n recent years China has pursued territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas, underscoring its reputation as a power seeking to maximise its regional presence. This has led to tensions, the latest of which is with Vietnam over oil drilling rights.
The South China Sea plays a critical role in Asia’s economy. A third of the world’s shipping passes through its waters. Huge reserves of oil and gas may well lie beneath the seabed. As a result, its bordering states – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – are fighting over resource rights.
The Paracel Islands, lying about 150 miles northeast of Vietnam, are the latest source of contention. China says that it won the islands in 1974 from US-backed South Vietnam. Hanoi rejects this and claims that according to the UN’s 1982 Law of the Sea treaty, the drilling site is firmly in Vietnam’s “exclusive economic zone”.
Early this month China made a surprising new attempt to assert its rights. For much of the past year, Beijing appeared to be forging a closer relationship with Hanoi. But on May 2, China parked a large oil rig belonging to its state-owned oil company close to the Paracels.
That triggered an ugly diplomatic rift. Nguyen Tan Deng, Vietnam’s prime minister, accused China of engaging in a dangerous and serious violation. The US called Beijing’s action provocative.
Vietnam contended that China had sent up to 80 vessels – some of them military – to protect the rig. Hanoi despatched its own flotilla, leading to exchanges of water cannon and collisions between the two sides.
It is unclear why China is testing relations with Vietnam. It could be a belated reaction to President Barack Obama’s April trip to the region, during which he annoyed Beijing by backing the Philippines’ demand for international arbitration to resolve its territorial disputes with China.
Beijing may also be aggrieved by Vietnam’s request that Japan provide it with patrol boats to strengthen its defence capability – a request Tokyo is considering.
Whatever the reason, China and Vietnam ought to take a step back. Beijing clearly bears prime responsibility for this sudden surge of tension. But the Vietnamese should be wary of triggering a conflict with China, given Beijing’s military strength.
This stand-off is one more reason why China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should renew efforts to resolve the deep-seated diplomatic rift over the South China Sea. Asean’s response to the oil rig incident was feeble.
Beijing asserts its near total ownership of the South China Sea on the basis of an internal Chinese map dating back to 1953. The map draws a “nine-dash line” enclosing the area it claims to be under its sovereignty. China has never explained on what basis it makes such a claim either in history or international law.
Asean should refocus efforts to find a solution to these claims. It should resurrect its 2002 Code of Conduct, signed by all countries, including China, in which they agreed to negotiate to resolve disputes over islands. The US would give strong impetus to this process if it ratified the UN Law of the Sea.
Until then, all states with claims in the South China Sea should either cease exploration in disputed waters or share the spoils until final decisions about ownership are taken. The Taiwan-Japan Fishing Accord is a proved model.
The South China Sea is rich in history and resources. China’s growing power has given it a boldness to assert control of these waters and to use historic claims to feed its hunger for raw materials. If Beijing wants its claims that it is rising peacefully to be taken seriously, its belligerence ought to cease. The risks of a damaging conflict erupting are too high.
此举引发了一个不祥的外交裂痕。越南总理阮晋勇(Nguyen Tan Dung)指责中国从事危险和严重的侵犯举动。美国称中国的行动是挑衅性的。
尚不清楚中国为什么要测试与越南的关系。这可能是对美国总统巴拉克?奥巴马(Barack Obama) 4月亚洲之行的迟来的反应。奥巴马支持菲律宾将其与中国的领土纠纷提交国际仲裁解决的诉求，这一立场惹恼了北京方面。
在那之前，在南中国海有主权主张的所有国家应当要么在争议海域停止勘探活动，要么在所有权问题最终解决之前分享果实。台日渔业协议(Taiwan-Japan Fishing Accord)就是一种经过验证的模式。