South China Sea: Tension between Vietnam and China

  • Markéta Jurovská
  • 17.9.2015 16:23

Conflicts in South China Sea remain the main factor influencing regional geopolitics.

On 10.9.2015, Vietnam introduced new legislation allowing coast guard forces to use weapons to defend the territory against foreign ships that illegally enter Vietnam's. During ongoing territorial conflicts, Japan also stressed its support of Vietnam in conflicts with China. China however continues to build military structures on disputed islands. Escalation of the conflict is unlikely but the tension is growing.

The situation of South China Sea territory has been for many years a conflict of interests among the neighboring states which is related with territorial conflicts between China and Southeast Asia states. South China Sea is strategically advantageous – it is an area of important and highly frequented sea routes, a source of mineral riches and fishing. The most complicated conflicts in South China Sea concern the territories – especially the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands. The Paracel Islands are currently under the control of PRC and they are the subject of dispute between PRC, Vietnam and Taiwan. The Spratly Islands are divided and occupied by military units of all claimant nations: China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

PRC is the most prominent actor in the South China Sea territory conflict because, aside from mineral riches, maritime traffic in the waters of Southeast Asia is extremely important. By setting the so-called "nine dash line" as the boundary line, PRC broke The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which also establishes special economic zones. The most escalated conflict of the past year was the one with Vietnam over Chinese oil platforms located in the special economic zone and area claimed by Vietnam.

The issue is that it is unclear to what extent UNCLOS specifies a difference between territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. It is likely that Vietnam wants to discourage another attempt to violate its territorial integrity since in the last year China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil platform only 120 nautical miles from Vietnamese coastline in the disputed area.

Despite that China remains assertive and continues construction work on the Subi Reef and Mischief Reef on the Spratly Islands. Satellite pictures have shown that China has also built a 3000 meters long runway, helipads, radar station, watch tower and infrastructure for satellite communication on the Fiery Cross Reef. Japan, Peking's old rival, promised on 15.9.2015 to increase the defense of Vietnamese navy around disputed areas in South China Sea.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is actively supportive of navy security and also deals with territorial conflicts that complicate friendly and commercial relations in the region. Unfortunately the ASEAN's initiative lacks effectiveness and especially unity in relations with China. The probability of armed conflict is low but we can expect small fights between fishing boats and coastal guards. Conflicts in South China Sea will remain the main factor influencing regional geopolitics, Vietnam will continue to be a non-traditional ally of the U.S. in the territory and relations with China will remain polarized factor for ASEAN.

About author: Markéta Jurovská

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