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HANOI: As tensions flare-up in the South China Sea (SCS), which has been boiling for some time now, the prime contestants seem to be Vietnam and China.
Both countries have been locked again in a stand-off, contesting each other’s claims of maritime rights and seabed exploration endeavours.
China has taken a series of provocative actions in the waters since the start of this year as the world is busy battling with the Covid-19 pandemic caused by coronavirus that originated in Wuhan city of China.
The renewed tensions repeat a familiar pattern the world has witnessed repeatedly regarding Chinese conduct in the South China Sea disputes.
It enhances the fragility of the situation between the claimant states in this strategic expanse of sea waters.
The Maritime Safety Administration of China’s Hainan Province had held military exercises near Vietnam’s Paracel Islands on July 1-5.
China’s actions triggered a huge backlash in Vietnam and sent a diplomatic note to protest the illegal exercises, urging non-repetition of the incident. Foreign Ministry said the exercises violated Vietnam’s sovereignty, complicating negotiations for a Code of Conduct of Parties (COC) in the SCS between China and ASEAN, and affecting peace in the region.
The country has multiple times condemned China’s illegal actions in the waters, claiming full legal basis and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands under international law. All activities conducted by any party near either island without prior consent from Vietnam hold no value it has stressed.
The US Defense Department has criticized China’s military exercises in the South China Sea, calling it a violation of China’s commitments in maintaining stability in the region.
The Pentagon said the military exercises were the latest in a long string of China’s actions “to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the SCS.” It urged China to reduce its militarization and coercion of its neighbours in the waters.
In June, a Chinese Coast Guard patrol vessel and a speedboat chased, rammed and damaged the Vietnamese fishing boat near Lincoln Island in Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago.
On April 2, another Chinese Coast Guard vessel had rammed and sunk a fishing boat while it was fishing off Woody (Phu Lam) Island in the Paracels.
Vietnam condemned the act, and the US and the Philippines joined in the criticism. The Vietnamese fisheries society said that “Such actions by China have occurred many times and are increasing relentlessly, causing insecurity and discontent among Vietnam’s fishermen, reducing Vietnam’s fishing production, causing serious economic losses to fishermen, infringing on Vietnam’s sovereignty and violating Vietnamese and international laws”.
It called on authorities to strongly condemn and immediately stop China from obstructing and ramming Vietnamese fishing boats in Vietnam’s sovereign waters, and take resolute measures against China’s unreasonable actions.
The US and Vietnam have signed a memorandum of understanding, which includes support against illegal “intimidation” of the latter’s fishermen at sea.
The MOU, which aims to strengthen Vietnam’s fisheries management and law enforcement capabilities.
“We look forward to working together with Vietnam to strengthen the sustainability of its fisheries and support its fishers against illegal intimidation,” said the US Ambassador to Vietnam, Dan Kritenbrink, at the signing ceremony in Hanoi.
The MOU came a week after the US released statements affirming its stance in supporting Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam in disputes with China at sea.
“Beijing uses intimidation to undermine the sovereign rights of Southeast Asian coastal states in the South China Sea, bully them out of offshore resources, assert unilateral dominion, and replace international law with ‘might makes right’,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The US rejected China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, including waters surrounding Vietnam’s Vanguard Bank, Luconia Shoals off Malaysia, waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar off Indonesia. It dismissed China’s action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters as unlawful.
China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam by force in 1974 and has since been illegally occupying them. In 2012, it built the so-called “Sansha City” with Woody Island as its seat, and has since built a runway capable of handling military aircraft and other supporting structures.
The so-called city also extends to a number of reefs in Vietnam’s Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands that China seized by force in 1988 as well as the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by the Philippines.