In a new twist this week to the stand-off between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal, 66 Vietnamese, many of them well-known public figures in Vietnam and within the Vietnamese Diaspora, signed a letter to the Philippine Ambassador in Vietnam to express support for the Philippines’ “sovereign rights” in the continuing stand-off. The main points of the letter are:
1) Support for the “sovereign rights” of the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal.
2) Opposition to China’s use of the “nine-dashed line” to make overlapping claims with the Exclusive Economic Zones and continental shelves of the Philippines, Vietnam and other ASEAN countries, as well as opposition to “China’s actions and threats of force,” the latter presumably referring to articles in China’s state controlled press.
3) Support for the Philippines’ proposal to submit the dispute at Scarborough Shoal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
The first interesting thing about the letter, to which I am a signatory, is that while supporting the Philippines, the letter stops short of taking sides on the question of sovereignty over the rocks at Scarborough Shoal. What it supports the Philippines on is the question of “sovereign rights,” which isn’t sovereignty over islands and rocks, but rights over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf.
Does it make legal sense to support the Philippines on the question of rights over the EEZ and continental shelf without taking sides on the question of sovereignty over the rocks? Don’t the rights over the EEZ and continental shelf depend on sovereignty over territories, including islands and rocks? The answer lies in the fact that the rocks at Scarborough Shoal aren’t the only territories in this area; there’s also Luzon Island. It’s possible to argue that these rocks aren’t entitled to an EEZ beyond 12 nautical miles, therefore the EEZ in this area belongs to Luzon Island, regardless of whether the rocks belong to China or the Philippines, and regardless of the fact that they are disputed territory.
It’s evident that while both Vietnam and the Philippines feel most threatened by China’s “nine-dashed line,” those countries also feel that this line has a legal Achilles’ heel, which they seek to target with the concepts of UNCLOS such as EEZ, and of maritime delimitations, arguing that regardless of which country owns an island or rock, and of the fact that it might be disputed territory, the EEZ in certain areas belongs to larger landmasses.
The second interesting thing is that whoever drafted the letter chose not to use the conventional international name of “South China Sea.” Instead, they chose to use a combination of the Filipino and Vietnamese names, “West Philippine Sea/East Sea.” Are we about to see something similar to South Korea’s challenge to the conventional name “Sea of Japan”?
However, most interesting of all is the fact that this is the first time ever that members of the public in a country involved in the South China Sea disputes have expressed support for another in this way.
Still, perhaps this move shouldn’t come as a complete surprise given that in recent years most of the incidents in the South China Sea involve either China and Vietnam or China and the Philippines. With a common legal argument and facing a common, but much larger, opponent, there will likely be a tendency for the Vietnamese and the Filipinos to move towards a strategy of mutual support in the future.
Huy Duong contributes articles on the South China Sea to several news outlets including the BBC and Vietnam's online publication VietNamNet.