In another conflagration in the South China Sea, the Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 has returned to waters within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), this time with more air support. It will be recalled that the Chinese ship had first entered Vietnam’s EEZ on July 4 and had stayed in the vicinity for more than a month. It was accompanied by several Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels. After vigorous protests by Vietnam, the US and other stakeholders in the South China Sea – which included a statement by India’s ministry of external affairs regarding freedom of access in the regional waters – Haiyang Dizhi left the area on August 7. However, it returned on August 13 with more number of Chinese supporting aircraft. According to Vietnamese diplomatic sources, H-6K bombers and fighter jets are backing up the vessel.
Additionally, two Chinese coast guard ships have parked near an oil and gas block with Indian stakes and have been using loudspeakers to assert Chinese sovereignty over the area. Block 06/1 has seen a joint venture between PetroVietnam, Russia’s Rosneft and India’s ONGC for regular oil and gas production for 17 years. It is located well within Vietnam’s 200-nautical mile EEZ limit and therefore China has no locus standi here whatsoever. Yet, Beijing insists on undertaking what can only be described as bullying tactics.
The fact that the Chinese vessel went out of Vietnam’s EEZ and then returned shows that Beijing is unwilling to heed international protests. It exemplifies China’s ‘big power’ mindset which sees the South China Sea as a Chinese lake. Nothing could be further from the truth. Granted, that Chinese people have historically exploited South China Sea waters. But so have the Vietnamese, the Filipinos, the Malays, the Thais, the Indians, etc. Therefore, history alone cannot be the basis of sovereignty in the South China Sea. What must be followed then is international law. And the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling had negated China’s claims in the area. Understandably, China sees the South China Sea as strategically important. After all, around 70% of crude bound for China traverses through the region. But the South China Sea is also important for South-east Asian nations and even countries outside the region, including India. In fact, around 55% of India’s trade passes through the South China Sea.
Thus, it cannot be all about China’s interests. Other countries too have legitimate, legal and historical rights in the South China Sea. China aspires to be a great socialist power. But its unilateral actions will only lead to countervailing forces aligning against it. And that certainly wouldn’t be conducive for China’s rise. In fact, the first maritime exercise between Asean and the US is slated to take place from September 2-6 in the Gulf of Thailand. And if China thinks that the US is trying to impede its aspirations in the region, then doesn’t it make more sense to work with South-east Asian nations through a consultative mechanism? This will ensure that the US isn’t able to create an anti-China bloc.
In fact, Asean nations don’t want to get involved in bloc politics. But China is making it hard for them to stick to this principled position. Again, China must remember that with great power comes great responsibility. It will be in its best interest to avoid destabilising actions in the regional waters and expedite a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea with Asean nations.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.