Over the last couple of weeks, the number and severity of incidents between China and Vietnam have increased where their interests intersect at sea. Recently, a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese ship near the Spratly Islands where China has established an oil rig on Vietnamese territory. Incidents like these are forcing a number of questions to surface about territorial claims, modern economic exclusion zones, and the ability of larger, more powerful countries to enforce their will on smaller ones.
It’s unclear how many islands in the Spratly chain can lay claim to being “naturally formed, remaining above water at high tide, able to support human habitation, and can support economic life.” That’s how the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea defines an island. Yet, even if the ‘island’ cannot be defined, the same UN Convention did define the concept of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The UN established that an EEZ extends to a distance of 200 nautical miles, but when it overlaps with another country’s EEZ, it is up to the states involved to determine the actual boundary. However, when it comes to the Spratly Islands, China cannot claim EEZ, while Vietnam can.
By establishing a ‘working’ oil rig within the EEZ of Vietnam, China is aggressively challenging not only Vietnamese territorial authority but also the United Nations. Article 56 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets the rights of management of a nation’s resources in its EEZ. By establishing the oil rig in that location, then sending over 80 ships (of various types) to support the move, China has signaled that its economic interest in the South China Sea supersedes its interest in abiding by the UN charter.
Part of an ongoing campaign by China to establish control in the South China Sea, this latest incident underscores the lengths that China is willing to go to intimidate its neighbors.
“China can use its military to intimidate its immediate neighbors, but intimidating countries like the United States and India is a different proposal altogether.”
The current move by China is reminiscent of the Scarborough Shoal conflict with the Philippines. Dealing with fishing instead of oil, the Chinese aggressively pursued claims in the area. When the Philippines seized the offending fishing boats and sought mediation to end the conflict, China agreed, but did not abide by the agreement. In fact, China has militarized the area and actively discourages Filipino fishing of the shoal. Scarborough Shoal lies within the EEZ of the Philippines.
The most visible difference between China’s actions during this conflict and the one at Scarborough Shoals is one of presence. At Scarborough Shoals, China didn’t send in naval forces to protect her interests, but she has sent 7 naval vessels to the oil rig, along with maritime surveillance ships to join the dozens of other vessels that are currently there.
This provocative stance has the potential to destabilize the entire region and create an economic and political backlash against Chinese efforts to assert its authority over the South China Sea. By flouting international law, China is drawing criticism and attention from countries with economic interests in the area. China can use its military to intimidate its immediate neighbors, but intimidating countries like the United States and India is a different proposal altogether.
Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of this website. The facts, on the other hand, reflect the world’s view of us.