The Truth About 'Aggression' in the South China Sea
Image Credit: Government of Vietnam

The Truth About 'Aggression' in the South China Sea


Satellite images showing the extent of land reclamation of China and Vietnam in South China Sea have sparked debates about who the biggest aggressor is and what the status quo is (see: “Who Is the Biggest Aggressor in the South China Sea?,” “Who Is the Biggest Aggressor in the South China Sea? (A Rejoinder),” and “The South China Sea: Defining the ‘Status Quo’“).

To be specific, concept of “aggression” is mentioned in the Resolution 3314 of United Nations General Assembly on the 14th of December, 1972. Aggression is the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations. The aggressed Nation has the right to defend itself.

The recent land reclamation work in South China Sea is tied closely to the issue of sovereignty claims. Historical evidence proves that Vietnam has been the first state to have administration over the Spratly and Paracel Islands dating back to at least the 17th century. China, by contrast, only took interest in the Paracels in 1909 and claimed them as the southern terminus of its land in 1932. China was also the last country to set foot in the Spratlys in 1988 after using force to shoot down three Vietnamese ships and brutally massacring 64 Vietnamese without any weapons in their hands. The Philippines took interest in Spratlys at the end of 1950s, while Malaysia was attending to the southern part of these islands in 1980s.

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The first step that any sovereign state which has gotten attacked by force would take is reinforcing its garrisons to prevent any violation of its sovereignty. In 1988, Vietnam increased its troops on 21 features in the Spratlys and clearly informed the world that it was doing so. The Philippines has stationed troops on 8 features, China on 9, and Taiwan on 1. Malaysia has increased its occupation from 3 in 1980 to 5 features in 1999.

In his recent article for The Diplomat, Greg Austin wrote that: “By 2015, according to the United States government, Vietnam occupied 48 features and China occupied eight”.  First, Austin misquoted from the remarks of U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, David Shear, on May 13, 2015. Shear actually said that “Vietnam has 48 outposts,” but Austin reported it as “features” instead of “outposts” in the initial part of his piece.

Second, it is important to look more closely at the nature of Vietnamese behavior in the South China Sea beyond just that statistic. For instance, in 1995, in order to minimize tensions and create favorable conditions for the settlement of disputes, Vietnam was the first one to call on other countries of concern to preserve the status quo. More generally, Vietnam tends to limit the ‘outposts’ on its features to include only some observation points to ensure proper administration as well as security from foreign invasion. For example, on Barque Canada Shoal (Bai Thuyen Chai), which is 17 nautical miles long and 3 nautical miles wide, Vietnam has a garrison in the center and two observation outposts in the two termini of the shoal.

Given this, it is quite unfair to compare Vietnam’s activities in the South China Sea with that of China’s. According to comments by General Phùng Quang Thanh, on June 1, 2015, Vietnam still maintains outposts in 9 islands and 12 reefs. But having several outposts in one natural feature is not like reclaiming land to create a feature many times larger than its original size to build a military complex, as China is doing.

Third, it is important to distinguish China’s activities from that of other claimants and be clear about the consequences of Beijing’s actions. The construction by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia started all before the conclusion of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed between China and ASEAN in 2002. They have similarities: they are being undertaken in islands and reefs naturally surrounded by water at high tide; they aim to prevent erosion and improve the standard of living, they include materials being transported from mainland; they occur on features which are being increasingly civilized and starting to open for tourism; they do not include heavy weapons; they are meant for defense rather than creating military bases that can threat other nations; and they are not changing nature of the feature.

The land reclamation made by China on the low tide elevations (LTE) far from the Chinese mainland, which is approximately 1000km, has started since 1988 and has occurred at a very fast pace and huge scale. Satellite images show that China has been expanding the land reclamation area from 20 hectares to 810 hectares. In Subi, an LTE, the speed of land reclamation from May to June 2015 is 8 hectares per day, transforming the LTE to a military base of around 3.87 square kilometers capable of building an airfield strip of about 3km. Remember that the whole area encompassing all islands and reefs in Spratlys is not more than 10 square kilometers, stretched over the sea area which is about 160,000 to 180,000 square kilometers.

Besides the scale of these activities, China’s actions are also negatively impacting the region and infringing on international law. China uses the biggest dredge ships in the world to destroy the coral reef ecosystem for extracted material. This damages over 300 hectares of coral reef, creating initial loss of more than $100 million every year for countries in South China Sea, in addition of course to the damage to the environment which. And as many others have pointed out, China’s transformation of LTEs into artificial islands, followed by demands by the international community to give them the legal status of natural islands and recognize a 12 nautical mile territorial sea and even a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which China is a party to.

In contrast, Vietnam’s land reclamation is only 0.2% of China’s land reclamation made as of March 2015. China has declared that construction work in these LTEs is in the interest of marine protection, marine science research, and SAR (search and rescue). However, above all, they are designed to be military bases equipped with heavy guns, ports and airfields. The consequences of this are quite dire. Given the extent and speed of Chinese land reclamation, the world has reason to worry about the threat to freedom of navigation, at least around 12 nautical miles from Chinese construction. Furthermore, these bases can serve as departure points for Chinese coast guard, navy, and fishery inspection forces to drive away, shoot, loot and rob Malaysian, Filipino, and Vietnamese fishing boats, all the while slowly establishing a ban on fishing in the area and advancing the nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea.

China’s bases are clearly of an offensive nature and threaten regional peace and stability. This is why the United States, the G7 and other countries have felt compelled to protest. If China continues its activities in the South China Sea, this has the potential trigger an arms race in the region as smaller nations feel they need to invest more in weapons as the only guarantee of their security and sovereignty. Because in the South China Sea, China seems to not only be violating international law, but setting its own rules.

Nguyen Hong Thao is an Assistant Professor in Law at the National University of Hanoi, Vietnam. He also serves at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

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