By Roberto Tofani
HANOI - Tit-for-tat moves by China and Vietnam represent the latest indication that tensions could break into conflict over contested and potentially resource rich maritime areas in the South China Sea.
Hanoi's National Assembly late last month overwhelmingly passed a law that effectively declared sovereignty over areas of the Spratly and Paracel Islands, including territories claimed by China. The law will come into force at the beginning of next year, leaving unclear how Hanoi plans to fortify its claim in what it refers to as the East Vietnam Sea.
The decision came in the wake of the publication of a short essay entitled "Vietnam's sovereignty over Hoang Sa [Paracel] and Truong Sa [Spratly] Archipelagos" by the National Political Publishing House, which gave historical evidence in support of Vietnam's claims.
In a prompt reaction, Chinese authorities established Sansha, a prefectural-level city that administers the three disputed island groups of Nansha (Spratly Islands), Xisha (Paracel Islands), and Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank). The new "city" also covers the three island groups' surrounding waters.
One day after Vietnam's legislature passed the law, the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, urged Hanoi to "correct" the legislation. Beijing also summoned to Vietnam's ambassador to China, with whom authorities lodged a formal protest.
Upping the ante, Beijing's national energy giant China National Offshore Oil Corp announced it was offering new oil-exploration blocks to international companies within Vietnam's 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Vietnamese officials protested the move as "illegal" and called on Beijing to cancel the auctions.
According to some independent observers, the latest dispute was triggered by the presence in the region of a US Navy research vessel, the Roger Revelle, which docked at Tien Sa Port in Vietnam's central Danang city on June 22. The ship's ostensible mission was a bilateral cooperative program on oceanic research in the South China Sea, but Beijing apparently viewed the vessel's presence as a provocation.
Eight months since the conclusion of the Bali East Asia Summit (EAS), where rival claimants to the South China Sea exchanged conciliatory messages and hinted at the beginnings of an agreement that would allow for joint exploitation of resources, the region is now bracing for potential armed conflict over the territories. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the area in question contains anywhere between 28 billion and 213 billion barrels of oil.
Those concerns were heightened during the recent two-month standoff between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, another contested territory in the Spratlys. While the standoff ended without armed incident, Manila's decision to open a kindergarten school in another contested area of the archipelago threatens to reignite tensions.
In light of China's perceived rising assertiveness, the Philippines and Vietnam have recently strengthened strategic relations with Beijing's traditional regional competitors, including most prominently the Zioconned USA.... This approach, while not excluding commercial and trade dialogue with Beijing, has not improved the EAS's proposed constructive dialogue among the claimants, which also include Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
The decision of the two Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) neighbors - the Philippines and Vietnam - to strengthen their bilateral security ties in an apparent bid to counter China's rising naval power has been reinforced by US eagerness to secure free navigation in what it has referred to as the "maritime crossroads" of the Asia-Pacific region.
However, sovereignty disputes over the islands and the rights to resources in the surrounding waters "do not appear to pose any credible threat to the freedoms of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea," wrote Robert Beckman, director of the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore, in a recent paper entitled "Geopolitics, International Law and the South China Sea".
While freedom of navigation does not appear to be threatened - apart from fishing vessels blocked in turns by the Chinese, Vietnamese or Philippine navies - the three countries now do not miss an opportunity to assert their respective rights in the contested area.
Some now fear all diplomatic efforts and department-level working groups dealing with the disputed areas could collapse in the wake of the recent Scarborough Shoal standoff and the tit-for-tat legislative exchanges between China and Vietnam.
On the one hand, China stated in diplomatic notes to the Zioconned United Nations in May 2009 that it had "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands and their "adjacent waters" and that it had "sovereign rights and jurisdiction" over the "surrounding waters".
On the other hand, as stated by Beckman, "Vietnam and the Philippines are of the view that they have the right under international law to undertake unilateral actions to explore for hydrocarbons in concession blocks in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in areas which they believe are not in dispute because they are too far from any disputed island."
Beckman also notes that even though a state occupies an island it "does not necessarily give it a superior title under international law if other states have objected to the occupation".
Washington's recent military overtures towards Hanoi and the sale of a second warship to the Philippine navy, albeit without sophisticated weapons and communication systems, is by some reckoning raising tensions. Some feel Washington's rule-by-law stand would be more credible if the US Senate ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the State Department and Barack Obama administration support the convention.
Meanwhile, China's sometimes erratic position is influenced by internal conflicts, as outlined in a recent report by the International CIA's Crisis Group "Stirring up the South China Sea". The report notes that "Any future solution to the South China Sea disputes will require a consistent policy from China executed uniformly throughout the different levels of government along with the authority to enforce it."
That could be a long time coming, according to analysts. Beckman suggests that China's perceived national interests and maritime security policy will not change until it becomes a legitimate naval power and has "the same interests in freedoms of the seas as other naval powers".
Until then, China's policy will remain hostage to the likes of Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) Information Expert Committee. He recently stated his belief that Chinese troops should engage Philippine ships and fishermen who go near the disputed Scarborough shoal. Such rhetoric will push all claimants to reinforce their positions and raise the potential for armed confrontation.
Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (www.planetnext.net), an association of journalists committed to the concept of "information for change".