In the first days of 2016, China conducted test flights to its illegally built airstrip on Chu Thap (Fiery Cross) Reef in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago.Immediately, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry lodged a diplomatic protest against China and its spokesman Le Hai Binh stated that China’s action seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over Truong Sa archipelago. Binh asked China to immediately stop and not repeat such an action. Then the US, the Philippines and Japan showed deep concern over China's above-mentioned action.
The nature of the airstrip testing on Chu Thap Reef
What is the purpose of the test flights
China explained that “the Chinese government conducted a test flight to this airport with a civil plane to consider whether infrastructure here meets civil aviation standards or not…”
However, after what China had done in the East Sea, especially a series of sea reclamation activities that turned seven reefs in Truong Sa archipelago into large-scale artificial islands and the building of three airstrips on Chu Thap, Xubi (Subi) and Vanh Khan (Mischief) reefs with a length of around 3,000 metres for each, with sinking and floating military bases, people could not believe in China’s above statement. This made the public once again affirm that China is pursuing East Sea militarisation irrespective of responses and concern from countries in the region and the world at large. Only this way China can control and monopolise the East Sea.
At first, it can directly threaten security and safety of international navigation and flight in the area. When an air route from Hainan Island through Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago to Truong Sa archipelago becomes operational and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative kicks off, China will be “a big fish in a little pond” in the East Sea in line with a scenario and a sequence it has drawn up.
"The test flights” seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over Truong Sa archipelago and went counter to the common perception of the two countries’ high-ranking leaders, the agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of Vietnam – China issues at sea and the spirit of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC). Why
Firstly, China used force to turn black into white, undisputed waters and islands into disputed ones:
A historical truth that cannot be concealed is that from the 19th century back, the Chinese always considered seas and oceans a threat to their existence because they could not control them. Furthermore, pirates often operated there for centuries, posing a major threat to the Chinese feudal dynasty. Many cruel bans were issued as a guideline for economic-trade and cultural exchanges. There was a time when going out to sea was considered a great sin and people were forced to live 40 miles inland. There wasn’t a soul along coastal areas from north to south.
In fact, after the Opium Wars, threats from coastal areas awakened the Chinese awareness of the sea, forming a series of ideas about a maritime strategy. Therefore, in the early 20th century, China began deploying plans for the sea. In 1909, Li Zhun led three ships carrying water cannons to the Hoang Sa area, making a short landing on Phu Lam Island and then hastily withdrawing.
In 1946, taking advantage of the Japanese army’s defeat, the Nationalist Government of China used force to occupy islands east of Hoang Sa. However, with a preliminary agreement signed between President Ho Chi Minh and the French Republic on March 6, 1946, Vietnam remained in the French Union, so France still exercised the right of representing Vietnam in fighting the infringement of sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago. Meanwhile, confronting France’s strong reactions to the illegal occupation of Chiang Kai-shek's troops in Hoang Sa and their weakening after the rushing attacks of Mao Zedong’s army in the home country, the troops of the Nationalist Government of China had to withdraw from Phu Lam Island, ending their short illegal occupation of the archipelago. On October 14, 1950, the French Government officially gave back to the government of Bao Dai the management and protection of Hoang Sa.
Taking advantage of the disordered historical moment when French expeditionary soldiers withdrew from the Vietnamese territory under the Geneva Accords, China "sneakily" sent troops to occupy the group of islands east of Hoang Sa archipelago in 1956. On February 21, 1959, the People's Republic of China ordered some soldiers to impersonate fishermen, who secretly landed on Huu Nhat (Robert), Duy Mong (Drummond) and Quang Hoa (Duncan & Palm) islands to occupy the remaining groups of islands in Hoang Sa archipelago. However, they were detected by the Republic of Vietnam’s forces. Eighty-two Chinese soldiers disguised as fishermen with five armed trawlers were arrested and escorted to a detention centre in the central city of Da Nang, and then returned to China.
In 1970, when the American War in Vietnam peaked, the naval forces of the People's Liberation Army of China conducted a number of "little secret" activities on the An Vinh island group in the eastern part of Hoang Sa. Many military infrastructure facilities were built in 1971. On January 17, 1974, China launched an attack on the naval forces of the Republic of Vietnam with powerful forces including a fleet of eight battleships, and land and air forces. In the face of the carefully prepared, strong Chinese navy, the army of the Republic of Vietnam failed to protect the remaining western island groups of Hoang Sa archipelago.
In early March 1988, after illegally occupying five reefs in Truong Sa archipelago (including Chu Thap, Chau Vien, Huy Go, Ga Ven and Xu Bi), China mobilised forces of its two fleets, comprising nine to 12 battleships, two artillery ships, two landing crafts, three cargo ships, an instrumentation ship and a large pongtong to support the invasion of Gac Ma (Johnson South), Co Lin and Len Dao reefs. Of them, Gac Ma is a coral reef situated in the south of Sinh Ton and Sinh Ton Dong islands that the navy of the People's Liberation Army of South Vietnam took over in the last week of April 1975. On March 14, 1988, the Chinese navy, with its superior power, captured Gac Ma. But Vietnam still protected Co Lin and Len Dao. In 1995, China occupied Vanh Khan reef, which was then managed by the Philippines.
Thus, China’s use of force to assert sovereignty was completely illegal and a serious violation of international law. Specifically, Article 2, Clause 4 of the UN Charter says to "prohibit the threat or use of force in international relations, especially use of force to violate sovereignty and territorial integrity of any state". This provision of the UN Charter is a fundamental principle of international law that all member states of the UN, including China, must obey.
This principle was developed and detailed in Resolution 2625 of the UN General Assembly dated October 24, 1970, which stipulates: "Every State has the duty to refrain from the threat or use of force to violate the existing international boundaries of another State or as a means of solving international disputes, including territorial disputes and problems concerning frontiers of States. The territory of a State shall not be the object of military occupation resulting from the use of force in contravention of the provisions of the Charter. The territory of a State shall not be the object of acquisition by another State resulting from the threat or use of force. No territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognised as legal”.
Through the thorough consideration of documents given by Chinese people, Monique Chemillier Gendreau, Professor of International Law at l'Université de Paris VII, Denis Diderot, France, former President of the French Democratic Lawyers' Association and former President of the European Lawyers' Association, said China has long known that the East Sea has groups of scattered islands, but it has no sufficient legal basis to defend the argument that it was the first to discover, explore, exploit and manage the two archipelagos [Paracel and Spratly].
Obviously, China has “turned black into white” since the early 20th century by the trick of taking advantage of historical moments to take possession of Hoang Sa archipelago and some geographic structures in Truong Sa archipelago in 1956, 1974, 1988 and 1995, illegally occupying them until now.
Not stopping there, China has carried out a series of wrongful activities and organised next steps to realise its scheme to monopolise the East Sea, turning undisputed waters into disputed ones. China has also sought every way to realise its “U-shaped line” claim encompassing more than 80 percent of the East Sea area.
Secondly, China has conducted reclaimation in the East Sea to create man-made islands and turn underwater and above-water rocks into big islands, “unsinkable aircraft carriers” and offensive military bases.
China’s dangerous steps and calculations to actualize its ambitions have run counter to the commitments the country has made. Specifically, China has accelerated its construction activities to turn shoals and rocks into large-scale artificial islands, and establish offensive military bases on these man-made islands.
Occupying the Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago and a number of shoals and rocks in the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago is just the first step of China’s strategy in the East Sea. China’s efforts to gain control over the archipelagoes are to prepare for the country’s invasion of waters in the East Sea by force. Therefore, after taking over the Hoang Sa archipelago and some rocks and shoals in Truong Sa archipelago,
China has tried to consolidate these features to not only “improve” living standards of the Chinese army there but also to turn them into military bases, which are sometimes called “fixed aircraft carriers”. These will help China reach further to the southern East Sea. In Hoang Sa archipelago, which has been illegally occupied by China for more than 40 years, the country has built large-scale, bulky infrastructure there. Most notably, on October 7, 2014, China announced that the country completed the construction of a 2-km airstrip on Phu Lam Island (Woody Island) in the archipelago, running from north to south.
On Truong Sa archipelago, China has poured billions of dollars into sea reclamation and construction activities on the reefs of Chu Thap (Fiery Cross), Chau Vien (Cuarteron) and Gac Ma (Johnson South). Such actions have been calculated carefully as part of the country’s strategy to monopolise the East Sea. If China’s occupation of Hoang Sa archipelago and some shoals and rocks in Truong Sa archipelago of Vietnam is seen as an act of invasion using force, its construction on those features is the major direction of attack in a “soft invasion.”
China will exploit natural resources here, including seafood, oil and gas, and further control the international airspace and maritime routes in the East Sea. Evidently, the country did similar things on the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Japan, in the name of the “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ).
China’s large-scale construction turning underwater shoals into big military bases, above-water islands and “unsinkable, fixed aircraft carriers” has seriously violated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC).
China unilaterally claimed that over 80 percent of the East Sea within the “Nine-dot-line”, including Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, is belonging to China’s waters. China will regain it, but the problem lies with how strong the Chinese military is. This reflects China’s unshakable ambition in the East Sea. Regardless of international law and opinions, as well as its relations with regional countries, China is gradually actualising its scheme to monopolise the East Sea.
The East Sea has become a hot spot in the region and the world at large. China’s illegal placement of Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig and dispatch of escort vessels in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf from May 2 to July 15, 2014 have escalated political tensions in the East Sea. Many politicians even held that China’s illegal deployment of the oil rig within Vietnam’s EEZ is a policy of “war threshhold”. China’s construction of military bases in Hoang Sa archipelagoes and on some shoals and rocks in Truong Sa archipelago is much more dangerous than its placement of the oil rig.
China’s sea reclamation to create islands and build the military facilities mentioned above show the country’s targets as follows
Legally, China wants to consolidate its “inviolable sovereignty” over those features, which the country used force to gain in 1988. China has intentionally changed the status quo in the Chu Thap Reef and other geological features in the East Sea, turning shoals and rocks into above-water islands, and reefs unsuitable for human residence into places capable of “sustaining human habitation and economic life of their own,” making it easier for the country to give demands in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Truong Sa archipelago.
This is also how China managed to actualize its created border of the “nine-dot line” opposed by the public.
Economically, the newly built facilities would be logistics bases in service of the exploitation of resources in the southern area of the East Sea blessed with rich and diverse natural resources that China is struggling to occupy, especially petroleum expected to satisfy the country’s “thirsty” for energies. The logistics bases will be the most effective economic solution when China drills for oil in the continental shelves of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
They are also ideal for the fishing activities of thousands of Chinese vessels, which are coming in droves to sweep off the diversity and valuable seafood in the southern East Sea.
On the sphere of national defence and security, along with military bases operational in Hoang Sa archipelago, those on the reef of Gac Ma, Chu Thap, and shoals of Xubi (Subi) and Vanh Khan (Mischief) will create an uninterrupted military system and a firm outpost for China in the East Sea in service of all invasions aiming to actualise the country’s scheme to monopolise the East Sea.
China’s construction of airstrips on Chu Thap, Xubi and Vanh Khan is a challenge and a risk for all coastal countries in the East Sea, seriously threatening international maritime security and safety in the East Sea. Notably, the promptly built airports aim to control international aviation activities over the East Sea. Do they relate to China’s to-be-announced plan on the ADIZ over the East Sea
In the field of information-communications, China intentionally released these information at the moment is to challenge public opinion and affirm its strategic determination before public opinion at home and abroad, paving the way for China’s new adventures in the East Sea. Besides, this would be the method employed by China to push the complicated internal contradictions out.
History proves that China’s statements are unbelievable
After China occupied six shoals and rocks on Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago in 1988 and the Vanh Khan shoal in 1955, the country stated that it would build shelters for fishermen only. However, the country then constructed many fortifications and solid floating houses equipped with guns, turning these areas into strongholds. They have now repeated the action.
The situation remains a headache for concerned parties – especially Vietnam, whose legal sovereignty in the East Sea has been seriously violated by China. This is also a challenge openly posed by China for international public opinion, law and order, including the US. There will be nothing left to say if China completes the infrastructure construction on the features they are occupying in Truong Sa archipelago, as after that, traversing through the international maritime areas and airspace in the East Sea without Beijing’s permission means confronting China.
In the present international context, struggling through diplomatic and legal channels is the most suitable option.
Peace is always the strongest desire of human beings. It can be said that this situation requires thorough behaviours, with top priority given to shared interests for peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world at large. However, Vietnam should vehemently oppose and fight to the end against anyone taking deeds that run counter to regulations of international law and reached commitments, and infringe upon the country’s legitimate rights and interests.