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South China Sea: Vietnam’s clandestine island-building is a threat to maritime cooperation with China

2021-11-18 12:55:12       source:NISCSS

November 18, 2021


Vietnam's just-approved master plan for the development of Vietnam's seaport system for 2021-2030 plans to build modern ports in the Paracel and Spratly Islands to meet the needs of import, export, trade, and negotiation of goods. Also, recent satellite images show that Vietnam started a new round of land reclamation since June 2021 in the South China Sea at Sand Cay, Namyit Island, and Pearson Reef. At the western end of Namyit Island, an area of more than 17,000 square meters was expanded. In October 2021, up to 8 excavators and one barge dock were found at Pearson Reef. In just half a month, a 650-meter-long channel was dug out from the southwest end of the reef.


Since 1975, Vietnam has illegally occupied a total of 29 islands and reefs in China's Spratly features. In order to consolidate its "sovereignty" and maritime jurisdiction, Vietnam has been building facilities on the features over the past 30 years. Of all the South China Sea claimants, Vietnam is the country that has occupied the largest number of Spratly features and was the first to start building on them and deploying weapons.


Vietnam uses a double standard in the SCS: urging other countries to halt the reclamation work on the features, but continues its own. Over the past few years, it has been updating and upgrading facilities and equipment on its illegally occupied Spratly features, including deploying newer, longer-range weapons systems. As reported by Reuters in 2016, Vietnam has deployed EXTRA long-range rocket systems (Extended Range Artillery) imported from Israel on five features in the Spratlys. Despite their small size, these EXTRA rocket systems have a range of 150 kilometers thus can cover all the features in the Spratlys. Also, Vietnam has already deployed air-to-air radars on Pearson Reef and Namyit Island, which are expected to be equipped with sensors or communication systems, and has built several office buildings. Media analyses claim that Vietnam's island construction is designed to prevent China's amphibious landings.


Vietnam has always kept a low profile on its construction in the illegally occupied Spratly features, with little coverage in its domestic media. On the one hand, it does not want to irritate other disputants and lose the support of ASEAN countries, especially the Philippines and Malaysia, for it. On the other hand, it is also convenient for it to play the role of the victim in the South China Sea dispute and win the support of the international community. The double standard is also well reflected in the little coverage by think tanks and research institutions as well as media in the western world.


In fact, 2021 witnesses positive developments in China-Vietnamese relations, with practical maritime cooperation between the two countries advancing smoothly. In September this year, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee Nguyen Phu Trong met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Hanoi, and the two sides reached a consensus on a series of issues. On the South China Sea issue, both China and Vietnam seem to signal the common interest of managing differences. Both sides also stressed that the negotiation of the Code of Conduct is a goal for regional countries to work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.


In terms of maritime cooperation, since the signing of the Memorandum of Cooperation between the Chinese coastguard and the Vietnamese maritime law enforcement command in June 2016, the two countries' maritime law enforcement agencies have jointly promoted practical cooperation in bilateral maritime law enforcement to maintain maritime order in the Gulf of Tonkin.


In October this year, the two sides conducted the second joint patrol, which was the 22nd in the Gulf of Tonkin since 2006. In addition, the two foreign ministries are also continuing to conduct working group consultations on maritime cooperation in low-sensitive areas, promoting new cooperation projects in marine scientific research, environmental protection, fisheries, maritime, search and rescue, law enforcement, and other areas. At the same time, however, Vietnam has seized the window opportunity when the negotiation on the COC has slowed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic and has been building islands and deploying military facilities on its illegally occupied Spratly islands and reefs without stopping.


As neighbors of thousands of years, China and Vietnam have successfully dealt with many sensitive issues in the past and have achieved valuable experience in the process of land and maritime boundary demarcation. In retrospect, China and Vietnam delineated the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2001 after years of negotiations. Then in 2011, the two countries signed the Agreement on Basic Principles for the Settlement of Maritime Issues. Adhering to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and halting the construction and reclamation of the Spratly features is the right thing for Vietnam to do to ease tensions in the South China Sea and contribute to the final settlement of the dispute.

Dr Yan Yan is director of the Research Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, and vice-director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative