Vietnam submits a diplomatic note rejecting China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea
Vietnam submits a diplomatic note rejecting China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea
  • Choe Nam-suk
  • 승인 2020.04.21 11:50
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Choe Nam-suk Writer

According to Vietnamese and international press, on March 30, The Vietnamese delegation at the United Nations submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, objecting to China’s notes previously issued on March 23, 2020 and December 12, 2019, regarding its sovereignty claims over the two archipelagos of Paracel and Spratly Islands (Vietnamese names: Hoang Sa and Truong Sa), adjacent and relevant sea areas, seabed and subsoil under the seabed in the South China Sea. 

In the note protesting China's claims, Vietnam made its position clear on this issue. Specifically, regarding Official Letter CML/14/2019 of  December 12, 2019in response to Malaysia's same-day submission to the Continental Shelf Boundary Commission and Official Letter CML/11/2020 of March 23, 2020, of the Delegation of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Vietnam affirmed its Government's consistent stance as follows:

"Vietnam objects to China's claims in the aforementioned diplomatic notes. These claims seriously violate Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction rights over the East Sea."

"Vietnam has sufficient historical evidence and legal basis to assert sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, in accordance with the provisions of international law."

Vietnam also affirmed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS 1982) as the only legal basis, comprehensive and absolute regulations on the scope of maritime entitlement between Vietnam and China. Vietnam objected to claims in the South China Sea that exceeded the limits prescribed in the Convention, which have no legal value.

This is not the first time Vietnam has submitted a document to the United Nations to assert sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In many documents stored at the United Nations and submissions, declarations tended to relevant international agencies, Vietnam has repeatedly stated and reaffirmed its stance on the South China Sea and Vietnam's sovereignty over the Islands, in accordance with the provisions of the UNCLOS 1982. 

In 2014, when China illegally commissioned and operated the Haiyang-981 drilling rig in waters of the Paracel islands, the Vietnamese delegation at the United Nations also sent a letter to the General Secretary of the United Nations at that time, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, protesting Chinese ships invading its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. 

Vietnam has shown documents that hold historical and international legal value, clearly demonstrating its undisputed sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Islands. From a historical perspective, Vietnam believes that it owns many centuries-old documents proving sovereignty over these Islands. Based on many of Vietnam’shistorical documents, the monarchical government had exercised sovereignty over Paracel Islands before the 1803s and began doing the same with the Spratly Islands in the 1830s, what it did including documenting many activities on the islands and setting up sovereign landmarks. 

In international documents from the 17-18th century, including 06 world Atlas maps drawn by geographer Philippe Vandermaelen and released in Belgium between 1795 and 1869, the two Islands have been identified to be in the waters of the Annam Empire (Vietnam). These are the first maps of the West to accurately describe the location, geographical features and names of islands in the South China Sea in Western languages. 

Vietnam also affirmed that they have sufficient legal bases about its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf to assert its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands according to regulations conforming to the 1982 UNCLOS that Vietnam, China and 118 other countries have signed.

In addition, aside from Vietnam, other parties involved in claiming partial or total sovereignty over sea areas in the South China Sea have also used diplomatic notes to both assert their claims and at the same time object to the claims of others. However, so far, only China has officially had its claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea ruled against by a legitimate international arbitration tribunal in the case against the Philippines. 

On January 22, 2013, the Philippines sent a lawsuit notification under the Arbitration mechanism of the UNCLOS 1982. Although China refused to participate, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) proceeded with the lawsuit and ruled on July 12, 2016; the ruling rejected China's sovereignty claims in the form of the“Cow's tongue line”, stating: (i) There is no evidence to show that historically China has exclusively controlled the waters in the South China Sea as well as its resources. 

If China had ever had historic rights to this maritime area, these rights would have been abolished because of their being inconsistent with the exclusive economic zone statute in accordance with the Convention. Therefore, there is no legal basis for China to claim historical rights to resources in the waters inside the 09-dotted line (Cow’s tongue line); (ii) No disputed island is allowed to have its own exclusive economic zone. 

Therefore, China has no legal basis rooted in the Convention to claim that it has the right to engage in fishing activities or share resources in the exclusive economic zone of ASEAN countries related to the region; (iii) China's island expansion construction activities violate China's obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment. Construction activities are against the law because they aggravate and expand disputes that are being brought to court and destroy evidence of the natural conditions of entities being considered by the court.

Although China rejected the PCA’s ruling and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte's government pursues a diplomatic approach to China, therefore refraining from reiterating the PCA's ruling, this ruling is supported by many countries because it is arrived at by a legitimate United Nations Arbitration Court after a long process of reviewing related documents and evidence.

The South China Sea is a major sea area with overlappinginterests involving many countries and an important global maritime route. There exist many disputes over sovereignty over islands and waters in this sea area. And the problems tend to be too complicated and difficult for the parties involved to find a common voice. Some approaches that have been used to have even led to growing tension, which could potentially lead to armed conflict. 
Therefore, the parties involved need to resolve disputes using peaceful means, in accordance with international law. Only then will the South China Sea community be able to avoid threats to its security and legal activities taking place in the waters in accordance with UNCLOS 1982. 

In the immediate period, parties directly involved, especially China and ASEAN should promote negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea to replace the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) and refrain from acts of force or threats to use force against another country that has sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. When a party involved makes new claims regarding sovereignty in the South China Sea, they must be based on solid historical evidence and international law

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