An interview with Lee Woong Hyeon, Ph.D., President of Geopolitics Institute of Korea about the state of affairs in the region surrounding the Korean Peninsula, China, and Vietnam.
As an expert on the international relations, can you give us your general assessment on the current security situation in the South China Sea (Vietnam’s East Sea) and the Chinese intentions when it sent the survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 to the waters near Vanguard Bank?
As I know, Chinese geological survey vessel’s activities in this area are not new. The Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea on 3 July. The first encroachment of China’s oil rig occurred five years ago. At that time, the first intrusion of China’s oil rig triggered fierce anti-China protests among Vietnamese both domestically and overseas. This time, the entering of Haiyang Dizhi 8 not only agitated the Vietnamese government and people but went further to make the United States criticize Beijing for “bullying behavior” in the area. It meant that July’s action stemmed from the desire for demonstrating China’s presence in this area and reflected the recent US-China relation including economic conflicts.
As a result of the trade war with the US, China’s economy is reported to continue to stall. The Chinese government may want to incite nationalism to distract the public’s attention from some difficult diplomatic situations like US-China confrontation and the popular uprising initially sparked by a controversial extradition law in Hong Kong. Of course, China’s political and military intention in this area should not be excluded. China has been maintaining its upper hand over its neighbors and getting more and more assertive with about 25-30 military outposts from the Paracel islands to the Spratlys. China’s intention is said to originate from its “national interests, virtual or real”.Territorial (including maritime), military, economic, diplomatic gains, and desire for being recognized(in the Hegelian term) which are pursued by all the states in general, especially by the rising powers.
In your opinions, what are legal frameworks necessary for ensuring the security and freedom of aviation and navigation in the sea?
I think, for the peace and prosperity of people, we should not resort on only naked power or military force. We should not give up the efforts of citing, utilizing and adopting the international norms for the peaceful solving of the problems among state. There is a legal framework for security and peace in this sea beside the general and traditional principle of free navigation.
The Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef of the Spratly islands, hosts Vietnam’s strategic DK1 rigs which sit well within the 200 nautical miles of Vietnam’s EEZ. EEZ, set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is the foremost legal frame of reference with which Hanoi can strengthen its own position. Although the Chinese government has contested the UNCLOS rule, especially interpreted by Vietnam and other claimants, Beijing’s method of justification for its action, nine-dash line, cannot be said as an international legal frame consented by other states.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed the nine-dash line claim as groundless in 2016, which has not been respected by the Chinese government. But PCA, like other international courts, has not any real power of enforcement of its own decision. This is the limitation of international norms and legal judgments, sometimes we look forward to. But legal frame would be a weak state’s good weapon for criticizing the illegal action of the stronger’s and forgetting world opinion’s support.
Can you predict developments relating to the security situation in the area in the coming time?
Considering the salami-slicing tactics of China’s in this area and Hanoi’s cool(this means ‘reasonable’) and wise policy-reaction even under the pressure of Vietnam people’s anger and protests, we can forecast that outright and armed conflicts will not happen. But every statesman should be careful not to escalate an incident into a serious confrontation or conflict especially in a crisis, which is stirring public protests like this. Crisis-management is statesman’s vital virtue.
When a claimant intrudes into the area which it claims as ‘its area’ or as having interest in it, its action is apt to make itself a recurrent pattern, though not going up to the extreme line. That is the salami-slicing or gray-zone tactic. Of course, those activities threats the security situation in the area, provoking the concerns of peoples around. This kind of tactics will be witnessed for the foreseeable future in this area.
In your opinion, what the Vietnam authorities should do to protect its legitimate sovereignty and interests in the Vanguard Bank in particular and in the South China Sea in general?
Vietnam, sharing a dozen hundred-kilometer border with China and having experienced war with China in 1979, is highly evaluated as a state with a tolerance of strategic risk, including during the confrontation with China in 2014. At the end of a very dangerous and collision-possible period of two-month stand-off, China eventually pulled and backed down its oil rig in that year. This is the diplomatically and strategically wise course to be taken in the coming time.
In the international crisis threatening the state’s security and sovereignty, the most important stance a state should take is to maintain the strategic, theoretical and policy consistency, which could get the international support together and could get the normatively stronger position. And it is necessary that academicians study and research the related maritime history of this area, preparing for the possible debate on who the historically and internationally legitimate and sovereign of this area should be. Sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword.