Right on the threshold of the US-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands on February 15 and 16, where US President Barack Obama raised concerns about China flouting international law in the East Sea with its militarising activities, China did challenge public opinion by deploying HQ-9 missiles on Phu Lam (Woody Island) in Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago.
On February 23, Reuters carried a story saying that recent satellite images showed that China may be installing a high-frequency radar system in Chau Vien (Cuarteron) Reef, one of the seven entities in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago that were illegally occupied by China in 1988 and 1995. Two radar towers may have been built by China in the northern and southern portions of Chau Vien Reef. High-frequency radar installations would enable China to bolster its ability to illegally monitor air and marine traffic and activities from the Malacca Strait to the East Sea. Similar radar systems, together with helicopter pads and gun emplacements, may have been installed in Ga Ven (Gaven Reef), Tu Nghia (Hughes Reef), and Gac Ma (Johnson South Reef). Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Daily was equivocal about the possibility of its country’s deployment of four SU-35s, the first batch purchased from Russia, to “patrol the East Sea”.
All these moves are trampling on international law, including the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982. That threatening behavior was officially condemned by Vietnam and the US. Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to protest China’s violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago. At the same time it proposed that the UN circulate the diplomatic note among diplomatic missions at its agencies.
How did China spark tensions in the East Sea
In 1947, the Chinese administration drew the so-called “dot-line”, claiming its “sovereignty” over more than 80 percent of the East Sea. This claim is also called the “U-shaped” or the “cow-tongue” line.
The “cow-tongue” line includes Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes, sovereignty over whom was established and exercised in an uninterrupted, peaceful and legitimate manner by the Vietnamese State from the 17th century, when they were not subject to any public or individual ownership. The line also encompasses the exclusive economic zones and continental shelves belonging to Vietnam as well as other littoral countries in the East Sea as prescribed in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, to which China is a signatory country.
The introduction of the “cow-tongue” line formed part of China’s attempts to expand its boundaries with the use of force. Earlier, China launched bloody naval attacks to invade the western portion of Vietnam’s Hoang Sa archipelago in 1974 after illegally occupying a cluster of islands in the eastern area of the archipelago in 1956.
In March 1988, China dispatched troops to invade six entities belonging to Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago. The two fierce naval fights claimed the lives of 74 Vietnamese in Hoang Sa in 1974 and 64 others in Truong Sa in 1988. Today, similar actions are likely to be repeated as China is pursuing a scheme to scale up militarisation in the East Sea.
In 2014, China’s illegal placement of its oilrig Haiyang Shiyou 981 in Vietnam’s legitimate exclusive economic zone and continental shelf triggered a terrible crisis in the two countries’ relationship. The action, however, created a diversion, allowing Chinese vessels to sail to the seven entities China illegally acquired in 1988 and 1995 in Vietnam’s Truong Sa archipelago and conduct a massive land reclamation to develop man-made islands.
China has been unilaterally occupying the East Sea using force and threats
According to Vietnam, China deployed forces three times in invading Vietnam’s Hoang Sa archipelago:
- In 1909, China launched a force-backed blitz on several islands in Hoang Sa archipelago for the first time, debuting its involvement in a dispute over the sovereignty of this archipelago with Vietnam;
- In 1956, the People’s Republic of China took advantage of the transitional time for territorial management rights under the Geneva Accord to dispatch a military force to secretly take up the eastern portion of Hoang Sa archipelago;
- In 1974, when the US troops were forced to leave Vietnam and the US-backed army of the Republic of Vietnam was weakened, China acquired the western part of Hoang Sa archipelago with military force.
For Truong Sa archipelago:
- In 1946, when Japan disarmed its military as ordered by the US and other allied forces, the Chinese administration took advantage of the situation and sent a fleet, commanded by Admiral Lin Zun, to Truong Sa archipelago to take over a number of islands, including Ba Binh (Itu Aba Island). The event marked China’s initiation of a sovereignty claim with Vietnam over Truong Sa archipelago;
- In 1988, the People's Republic of China used force to seize six shoals and reefs, which almost were submerged, in the northwestern area of Truong Sa;
- In 1995, the People's Republic of China dispatched forces to occupy Vanh Khan (Mischief Reef), which was held by the Philippines then, in the northern portion of Truong Sa.
Immediately after taking over Hoang Sa and part of Truong Sa, irrespective of responses from Vietnam and regional and international communities, China has continually embarked on construction and expansion on occupied features to turn them into offensive military bases providing services for attacks to be launched from Hainan to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. With these activities, China aimed to develop these occupied entities in the two archipelagoes into unsinkable "aircraft carriers" in the East Sea. Recent reclamation work to create islands and turn shoals in Truong Sa into man-made islands, and build airstrips, port wharfs, outposts and trenches there has bred concern from the public. Other activities undertaken by China that are worrying the public are the deployment of more soldiers, weapons and vehicles in key positions in the two archipelagoes – in particular the installation of modern surface-to-air missiles in Hoang Sa and high-frequency radar in Chau Vien.
In the coming time, if responses and policies by regional and international countries see no progress, China will make other moves, including dispatching more military forces and war vehicles to Hoang Sa and Truong Sa. In the short run, China will demonstrate its strength to scare weaker countries in the region if the superpower countries maintain their might in a balanced manner. This is meant to challenge concerned countries like the US, Japan and Australia. China could use its power to expand the area it illegally occupied in Truong Sa or acquire a number of shoals in the East Sea where military forces are absent; monitor and control air and marine traffic in the East Sea; hinder law-abiding oil and gas production, and fishing operations conducted by regional countries; and continue conducting natural resource research activities. It's likely that China will carry out oil and gas exploitation in several oil blocks lying within the continental shelves of Vietnam or other countries bordering the East Sea.
Regarding diplomacy and communication, China keeps applying the "stick and carrot" tactic, as well as making more promises to please the public. It will use political and economic relations to buy, divide and pressure the public so it can easily implement the motto "peaceful rise".
What is the purpose of China's recent activities
A current priority that China is pursuing is to take control of all international air and marine activities through the East Sea as soon as possible. In the meantime, public opinion is divided on whether China will establish the "Air Defense Identification Zone" (ADIZ) in the East Sea or not.
China has explained that it applied the ADIZ for the East China Sea with the aim to control and prevent international surface and marine crossing in the sea and considered it a military measure taken to win a territorial claim in the East China Sea. If the zone is applied for the East Sea, it will serve China's ambitious "cow-tongue" claim in the waters. From what happened in the East China Sea, China realised that if it announces the ADIZ for the East Sea now, it will be strongly protested by the international community.
However, there is a possibility that when it finds the time and conditions are ripe, China will ignore public opinion as it did recently in the East Sea and debut the ADIZ in the area, likely for Hoang Sa archipelago first.
The fresh deployment of the surface-to-air missile system in Phu Lam island of Vietnam's Hoang Sa archipelago is one of the military escalations thoughtfully calculated and taken by China in a well-designed scenario to monopolise the East Sea, which could enable it to rise and take over the US's role as the world superpower. Public opinion is hardly alien to the military moves that China had taken or is taking in the East Sea.
Of course, there are also those who are "thoughtless", intentionally turning a blind eye, supporting and extolling the move in exchange for economic and political gain. At present, though, militarisation has triggered worries and disagreement, and a number of countries have promptly voiced their condemnation for the following reasons:
- It is a continuous, serious violation of Vietnam's sovereignty over Hoang Sa archipelago, defying international law and disrespecting political commitments reached between the two countries, aside from Chinese leaders' commitments to the regional and international communities that "China is not militarising the East Sea and pledges to work together with the ASEAN community to create a Code of Conduct soon". This has again helped the public realize that what China has done is not what China said it would do.
- It can be said that this action manifested China’s military threat that targeted ASEAN countries at a time when inter-bloc relations and the relations between ASEAN and the US are enjoying gains, especially after the ASEAN-US Leaders’ Summit. These gains are not welcomed by China, as they will likely hinder China’s efforts to implement its ambitious “China dream”.
- It can be said that with this adventurous military action, China challenged and sent a warning to countries outside the region, especially the US, Japan, India and Australia, which are making efforts to counter China’s attempts to control and prevent international surface and marine operations through the East Sea by sending warships and surveillance crafts to operate in the radius of 12 nautical miles surrounding the submerged shoals and reefs currently occupied by China.
- The above-mentioned move clearly constitutes a new military escalation of extreme danger, disclosing the East Sea militarisation strategy that China has endeavored to hide. This poses a real danger to defense and security of the East Sea-shared countries, directly that of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and threatens marine and aviation security and safety in the East Sea. And that situation will trigger possible clashes and conflicts in the East Sea.
What should Vietnam and other countries do to deal with that situation
Before this action, Vietnam and other countries couldn’t do anything but voice our strong and clear opposition through the highest diplomatic channels. Vietnam should send a diplomatic note to the UN requesting it to intervene and take tough measures against China. It’s time for the UN to join in protecting its Charter and international law in the East Sea. Because, the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) have never been brazenly challenged and trampled as China has done in the East Sea, regardless of protests from concerned parties.
If we let China continue taking aggressive action in the East Sea that threaten other countries and disregard international law built to protect peace worldwide, it is likely that Beijing will throw basic principles and universal values of humankind, as well as the UN Charter, into the rubbish bin.
It’s time for concerned parties like Vietnam, the US, the Philippines and Japan to raise their voices at UN forums to deter destructive consequences of escalating tensions in the East Sea and protect laws and justice, especially concerning the UN court that is handling the Philippines’ lawsuit against China in the East Sea.
Vietnam and others countries should step up communication campaigns in and beyond its borders to help the public grasp a thorough understanding of China’s militarising operations in the East Sea. It should point out that these actions violate international law, and threaten security, peace, and marine and air freedom in the East Sea. It should also confirm Vietnam’s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes. This would garner international friends’ support and create an internal consensus in the fight to defend the country’s sea and island sovereignty, and promote the peace-loving spirit.
Vietnam and other contries needs to reinforce cooperation and push ASEAN member countries to build and implement measures to build trust. It should deliver initiatives to maintain the status quo, hinder conflicts, and maintain peace, stability, and aviation and maritime freedom in the East Sea.
Vietnam and other countries also needs to boosting the defensive capacity of its forces, and increasing the legal fight through diplomatic channels and proper international arbitrators to protect its legitimate sovereignty and interests in the East Sea against China’s unilateral actions infringing its national interests and sovereignty in the waters. These are strategic and decisive solutions.