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THE SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTES:

A VIEW FROM VIETNAM

Dao Huy Ngoc

Institute for International Relations, Vietnam

The past several years have witnessed strategic transformations sweeping across the world; the most striking manifestation of this is the end of the cold war. As a result, the military and political confrontation between two security blocs led by the Soviet Union and the U.S. has come to an end. The world will now witness not only a period where the main and irreversible trend toward peace, development, and cooperation on a global scale will further develop, but also a period where particularistic nationalism and state interests, once relegated to the background in international politics, will again come to the forefront. The years that lie ahead are indeed full of uncertainties, especially in the fields of security and arms proliferation. But positive trends also are emerging.

Over the past few years, détente among the big powers has encouraged the Asia Pacific region to make substantial progress toward a relaxation of tension, settlement of regional conflicts, and promotion of cooperation. The normalization of relations between Vietnam and China, achieved in November 1991, the establishment of diplomatic relations by China with Indonesia and Singapore, and the "thaw" in relations between India and China have created not only more favorable conditions for the peaceful development of these countries but also constituted an important contribution to the promotion of a healthy political atmosphere in the region. Thus, after several decades of fierce wars and confrontation, the developing trend of dialogue and cooperation among the countries in the region reveals new possibilities. Southeast Asia will become a zone of peace, stability, friendship and cooperation.

Historians will see the October 1991 Paris peace accord on Cambodia and the adherence of Vietnam and Laos to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation at the annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Manila during July 1992 as key landmarks on the road toward lasting peace and prosperity in this region. Though it is only the beginning, it is a hopeful one because all the countries in Southeast Asia, after decades of confrontation and suspicion, have realized that close cooperation rather than confrontation is a permanent, persistent necessity.

There is little doubt that military power and politics will continue to be of paramount importance in many issue areas, especially national security, but economic well-being is also becoming a sine qua non of national security. Promoting and protecting economic prosperity is likely to become more and more the focus of national security.

The Eastern Sea (South China Sea): An Overview

One major trend in the South China Sea we have observed over the last decade is the "enclosure" of larger areas of the sea and its resources. Nations now give more attention to the real and potential value of ocean space and resources and have made strenuous efforts to secure their rightful, as well as unjust, claims over territorial waters and resources. Many nations argue for the natural right of coastal states to lay claim to their coastal waters and resources, but others argue for the principle of "freedom of the seas," believing that the ocean and its riches belong to every nation and equal rights to the ocean space and resources should be recognized on an equitable basis. These arguments are understandable if we consider the fact that seas and oceans are increasingly becoming the main areas for resource exploitation, not only because of the scarcity of land resources but also because of the very fast development of marine technology.

Disputes, and even armed clashes, between countries in the South China Sea over the Paracel and Spratly Islands are the result of competition for resources on the continental shelf areas or in the sea beds surrounding them. Besides this basic factor one can not forget that the maritime areas of Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea, are of interest to military strategists. Important sea lanes of communication crossing through the major straits and the South China Sea are of enormous economic and security significance to all nations conducting trade in Asia. These waters and adjacent islands are and have historically been points of political and strategic friction between neighboring states of the region. The fight for spheres of influence over the South China Sea among major maritime powers, the mini arms race in many countries surrounding the South China Sea, the armed clashes in this area, and the publication of various new maps and government decrees have brought the conflicts in the South China Sea, especially in the Spratlys, into sharper focus.

Asia's growing demand for energy has increased offshore exploration for oil and natural gas, and many countries have undertaken significant efforts to explore for these natural resources in the South China Sea. Oil, and to a lesser extent offshore, minerals and fisheries, are the focal point of the present disputes and conflicts.

The concept of the archipelagic state, incorporated in the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) complicated the situation in this area. All contiguous states have claimed 200 mile exclusive economic zones. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam have all made claims to areas in the South China Sea, while China has claimed the largest area in the South China Sea. Friction and violence have occurred in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China and Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The situation is further aggravated by the acceleration of a mini arms race in many countries concerned and also by the presence of many foreign oil companies.

The Natuna Islands dispute over conflicting claims concerning the continental shelf mainly involves Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam s position is based more on the principle of "equity" than on other legal theories, while Indonesia's position is based on its archipelagic claim supported by the UNCLOS. Looking at the friendly relations between the two countries, we can predict that sooner or later the two sides will find an acceptable solution. Though the negotiations between experts from both sides have lasted for many years, this dispute will not endanger regional stability.

In the Gulf of Tonkin, the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, the situation is somewhat more problematic. Until recently China did not even agree that there was a boundary settlement in the Gulf of Tonkin area while Vietnam has always maintained that the 1887 Sino-French Convention on the delimitation of the frontier between China and Tonkin (North Vietnam) established the "sea boundary" between the two countries in the Gulf. The Paracel and the Spratly archipelagos have been Vietnamese territory from ancient times, as is well documented. The seeds of the China-Vietnam dispute over the islands of the South China Sea were sown in 1951 when the then foreign minister of China, Zhou Enlai, declared that China claimed sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands. China's ambitions were realized "when the opportunity came"-to quote Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua. The first opportunity came after U.S. forces withdrew from South Vietnam. On January 20, 1974, the Chinese Navy completely conquered the Paracel archipelago. The second opportunity came in March 1988 when the Soviet Union embarked on a new policy of détente. China took the opportunity to dispatch its warships to attack and seize some islands in the Spratlys as a further step to reconfirm its "sovereignty" over all of the Spratlys. After the unlawful occupation of the Paracels in 1974, China many times declared that it had no intention of negotiating with any country over the sovereignty of these islands. The Spratly Islands situation became further complicated when China found strategic minerals in this area. In August 1984, Liu Huaqing, the then commander of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and now a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP, declared that "offshore deposits may amount to about 8 billion tons, forming one of the world's largest oil deposits; the deep water basin in the South China Sea has rich concentrations of manganese nodules and there are over 1500 varieties of fish in Chinese waters." (1)

After the normalization of relations between China and Vietnam in late 1991, a series of negotiations on border problems was held in October 1993. The negotiations at the governmental level succeeded in signing an agreement on basic principles to settle border disputes. The two sides agreed to settle disputes over the land boundary and sea boundary in the Tonkin Gulf, and after long discussions finally agreed to continue negotiations on disputes over the islands in South China Sea in order to seek a long term solution. The two sides also agreed to not complicate the situation by refraining from using force or threatening to use force to settle disputes in these areas. These agreements have had a positive impact, not only on the relationship between Vietnam and China, but also on the whole situation in the South China Sea. However, as past experiences have demonstrated, finding a settlement will be a very long and complicated process. It will require not only good will from both sides, but also the support of public opinion in the region.

National interests

China has long been viewed by many scholars, especially in Southeast Asia, as a country whose foreign policy is unpredictable. In response to Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng's offer to begin joint development of the resources in the South China sea, the then prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, said that nations in the region were worried about China's long term intentions. (2) China's future behavior concerning territorial disputes is very difficult to predict because Beijing has acted according to different motives at different times. While in Vietnam, Premier Li Peng emphasized that China "will never seek hegemony or practice expansionism." But a nation with nuclear missiles, 1.17 billion people, a total armed force of 3,030,000, economic growth in 1992 of 13%, and with 20,000 kilometers of land borders and an additional 14,000 kilometers of coastline is nothing less than a titan .3 From 1989 to 1992 Beijing increased military spending by 50 percent and purchased a squadron of Russian SU-27 fighter planes and 5 SA-10 surface to air missiles. In 1992 China also expressed interest in purchasing a Russian aircraft carrier and other advanced Russian military technology. (4) Although China has declared that it is only pursuing a defensive modernization program and all these purchases are for defensive purposes, many countries in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Malaysia, have expressed concern.

In February 1992, the National People's Congress passed a law under which the waters around the Paracels and Spratlys are designated China's territorial waters. According to the law, foreign naval vessels must obtain Beijing's permission before proceeding through the South China Sea and the Chinese military is authorized to use force, if necessary, to secure the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands. Two months later, China contracted with U.S.-based Crestone Energy Corp. to explore for oil in the Spratlys. About the same time, China conducted a one megaton nuclear test explosion in the western desert region of Xinjiang.

What are China's interests in the Spratlys? The natural resources in the surrounding ocean are the most significant long term interest for China, but for the time being China still lacks the technology to mine the waters and the military capability to protect such efforts. Still, China has a number of other short term interests in the islands. First, China wants to exclude the influence of any other major states, especially Japan. Second, China wants to establish a legal regime to enable Chinese vessels to navigate freely in the region under the pretext that the South China Sea is China's territorial waters. Third, the occupation of a limited number of islands provides China with an aircraft carrier equivalent. In a word, China wants to have a military presence in the islands and prevent any other major naval powers from "interfering" in the "internal affairs" of the claimant countries.

Regardless of the territorial ambitions in the South China Sea that Beijing may have, the Southeast Asian nations welcome an important role for China in this region, contributing positively to the establishment of a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in support of the aspirations of all states in this region.

The South China Sea is a major focus of Japan's Fukuda Doctrine announced in 1977 that aims to affirm a political role for Japan in Southeast Asia. Japan has developed extensive economic development and trade ties with all of the Southeast Asian nations. Now with the reduced U.S. and Russian military presence in Southeast Asia, Japan is worried about a "power vacuum" in the region and is in the process of enhancing her defense capability, particularly her navy. Japan's highest priority for now is to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea by using economic diplomacy to become, as soon as possible, a political and military power commensurate with her economic strength. Ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar system, Tokyo has concentrated its efforts on playing a greater political role in the Asia Pacific region. Japan already plays a leading role in the Asia Pacific economically, and in the foreseeable future Japan will eventually play, like it or not, a larger political role. it is obvious that since the end of the World War II Japan has given up any ambition toward territories in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, some leaders in Southeast Asia have expressed their apprehension and encourage Japan to retain its security relationship with the U.S. because, as a continuing security partner of the U.S., Japan would be considered less threatening in Southeast Asia. (5) Opinion in Southeast Asia is, as usual, diverse on the question of how Japan should be involved in security matters in this region.

The South China Sea, given its complicated situation, will be a big test for Japan. For Tokyo, the question of how to secure protection for vital sea lanes and establish a greater presence in the South China Sea is of utmost importance. As early as 1976, Japan put forward a new defense strategy which aimed at providing protection for sea lanes up to 1000 nautical miles from the Japanese coast. In 1985, the Japan Self Defense Agency said that the Self-Defense Forces were prepared to join U.S. forces to protect the sea lanes. But resentment of Japan lingers and Tokyo needs to slowly nurture friendships and mutual understanding between Japan and Southeast Asian countries.

The U.S. is a Pacific power and her interests in Asia Pacific include trade, investment, and vital natural resources. With the end of the cold war, the U.S. has turned its attention to domestic problems and has reduced her military presence in Southeast Asia. However, Washington still considers the South China Sea an important theater in which to reaffirm her status as a Pacific power. The U.S. does not want to see China, Japan, or any other nation fill the "power vacuum" in the South China Sea, which would threaten the maritime freedom of U.S. commercial and military vessels and the overflight of U.S. planes in the region. For the U.S., the South China Sea serves as the maritime connection to ASEAN states, the 5th largest trading partner of the U.S., rivaling commerce with Germany. Since the 1980s, total trade between the U.S. and Asia Pacific has surpassed that between the U.S. and Europe, and U.S. investment in the Southeast Asia region has doubled in the last decade, with the total amount of trade increasing from U.S.$ 4.5 billion to U.S. $12 billion. Economically speaking, Asia Pacific, including Southeast Asia, because of its dynamic economic development, will be increasingly more important for the U.S. in the coming century.

In political terms, for the first time in the 20th century, U.S. relations with China and Japan are troubled simultaneously, but for-different reasons. In the years ahead Washington must lay a new foundation for U.S.-Japan relations, as well as U.S.-China relations. The U.S. must take into account the extraordinary changes in the regional environment, the greatly altered nature of real and perceived threats, the revolution in military technology, the priorities on economic development of almost all countries in this region, and also nationalism, a real force existing everywhere in Asia. Washington's future policies. in Asia must be based on these realities. In a word, the time has come for the U.S. to undertake a fundamental reappraisal of American policies toward this region. It is widely recognized in many countries in Southeast Asia that for the time being, the U.S. should not take the leading role in security questions as it did during the cold war, but rather act as a buffer, balancer, and stabilizer in the many potential regional conflicts which can endanger peace and stability in the region, especially in the South China Sea.

One remarkable thing about ASEAN is that from its establishment in 1967, this organization has managed to coordinate efforts in a common spirit in all regional and international problems, despite the considerable cultural differences and territorial, disputes that exist among the six member states. Still, unresolved disputes may assume an increasingly important role within ASEAN in the near future;- All six states share maritime borders with each other as well as with other nations. The ability to claim 200 mile economic zones under the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, or the archipelagic doctrine adopted by Indonesia and the Philippines, concerns all users of the maritime straits in the region' The presence of such problems complicate relations within ASEAN. Major points of friction include unresolved border disputes, joint claims and a concern that individual states will be denied access to future sources of oil, natural gas, fisheries, manganese nodules, etc.

In security terms ASEAN has been, over the years, participating in a generally efficient and more or less successful "security community." Security arrangements are mainly agreements among ASEAN states to cooperate in solving specific security problems. But much debate in recent years has focused on whether or not ASEAN should take steps to set up a formal security structure or pact. It is apparent that some bilateral relations are better than others and to date the ASEAN leadership is on record as being generally opposed to a more formal pact. (6) The successful record of ASEAN's informal solutions to security problems in the region must be taken into consideration when considering its approach to such Problems as the South China Sea disputes.

Russia has considerably reduced its military forces deployed in the Asia Pacific region. Moscow, however, believes that the South China Sea still plays an important role in Russia's Asia Pacific strategy. This was made clear in the statement by Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev at the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) in July 1992 in Manila: "After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia became an independent state in her foreign policy, the portion as well as the role of the oriental factor ha been considerably increased." (7)

Though facing difficulties with its military budget, in carrying Out its Asia Pacific strategy, Russia still wants to maintain her naval forces Presently deployed in Camranh Bay in order to confirm her role as an Asia Pacific power, as well as defend her economic interests in this region.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union established trade and economic relations with the six ASEAN states and three Indochinese countries. Soviet-Singapore joint ventures were set up to take advantage of the maritime routes between Southeast Asia and Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and fishing in the South China Sea. In 1981, the largest oil exploitation enterprise in Vietnam, a joint venture, was set up between the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Up to 1992, fourteen million tons of crude oil have been extracted, half of which has been exported to Russia. If the sea lanes in the South China Sea are disrupted, Russian economic interests will be directly affected.

For Russia, however, the South China Sea is not of such vital importance compared with the Baltic and Black Seas, or the Sea of Okhotsk and Japan Seas. In term of national interests, Southeast Asia was never a vital interest to the Soviet Union, and there is no Possibility that the region will occupy a top priority in the Russia's strategic deployment and foreign policy. But still a super power, at least in military terms, Russia has been focusing greater attention on her economic and political interests in the South China Sea region, and continues to increase economic cooperation with various countries in the region.

The South China Sea encloses Vietnam entirely, which is of great commercial significance for Vietnam. Vietnam's continental shelf and economic sea zones in the South China Sea span an area of more than one million square kilometers with over two thousand islands of various sizes. The Spratly archipelago is of greatest significance in terms of military security and economic security for Vietnam. Economic development of the South China Sea constitutes a strategic front for Vietnam in the short term as well as in the future.

Concerning jurisdictional claims, Vietnam was the first country in the region to claim a two hundred nautical mile exclusive economic zone. In May 1977 Vietnam claimed an entire suite of maritime zones: a 12 nautical-mile territorial sea, a 12 nautical mile contiguous zone, and a 200 mile exclusive economic zone. At the same time, Vietnam also claimed the continental shelf to the edge of the continental margin or out to two hundred nautical miles from its straight baseline. (8)

Vietnam is the only country that can lawfully claim the Paracels and Spratly Islands. However, in view of the fact that the Spratlys are claimed not only by Vietnam, but also by China and Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, and the South China Sea is the main maritime route from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, Vietnam has adopted a four point policy toward Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea. This policy states that Vietnam:

1) accepts the principle of settling disputes through peaceful negotiations and the nonuse of force, not forming alliances, mutually beneficial cooperation in the interest of development and peace;

2) seeks to broaden its friendship and cooperation with all Asia Pacific countries;

3) supports strengthening cooperation with all neighboring countries and with ASEAN as a regional organization, eventually joining ASEAN, as well as participating in bilateral and multilateral dialogues and regional political and security forums in order to seek effective measures to ensure peace and stability in the region; and

4) advocates settling through peaceful negotiations all disputes in the region, including those over territorial questions in the South China Sea, and while seeking a settlement, maintain the status quo and refrain from acts that will further complicate the situation, and cooperate in development on issues such as hydro-meteorology, maritime navigation, environmental protection, salvage, anti-piracy and anti-drug trafficking, etc.

This policy clearly demonstrates Vietnam's willingness to settle all disputes by peaceful means on the basis of mutual respect and understanding, taking into account the concrete situation of each country. Vietnam's "new thinking," put forward at the 1986 Sixth Party Congress, to pursue a policy of becoming friends with all countries for the cause of peace, stability, cooperation, and development, forms the basis of Vietnam's efforts to find a peaceful and acceptable solution for the South China Sea disputes.

Conclusion

The U.S., Japan, and China, in the years to come, will all have a decisive impact on security questions of the region. Should the U.S. maintain a military presence in East Asia to deter regional conflicts, or should the U.S. withdraw its military presence allowing Japan or China to fill the resulting power vacuum? Should the countries in this region engage in an arms race that would lead to successive conflicts, or after realizing that no power vacuum has developed, in the military sense, still keep their armed strength on a level suitable for minimal deterrence? Any of these scenarios could unfold given the uncertainty of the future.

In the past, proposals concerning questions of security in Asia were put forward by Mikhail Gorbachev and by Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. The U.S. was reluctant to discuss such questions, though the establishment of a dialogue process was welcomed by many countries in Asia. 'Me time now seems ripe for this dialogue process due to the fast-changing situation in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia. The improvement in relations between the U.S. and Russia, an to a ]lesser degree between Russia and Japan, at the same time that potentially destabilizing factors such as China's commitment to acquire force projection capabilities and the emergence of a mini arms race in the region, increase the importance and attractiveness of multilateral as well as bilateral security dialogue.

There is growing interest in some kind of multilateral approach to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and especially the Spratly Islands. A series of workshops has already been held to explore the conflicting claims in the area, but has failed to make any significant advancements towards a solution of the most contentious issues. The objective of all these workshops is to establish cooperation and build the confidence of the parties so that regional cooperation in the Spratlys is possible. The non-governmental workshops have made very significant contributions to the process of mutual understanding, made recommendations to their governments to not use force to address the issue, and explored cooperative activities to prevent piracy and drug trafficking, ensure navigational safety, and protect marine life. But in reality, these workshops have shortcomings because the governments can disregard the results and continue to pursue their own foreign policy in contradiction with workshop recommendations.

The present situation in the Spratlys is very complicated. The disputes involve closely-related issues such as sovereignty over the islands and the maritime rights and interests over the waters around them. The disputes over the Spratly Islands are in fact a competition for resources for the future economic development of the countries concerned. Although many bilateral meetings have been organized, no results have been achieved. More attention must be devoted to finding an early solution to these disputes. However, no solution can be found in isolation from the larger regional developments in Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region. China's position toward the question of dispute settlement, by peaceful means or by force, will have a decisive impact on the outcome.

The question is whether such disputes can be effectively resolved in region-wide forums such as the ASEAN-PMC. Is such a forum suitable for an official multilateral dialogue on security issues since it does not have universal membership? Or can Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) broaden its agenda to include security issues as well as economic issues? It seems more realistic to use both the ASEAN-PMC and APEC as a venue for such a dialogue, at least in the interim, using the former with its broadened membership to discuss traditional security issues, including the Spratly disputes, while asking APEC to consider the economic aspects of both conventional and non-conventional security. It would, at the same time, be highly desirable to continue the annual Asia-Pacific Roundtables conducted in Kuala Lumpur as a forum for unofficial discussions of security.

Together with the measures mentioned above, the best way to solve the complicated situation in the Spratlys is to transform Southeast Asia, and primarily the South China Sea, into a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). This idea, advocated by ASEAN in the 1970s, is valuable as the first necessary step to establish mutual confidence between countries in this region before discussing any further concrete solution for the disputes over the Spratly Islands. If this idea can be realized, it may transform the South China Sea from a potential zone of regional conflict into a zone of peace and cooperation.

Dao Huu Ngoc

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Notes:

Dao Huy Ngoc (B.A., M.A., Moscow, Institute of International Relations) is presently director-general of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Institute for International Relations. He was formerly Vietnam's Ambassador to Japan, Director of the Department of Western European Countries, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and professor of the history of international relations and foreign policy at the College of Diplomacy.

1 See Du Zhongwei "The Ocean, the Navy, and the new Technological Revolution-An interview with Naval Commander Liu Huaqing" in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report.- China (September 21, 1984): 14-16

2 Michael Richardson, "Li Peng woos Southeast Asia," Asia Pacific Defense Reporter (October 1990):19.

3 James Walsh 'Thunder out of China," Time (April 12,1993):23-27.

4 See The New York Time (October 18, 1991) and The Far Eastern Economic Review (November 12,1992):28.

5 See Chai Kim Wah, "Lee Kwan Yew Urges Japanese Openness on History," The Strait Times (May 4,1990):20.

6 See J. N. Mak, "Directions for Greater Defence Cooperation" Institute for Strategic and international Studies, Malaysia (1986):10.

7 Nhan Dan Magazine (July 1992).

8 See Nhan Dan (May 13, 1977).

American Asian Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, Winter, 1994 (pp. 23-37)