of navigation in the waters.

Moreover, the Vietnamese government also incited public sentiment at home, trying to channel people's dissatisfaction with government corruption and economic deterioration to China. With the Vietnamese government's indulgence and connivance toward domestic anti-China forces, protests quickly spiraled out of control, leading to the death of four innocent Chinese citizens and damages to many foreign companies. The Vietnamese government should take full responsibility for the casualties and damages.

By forcefully disrupting China's normal drilling operations and taking dangerous actions at sea, Vietnam is making new troubles for the sake of its self-interest in the South China Sea. Some international observers said that China is "injudicious" to establish the drilling rig 981 shortly after US President Barack Obama finished his East Asia trip and on the eve of the 24th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Others claimed that China is engineering a "new strategy" in the South China Sea. However, China has been carrying out relevant exploration and drilling activities in the waters off the Xisha Islands for more than 10 years. The current drilling activities are carried out according to actual work needs and sea conditions, which is easy to understand within the industry. Therefore, in addition to good sea conditions, China has no other consideration in continuing with exploration at the rig.

On the contrary, it is Vietnam that is eager to grasp the opportunity brought by Obama's East Asia trip and the ASEAN summit to fan up the South China Sea dispute by forcefully disrupting China's normal drilling operations at sea with the purpose of highlighting its value in the US' Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, and abducting ASEAN to pay for its own self-interest. And after the China-Vietnam confrontation at sea, the US criticized Beijing but understated Hanoi's dangerous actions at sea and domestic beating, smashing, looting and burning targeted at China and other countries. Most ASEAN countries can maintain a just and sound attitude, but also show their concern about the escalating tensions between China and Vietnam. This kind of tense situation is what the Vietnamese side wants to see.

China attaches importance to the good-neighborly and friendly relations with its neighboring countries and is committed to seeking a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea disputes that can satisfy all related parties for the sake of regional peace and stability. In 2011, China and Vietnam signed an agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues between the two countries, which said that both sides should promote maritime cooperation in less sensitive fields and seek steady progress in negotiations regarding the maritime demarcation of the bay mouth of Beibu Gulf and discuss the joint development of the sea area. In 2013, the two countries agreed to set up a working group to explore the joint development in the disputed waters.

In spite of the progress made by the two sides, Hanoi disregarded the big picture of bilateral relations and regional stability and finally stirred up the "May Backwash". The Vietnamese government has an inescapable responsibility for the malignant event and should provide compensation for the losses and apologize to the Chinese people.

The author is an expert with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily 06/01/2014 page4)