On July 2, Vietnam urged an international tribunal in The Hague to deliver a “fair and objective” ruling on a prominent lawsuit lodged by the Philippines to contest China’s claims to large swaths of the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.
Two days later, Hanoi lashed out at Beijing for conducting military drills in the flashpoint area just a week ahead of the court’s ruling, saying such actions only exacerbated regional security and maritime safety concerns.
Over the past week, the forthcoming ruling has dominated the Vietnamese media, almost as if it were a Vietnam vs. China case. Facebook, Vietnam’s most beloved social media platform for grassroots advocacy, has been abuzz with comments and anticipation about the arbitration case.
Such developments highlight how increasingly anxious Vietnam is about the ruling, expected on July 12, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The Philippines brought the case in 2013, challenging what it called China’s unlawful claims in the strategically important and resource-rich East Sea. Since then Vietnam has been closely monitoring the case, looking to cash in on its outcome.
“Vietnam will benefit from the ruling, especially if the tribunal rules against the nine-dash line,” said Le Hong Hiep, a research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a so-called nine-dash line — a demarcation that includes about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer East Sea. But these maps have been emphatically rejected by international experts and fly in the face of competing claims by four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
“It will be a big disappointment for Vietnam if the tribunal does not rule against China’s nine-dash line claim,” Hiep told VnExpress International. “In that case, however, Vietnam still stands to benefit from the tribunal’s ruling on the legal status of certain features in the Spratlys, especially those held by China,” he said, referring to an island chain in the East Sea where Vietnam has overlapping claims with several other Southeast Asian countries.
“If the tribunal says that these features are just rocks or low-tide elevations that do not constitute an exclusive economic zone for themselves, there will be no overlap between these features’ maritime zone with Vietnam’s legitimate exclusive economic zone,” Hiep said.
Since August 2014, after withdrawing its infamous oil rig from Vietnamese waters that left Sino-Vietnamese ties in tatters, China has continued to pursue a number of land reclamation projects around small islands in the Spratlys.
China’s island-building activities are also another major theme under the scrutiny of the The Hague court. It will decide whether several land features — some of which China has already turned into man-made islands — are to be considered “low-tide elevations”, which do not entitle claimant states to any territorial waters; “rocks”, which give a claimant state a 12-mile territorial zone; or “islands”, which enjoy a 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
It looks likely that the court will dismiss China’s man-made islands as unlawful, analysts say. Meanwhile, Southeast Asian claimants, Vietnam included, have also engaged in reclamation activities in the Spratlys. But the bottom line is they are on a far smaller scale than China, according to the analysts.
“Beijing is the only one building islands where previously only submerged features existed,” said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is true that other claimants have engaged in limited reclamation work to expand the size of features or prevent erosion … but those are of a fundamentally different nature because they are cases of expanding an island as opposed to creating one from nothing.”
An unlikely anti-China alliance
Analysts concur that Vietnam has another legitimate reason to throw strong support behind a ruling in favor of the Philippines.
“After all, Vietnam wants to maintain a good relationship with China but it also has to protect its legitimate interests in the East Sea,” said Hiep, the Singapore-based expert. “Supporting the ruling offers Vietnam a rare opportunity to undercut Beijing’s claims in the East Sea without directly confronting its giant northern neighbor.”
China remains Vietnam’s biggest trade partner. Meanwhile, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth U.S.-led 12-member free trade agreement (including Vietnam) aimed at countering China’s growing political and economic clout, is still pending approval on Capitol Hill and may even get derailed there.
Analysts say Vietnam certainly wants to use the ruling to get ASEAN to come up with a collective response. But given the status quo, that appears to be wishful thinking.
“ASEAN really needs to have a uniform response but Cambodia and Laos have made it very clear that that is not going to happen,” said Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst.
At a recent ASEAN-China Special Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Yuxi, China, media reports suggested that China, capitalizing on its economic largesse to Laos, browbeat the landlocked nation, the current ASEAN chair, into thwarting the issuance of a joint statement by the regional grouping on the East Sea. Just last month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also toed China’s official line in dismissing the legitimacy of the court in The Hague, saying he would not support any judgment by it.
Both Cambodia and Laos are historically close allies of Vietnam. But “the cows left the barn long ago. Hanoi is just realizing it”, Abuza said.
It is in this context that the U.S., which has always tried to serve as an honest broker in the East Sea dispute much to China’s disdain, will find it difficult to use the arbitration ruling to forge an anti-China alliance in the region.
Even its treaty ally, the Philippines, has shown signs of changing tack.
On July 8 Filipino Foreign Secretary Perfecto was quoted by AFP as saying that his country would be willing to share natural resources with China in the East Sea even if it wins the lawsuit. Yasay said further that the newly installed administration of President Rodrigo Duterte is looking to begin direct talks with Beijing after the verdict, with the negotiations to cover jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Such an apparent about-face by the Philippines should come as no surprise, analysts say.
“You have to understand the domestic politics: Duterte is a populist,” Abuza said. “He was elected because despite 6.5 percent growth for the past six years; most Filipinos are poor and didn’t reap the benefits. So he needs to grow the economy and that requires Chinese aid.”
“This is going to make the U.S. efforts [to encircle China] all the more difficult,” Abuza said. “Duterte is going to seize a defeat from the jaws of victory.”
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