Vietnam claims 1,395,096 km2 of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the East Sea (South China Sea). It has maritime boundary disputes with three claimants majorly with the People's Republic of China due to the nine-dash line which Hanoi was rejected citing that it is ‘baseless and against the 1982 UNCLOS’.Vietnamasserts that (2019 Defence White Paper) it has “sufficient historical evidence and legal foundation to prove its undeniable sovereignty over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands and sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf in the East Sea”. Furthermore, Vietnam upholds the “Agreement on the Basic Principles Guiding the Settlement of Sea-Related Issues” between Vietnam and China but remains committed to “resolutely and consistently protect sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over its waters as provided in international law. ”
Closely associated is the issue of resource development in the EEZ. Vietnam has large hydrocarbon reserves and in 2018 these accounted an estimated 4.4 billion barrels of oil. Further, the cost of the drilling in offshore segment has come down by nearly 40% making Vietnam oil and gas upstream market highly attractive. This has stimulated investments from various companies from Europe, Russia, India, etc. The Vietnam oil and gas upstream market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of less than 2% during 2020-2025.
However, in recent times the oil and gas upstream exploration has faced difficulty due to constant interference by China. There have been incidents of intimidation and the standoff between China and Vietnam in the Vanguard Bank in 2019 over the operations of the drilling rig Hakuryu 5 operated by Russia’s Rosneft in Vietnam’s oil and gas Block 06-01 merits attention. Similarly, in another instance, Petro Vietnam, a State owed oil company had to not only terminate but also pay compensation (estimated to be nearly US$ 800 million) to the Spanish oil company Repsol and United Arab Emirates’ company Mubadala. Likewise, Rosneft, a renowned Russian energy company was forced to suspend its plans for drilling offshore. Earlier, in 2014, there were anti-China protests in Vietnam after China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) HD-981 rig was deployed in Lot 143, claimed by both sides. The Vietnamese protesters had targeted ‘that had Chinese companies but in the bargain 21 protesters died.
The Chinese attempts to challenge Vietnamese legitimate resource development has also spilled into the fisheries sector impacting on the safety and security of fishermen. There have been instances of serious intimidation and harassment of Vietnamese fishermen including sinking a Vietnamese trawler. In April 2020, a Chinese coast guard vessel “rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea”. The incident resulted in loss of the boat but eight fishermen were rescued who were later repatriated back home.
Another issue which has direct relevance to Vietnamese national interest in the East Seas is about the Code of Conduct for South China Sea (CoC-SCS). It is nearly two decades now that China agreed with the ASEAN for the adoption of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC); it was expected to be adopted in 2021 but up till now the first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text has not been completed. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, as the Chair of the ASEAN (2020), had urged China to accelerate talks on the COC in line with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. His Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit had “emphasised the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations”
At another level, the 2016 Award in Republic of the Philippines vs People’s Republic of China (Permanent Court of Arbitration Case No. 2013-19) under Annex VII UNCLOS made a contemptuous observation that “China had violated its obligations under UNCLOS to protect and preserve the marine environment” on at least two counts i.e. “environmentally harmful fishing practices by its nationals” and the adverse “environmental impact of China’s land reclamation and construction activities” in the South China Sea. Further, it has been observed that “Chinese fishermen have illegally harvested corals, marine turtles, clams, sharks, eels and other marine animals from the waters of other countries on several occasions”. The region is reeling under threat of declining fish stocks due to unsustainable practices which impact on food security of Vietnam.
Given the above it is imperative that Vietnam build sufficient military capability to safeguard its national interests in East Seas. The Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) is the core service and mandated to protect “sovereignty, sovereign rights, territorial unity and integrity of Viet Nam’s seas and islands” should be strengthened to build national defence posture at sea. It will have to maintain a very high degree of operational readiness for countering any acts that violate national sovereignty, sovereign rights in sea areas that are under Vietnam’s jurisdiction and national interests and at the same time its actions should such that are in “conformity with Vietnamese and international laws”.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.