Beware of China’s recent aggression in the South China Sea

The dangerOn March 5, 2020, many Chinese media outlets simultaneously published a misleading report by the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) at Peking University, China. Accordingly, a total of 311 Vietnamese fishing vessels were said to have invaded China's inland, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone in February to spy under the pretense of illegal fishing. Also as reported, most Vietnamese fishing vessels convened near major waterways leading to Chinese naval and air force bases east of Hainan Island and near Guangdong waters. "Some Vietnamese fishing vessels even entered the firing range of Chinese military bases." This report stated that Vietnamese fishing vessels had entered "Chinese waters" in the Gulf of Tonkin and near Hainan Island, jumping to an absurd conclusion that "these vessels only serve two purposes: economic one, which is illegal fishing; and military one, which is reconnaissance and espionage”.

This is totally wrong as back in 2000 Vietnam and China had already signed the Agreement on Delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf, defining a common delimitation line for both countries’ exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. Furthermore, the two sides signed the Vietnam-China Agreement on Fishery Cooperation (effective since 2004), allowing fishing vessels from both sides to operate in a common fishery zone. The scope of the zone is calculated at 30.5 nautical miles spanning both sides from the dividing line, which vessels may cross. The number of vessels is to be determined annually by the two sides. This agreement is valid for 10 years and automatically extended by 5 years.

In fact, for the 15 years since the Fisheries Cooperation Agreement came into effect, there have been more Chinese vessels operating within the common fishery area, crossing the delimitation line onto Vietnamese waters than Vietnamese vessels. This is because the Vietnamese side is home to an abundance of fishes thanks to a number of estuaries flowing from northern Vietnam to the Gulf of Tonkin. The coastline here is also less steep and shallower than this of Hainan. Oftentimes, Chinese vessels go beyond the common fishing areas and enter the Vietnamese territorial waters. They then are shooed away by Vietnamese authorities.

It is a normal occurrence for Vietnamese fishing vessels to operate in the common fishery area of the Tonkin Gulf. Currently, Vietnam and China have been negotiating the delimitation of the area at the mouth of Tonkin Gulf. Negotiations remain stale because China does not want to demarcate but rather to jointly exploit. In recent years, according to Vietnam’s statistics, there have been hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels invading Vietnamese waters every month, sometimes only a few nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast, in order to put pressure on Vietnam during the negotiations. Chinese media’s attempts at the aforementioned report are meant to force Vietnam to accept the "joint exploitation" solution that China has initiated within areas outside the mouth of the Tonkin Gulf.

As we are discussing Hainan Island, we should also mention the case of Paracel Islands. Archived historical legal documents all affirm that the Paracel Islands fall under Vietnam’s sovereignty. In 1956 and 1974, China invaded Vietnam's Paracel Islands, claiming that they were China’s and in 1996, Beijing outlined the baseline around Paracel in contravention of the provisions of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and staked its claims on the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf calculated from this illegal baseline.

Since the 16th and 17th centuries, Vietnamese feudal reigns had peacefully exercised sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, having sent state fleets out for the purposes of cartography, fishery and rescues of foreign ships in distress in the Paracel region. The Paracel Islands have also been a traditional fishing ground for Vietnamese fishermen for hundreds of years. Having taken Paracel Islands by force, Beijing instituted solid measures against Vietnamese fishermen's fishing vessels, from high-speed chasing to arresting, even sinking Vietnamese fishing vessels within Paracel Islands, which the SCSPI's report dubbed "waters near Hainan island".

Not only does such abuse of Vietnamese fishing vessels and fishermen in this area infringe upon Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, but also seriously violate the provisions of international law on humane treatment of fishing boats and fishermen at sea. Obviously, Beijing has fabricated the so-called penetration by Vietnamese fishing vessels into China’s inland areas, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, in order to deceive the public and realize their evil scheme to monopolize the South China Sea.

According to China’s data, Vietnamese fishing vessels’ activities in recent years had been "increasingly rampant”; with the number of Vietnamese fishing vessels conducting intrusive activity in February having increased by at least twice as much as the previous month. In its conclusion, the report slandered the activities of Vietnamese fishing vessels as "complete violation of China's sovereignty and security and relevant international laws, including the UN Charter”.

It must be reaffirmed that it was China that violated its obligations under the UN Charter by using force to invade the Paracel Islands under the management of the Vietnamese government; Beijing has violated the UNCLOS and other relevant international laws when it delineated straight baselines around the Paracel Islands and demanded control over waters from this baseline. It has also violated the provisions of international law on humane treatment of fishermen and fishing vessels as stated above.

Some observers believe that China's publication of the SCSPI Report right when the US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Da Nang is a "deliberate" calculation by the Beijing authorities – a usual scare tactics. Such move was made in response to US ships visiting Tien Sa port and a warning for Vietnam to not involve with the US.

This is also likely a preparation for the next Chinese stir in the South China Sea, especially as they are angry at new developments in the Vietnam-US relations. For a while, Beijing has used the media to slander and blame other parties, then proceeded to use that excuse to carry out aggressive actions.

A historical reminder, prior to launching attacks on the Northern Vietnamese border in February 1979, since 1977, Beijing authorities had been using its propaganda machine to falsely accuse Vietnam of discriminating against Chinese minorities, using such an excuse to deploy comprehensive attacks along the Vietnam-China inland border, so as to “teach Vietnam a lesson”.

Beijing's focus had shifted to fighting the novel coronavirus, resulting in a seemingly quiet East Sea. However, Beijing has gradually regained control of the pandemic. Should they declare the end of the pandemic, Ha Noi must keep a sharp eye on possible upcoming aggression in the South China Sea.