China fomenting East Sea instability to advance superpower ambitions: expert

By Viet Anh   July 23, 2019 | 07:03 am PT
China fomenting East Sea instability to advance superpower ambitions: expert
Satellite photo dated March 26, 2018 shows Chinese ships south of Hainan, China. Photo by Planet Labs/Handout via Reuters.
China wants to turn Vietnam’s sovereign East Sea territory into a disputed area to advance its superpower plans, an expert says.

Since earlier this month, China’s oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts have conducted activities in the southern area of Vietnam’s East Sea, known internationally as the South China Sea.

Tran Cong Truc, former head of the National Border Committee, said Vietnam’s northern neighbor wants to turn Vietnamese territory in the East Sea from an undisputed to a disputed area to achieve two things.

First of all, China wants to create some kind of legitimacy for its infamous "nine-dash line" claim that encircles as much as 90 percent of the waters. The line runs as far as 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometers of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

China claims that the geographic entities that lie within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and on the continental shelf of the waters’s southern area all belong to its Nansha Islands, known in Vietnam as Truong Sa (Spratly Islands). It also claims shoals in this sea area as part of the Nansha Islands over which it says it has "inviolable sovereignty," Truc said.

"For its second purpose, China wants to occupy the entire East Sea and use that as a stepping stone to become an international superpower in the geopolitical, geoeconomic, and geostrategic race against the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.

China has taken advantage of every opportunity and all military, economic, technical and financial advantages to step by step, either secretly or publicly, invade Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) by force in 1956 and 1974 and then part of the Spratly Islands in 1988, he said.

Since 1988, China has on the one hand renovated, built and turned some geographic entities in the northwest of Vietnam’s Spratly Islands into artificial islands large enough to place modern military equipment for its navy, air and land forces and on the other hand, continued to gnaw at the banks and coral reefs of the exclusive economic zones and legal continental shelfs of other nations in the region. This has happened to the Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal.

Notably, China has been continuing this type of illegal activity by sending vessels to James Shoal, which lies just 80 km off Malaysia’s coast, Reed Bank on the east side of Vietnam’s Spratlys Islands that is currently controlled by the Philippines and most recently, the blatant intrusion of Haiyang Dizhi 8 into Vietnamese waters.

Vietnam last Friday demanded that China withdraw the oil survey vessel and its escorts from Vietnamese waters, accusing the ships of violating the country's exclusive economic zones and continental shelf.

Le Thi Thu Hang, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Vietnam has contacted China on multiple occasions via different channels, delivered diplomatic notes to oppose China's violations and staunchly demanded that China stop all unlawful activities and respect Vietnam's sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its waters, which would serve the interests of bilateral relations as well as regional stability and peace.

She said Vietnamese authorities at sea have employed a range of appropriate measures to exercise Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in a peaceful and lawful manner for safeguarding Vietnamese waters.

Experts have surmised that China will likely say it has completed its survey with Haiyang Dizhi 8 and withdraw the vessel.

Truc agreed with the surmise, but said its consequential aftermath should be noticed.

"This could be the last exploratory move before they [China] take more drastic actions to realize the scheme to turn the East Sea into their backyard, turning undisputed into disputed areas," Truc said.

Vietnam has publicly demanded that China withdraws vessels infringing its waters and warned that such activities countinue, it would step up its diplomatic fight.

Truc said Vietnam should strengthen its collection of records and evidence of China's violations, including details of where the violation occurred, evidence of Chinese vessels’ exploration, research, and the aggressive activities of armed Chinese vessels. It should then build legal documents and submit those files to relevant organizations of the United Nations, as also take the case to international jurisdiction agencies, he added.

Meanwhile, other forces of Vietnam should behave in accordance with the law to avoid "falling into the trap of China," as it is possible that China looks to provoke an armed clash, leading to instability in the region, which could affect Vietnam’s oil exploration and exploitation activities.  

Vietnam should tell the truth and closely follow international rules, express its goodwill and responsibility to the region and the world to seek agreement and support from the international community, Truc said.

"The U.S. has already opposed this move by China and I believe other countries will support Vietnam. I wish Vietnam will propose solutions that motivate other Southeast Asian nations to join forces and raise their voices on this matter. That will create a regional strength to prevent China from further invasive actions," he said.

The U.S. State Department said Saturday it was concerned over reports of China’s interference in the oil and gas exploration of other countries in the South China Sea, particularly "Vietnam’s long-standing exploration and production activities."

"China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threatens regional energy security and undermines the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market," it said in a statement.

The State Department referred to comments made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comments earlier this year, when he said, "by blocking development in the South China Sea through coercive means, China prevents ASEAN members from accessing more than $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves."

The department said that China’s reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in the waterway, including the use of maritime militia to intimidate, coerce, and threaten other nations, undermines peace and security in the region.

It called Chinese behavior "bullying," saying the U.S. firmly opposes coercion and intimidation by any claimant to assert territorial or maritime claims.

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