Asian Currents June 2014

Asian Currents
The Asian Studies Association of Australia
Maximising Australia’s Asian knowledge

June 2014
ISSN 1449–4418
Anxiety persists over
Modi government
Early signs are not promising that
India’s new prime minister,
Narendra Modi, can deliver on his
promise to create a genuinely
inclusive sense of nationhood.
Read more
Judiciary shows true
colours in
Thailand coup
The ousting of Prime Minister
Yingluck Shinawatra reflects a judiciary that has
become politically interventionist and remarkably
powerful. Read more
Greed the unseen peril on
Myanmar’s road to democracy
The international surge in investments, and political
opportunism, are doing little to help Myanmar’s
already weak civil society evolve in the interest of
all. Read more
China and Vietnam square off
over disputed waters
China’s deployment of an oil rig in waters near the
strategically located Paracel Islands has severely
strained bilateral relations with Vietnam. Read more
Missing Sombath
a test for ASEAN
ASEAN’s weak response to the
disappearance of Lao community
worker Sombath Somphone raises
questions about the strength of its
commitment to human rights. Read more
Indonesia guide to Islamic democracy
Long regarded as a peripheral to the mainstream
Islamic world, Indonesia could have much to teach
the Middle East about Muslim democracy.
Read more
Asian Currents
In coming months you will
see changes in the way the
ASAA communicates. The
changes will include a new
website and greater use of
social media. Asian Currents
will be a prominent feature
of the new website. In the
meantime, you can access
Asian Currents online
through our interim site.
Erdogan moves
against ‘parallel
The rift between the
Gülen movement and
Turkey’s ruling party is
widening. Read more
Malaysia struggles
to escape
income trap
Malaysia’s economic
reforms are under
question. Read more
Also in this issue
Activist filmmaker at
ASAA 2014
New books on Asia
Bulletin board
Coming events
ASAA Thesis Prize

ASAA 20th Biennial
Asian Currents June 2014

China and Vietnam square off in
war of attrition over disputed waters
China’s deployment of an oil
rig in waters near the
strategically located Paracel
Islands has severely strained
bilateral relations with
By Carlyle A. Thayer
The Paracel Islands (Hoang
Sa in Vietnamese and Xisha
in Chinese) are a group of
approximately 30 features (small
islands, rocks, reefs and sandbanks)
lying at the northern end of the
semi-enclosed South China Sea. The
Paracels consist of two groups of
features, the Amphitrite group in the
northeast and the Crescent group in
the southwest. The total land area is
estimated at roughly 8 square
kilometres embracing a maritime
zone of 15 000 square kilometres.
The People’s Republic of China
occupied the Amphitrite group in
1950 following the withdrawal of the
Nationalist Chinese. China attacked
and seized the Crescent group from
the Republic of Vietnam (South
Vietnam) in January 1974.
Sovereignty over the Paracels is
contested by the Republic of China
on Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Paracels Islands are important
for their strategic location and
possible oil and gas deposits in their
surrounding waters.
On 1 May, the China National
Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC)
announced that it was placing the
M/V Hai Yang Shi You 981 (HYSY
981) mega oil rig in waters to the
west of the Paracel Islands in order
to commence exploring for oil and
gas. CNOOC also announced an
exclusion zone of one mile in radius
around the oil rig from 2 May to
15 August.
The HYSY 981 was escorted by an
armada of nearly 70 ships, including
China Coast Guard vessels and
People’s Liberation Army Navy
warships. Vietnam responded by
despatching nearly 30 Coast Guard
and Maritime Surveillance Force
vessels to the area to confront the
Chinese and order them to leave
Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone
deployment of
the oil rig
triggered non-
violent urban
protests by the
and violent
rioting by
workers in
parks. These
riots not only
companies but quickly spilled over to
affect companies owned by Taiwan,
South Korea, Thailand, Singapore,
Malaysia and even privately owned
Vietnamese enterprises. China
immediately sent ships to evacuate
Chinese managers and workers from
Vietnam. At least four Chinese were
killed in the riots.
The Vietnamese government
immediately stepped in to restore
law and order. Over one thousand
Vietnamese workers were arrested.
Several were charged and put on
trial. Vietnam’s violent anti-China
riots put a severe strain on bilateral
relations with Beijing.
Since 2 May an unequal war of
attrition has taken place on a daily
basis in the waters surrounding the
HYSY 981. China has increased the
strength of its armada to over 110
ships, including steel-hulled fishing
boats. China has also deployed
Disputed islands: The
Paracels are important
for their strategic location
and possible oil and gas
deposits in their
surrounding waters.
Asian Currents June 2014

military and civilian enforcement
aircraft in an intimidating manner.
Vietnam has refrained from
deploying its navy and air force.
Chinese Coast Guard ships, two to
four times heavier than their
Vietnamese counterparts, continue to
deliberately ram Vietnamese civilian
vessels. At least one Vietnamese
fishing boat has been sunk. Chinese
ships have also used high powered
water cannons to dismast
communications antennae from the
bridges of Vietnamese vessels to
force them to retire back to port.
Armed Chinese ships have
unsheathed their weapons and
directly aimed them at Vietnamese
Coast Guard and Fishery Surveillance
vessels. Vietnamese vessels have
kept their weapons covered.
China charges that Vietnam has
dropped fishing nets and other debris
into the waters around the HYUSY
981 and sent in frogmen to disrupt
the operations of the oil rig. On
8 June an official Chinese Foreign
Ministry statement accused Vietnam
of ramming Chinese ships 1416
times. Given Chinese estimates that
69 Vietnamese vessels and boats
were present, this means that on
average each Vietnamese boat
conducted 20 separate rammings
each. This figure seems incredulous.
What accounts for this violent
confrontation? From the Chinese
perspective, its deployment of the
HYSY 981 to Chinese waters was an
entirely normal commercial
operation. Chinese officials argue
that they conducted exploration
activities in this area for the past
decade without any protest by
Vietnam. China views Vietnam as the
China also argues that the Northern
Song Dynasty (960–1126 AD)
discovered the islets and rocks that
make up the Paracel Islands and,
through naval patrols, established
jurisdiction over them. Bill Hayton, in
a book to be published by Yale
University Press in September (South
China Sea: dangerous ground)
argues, to the contrary, that the
Chinese state only showed interest in
the Paracels in 1909 when the Qing
Dynasty dispatched a naval flotilla to
the area and raised the Chinese flag
on Woody Island.
Initially Chinese spokespersons
claimed that the HYSY 981 was
situated 17 nautical miles from Triton
Island, in the Paracels, and was
within China’s territorial waters. The
use of the term territorial waters was
ambiguous because under the United
Nations Convention on Law of the
Sea (UNCLOS) territorial waters
extend for only 12 nautical miles
from coastal baselines. This raised
the possibility that China was
claiming waters within its u-shaped
nine-dash line—the demarcation line
used by the governments of both the
People's Republic of China and the
Republic of China (Taiwan) for their
island claims of part of the South
China Sea—as territorial waters.
China later amended its position and
claimed that the oil rig was within its
contiguous zone, that is, the band of
water extending seaward for
12 nautical miles from the boundary
of its territorial sea. China further
argued that the oil rig was closer to
Triton Island than the Vietnamese
According to UNCLOS, a contiguous
zone only entitles a coastal state to
‘exercise the control necessary to:
(a) prevent infringement of its
customs, fiscal, immigration or
sanitary laws and regulations within
its territory or territorial sea; (b)
punish infringement of the above
laws and regulations committed
within its territory or territorial sea’.
Vietnam argues that the Chinese oil
rig is operating within its EEZ and
Chinese Coast Guard ships, two to
four times heavier than their
Vietnamese counterparts, continue to
deliberately ram Vietnamese civilian
Asian Currents June 2014

continental shelf and therefore is a
violation of its sovereign rights.
Vietnamese officials dispute China’s
claim that Vietnam acquiesced in
Chinese exploration activities over
the past 10 years. Vietnamese
officials argue that they were not
aware of all activities conducted by
China on the outer limits of its EEZ.
These officials further argue that
when they became aware of Chinese
activities they lodged diplomatic
notes in protest.
What is the legal position under
international law? China and Vietnam
are entitled to maritime zones based
on land features under the UN
Convention on Law of the Sea. Both
countries have promulgated EEZs
from their baselines. These overlap.
Under international law the two sides
are enjoined to undertake provisional
measures until the overlapping area
is delimited. Until a final
determination is made, both parties
are not permitted to upset the status
quo or use force or the threat of
Vietnam has not attempted to
develop this area where the HYSY
981 is currently operating. China, on
the other hand, unilaterally placed
the HYSY 981 in waters that have not
been delimited, in violation of the
above legal principles. Chinese
officials concede that the disputed
area has never been delimited. But
they reject international law as a
basis for a settlement. For example,
China’s Ambassador to Australia, in
an article published in The Australian
(13 June) argued, ‘no matter which
principle [of international law] is
applied these waters concerned will
never become Vietnam’s part of EEZ
and continental shelf’.
From the outset Vietnam has
adopted a conciliatory diplomatic
posture. Vietnam has called
repeatedly for the activation of the
hot line between high-level leaders
or, failing that, for China’s
agreement to receive a special
envoy. Vietnam claims that China
has not responded positively to any
of these approaches. On 8 June
China’s Foreign Ministry stated,
’China wants good relations with
Vietnam, but there are principles that
China cannot abandon. The channel
of communication between China and
Vietnam is open…’ but Vietnam must
‘respect China’s sovereignty,
sovereign rights and jurisdiction’.
The current war of attrition
surrounding the HYSY 981 can be
expected to continue at least until 15
August when the rig is scheduled to
cease operations. China and Vietnam
have both lodged claims with the UN
Secretary General raising the
possibility of face-saving mediation.
Carlyle A. Thayer is emeritus professor at
the University of New South Wales,

Until a final determination is made
both parties are not permitted to upset
the status quo or use force or the
threat of force.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful