Despite Vietnam's willingness to engage in peaceful discussions and international calls for compliance with the law, China continues to be aggressive in word and deed in the East Sea.
He did not smile. His face was emotionless, with an iron glint as he shook hands with Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi. It may have been one of the toughest meetings in the diplomatic career of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Binh Minh.
The meeting between senior Vietnamese and Chinese diplomats comes more than a month after China illegally placed an oil rig in Vietnamese waters in the East Sea. Publicly, the visit by State Councillor Yang Jiechi to Hanoi on June 18 was said to be “a meeting of the chairs of the Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation between the two countries.” Needless to say, though, the East Sea was high on their agenda.
State Councillor Yang Jiechi, who was a previous Minister of Foreign Affairs, met with Deputy PM Minh and was also received by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Mr Nguyen Phu Trong, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, but it seemed that both sides any agreement on the dispute. Deputy PM Minh was quoted as saying to Mr Yang Jiechi that “Vietnam always attaches importance to nurturing and enhancing the friendship and comprehensive cooperation with China, but the illegal placement of the oil rig in Vietnam’s waters has affected bilateral ties.” And, “China’s move also seriously violates international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), threatens maritime security and safety, peace and stability in the region, and causes the Vietnamese people distress,” he insisted.
PM Dung later reiterated Vietnam’s consistent stance as stated during bilateral communications at different levels in the past and made clear that China’s actions threaten peace and stability and the security and safety of navigation and aviation in the region, while causing indignation and offence among the Vietnamese people, damaging the co-operative efforts between the two Parties and the two countries. PM Dung asked that China withdraw its rigs and ships from Vietnam’s waters and join in talks over the settlement of the dispute and the differences between the two sides. “Vietnam will resolutely struggle to defend its sovereignty by peaceful measures, in line with international law,” PM Dung told his Chinese guest.
But as State Councillor Yang Jiechi listened to these words, Chinese vessels brutally hit Vietnamese Coast Guard and fishing surveillance ships, injuring two fisheries surveillance officers and damaging the vessels. China also announced during the visit that it would place another oil rig, the Nan Hai Jiu Hao, in the East Sea. In a notice on its website on June 17, the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) said that the new rig would be towed between June 18 and 20 by tugboat from its existing location at 17°38’ North latitude and 110°12.3’ East longitude to a new location at 17°14.1’ North latitude and 109°31’ East longitude, in the East Sea. The new location is near Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) islands. It was reported that State Councillor Yang Jiechi presented China’s stance on the dispute and expressed agreement that the two sides should continue to maintain channels of discussion and bilateral contact to resolve the ongoing tensions while promoting continued bilateral cooperation in different fields.
International stakeholders and analysts, however, have questioned this Chinese expression of willingness to cooperate on the issue. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during a visit to Washington D.C. late last month that international law should determine how territorial disputes in the East Sea were resolved rather than the notion that “might is right”. PM Lee noted that China says its claims have a historical basis that predates international law. “I am not a lawyer, so I presume there is some plausibility in this argument,” PM Lee told the Council on Foreign Relations during the visit. “But from the point of view of a country that must survive in the international system, where there are large countries and small, outcomes cannot be determined just by ‘might is right’. I think international law must have greater weight in how disputes are resolved.”
Another senior US diplomat for East Asia, Assistant to the Secretary of State Daniel Russel, on also warned June 25 that China’s efforts to enforce its territorial claims in disputed waters are not only raising tensions but also damaging its international standing. Speaking at a congressional hearing last month, Mr Russel criticised China’s recent actions in the East Sea, which he said had left its neighbours “understandably alarmed.” “A pattern of unilateral Chinese actions in sensitive and disputed areas is raising tensions and damaging China’s international standing,” he said. “China, as a strong and rising power, should hold itself to a high standard of behaviour. To wilfully disregard diplomatic and other peaceful ways of dealing with disagreements and disputes in favour of economic or physical coercion is destabilising and dangerous.”