In a remarkable move, on April 28, 2020, the US Ambassador to Vietnam, Mr. Daniel Kritenbrink publicly told the Vietnamese media that the US strongly objected and condemned China’s “illegal and provocative” acts in the East Sea (South China Sea) as Beijing is taking advantage of the world and the region busy dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We strongly oppose and condemn China for taking advantage of other countries’ engagement in dealing with the pandemic to assert its illegal and provocative behaviors in the South China Sea,” Krintenbrink said Tuesday in an interview with the Voice of Vietnam Radio (VOV).
“Instead of joining in to focus on fighting Covid-19 with other countries, China in the past few months has carried out many provocative acts in the region such as sinking Vietnamese fishing boats near the Hoang [Paracels], sending ships to threaten ships of other countries as well as announcing the establishment of new administrative areas in the Hoang Sa and the Truong Sa (Spratlys). China has also set up ‘contemporary research stations’ on Subi and Stone reefs.”
“These are not acts of showing goodwill nor enabling China to gain regional trust. I want to reiterate the point stated above, the US strongly condemns and opposes the China’s provocative behavior when taking advantage of the pandemic situation to promote illegal and aggressive behavior in order to achieve unreasonable request.”
The US diplomat on this occasion emphasized the US position through the actions of two agencies, the State Department and the US Department of Defense, which called on the countries in the region ‘to voice their opposition to Chin’s behavior and reaffirmed America’s principles and views on regional security:
“The US Department of State and Defense Department have both condemned China’s behavior of taking advantage of other countries’ focus on dealing with the pandemic to promote China’s illegal claims.”
“We believe that the most important thing now is that every country in the region needs to speak out against this behavior of China. In the two statements mentioned above, I would like to emphasize the statement of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which highlights two important factors:
“The first is to reaffirm the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific region and the partnership with Vietnam. Second, I think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement also emphasized the strength of the Vietnam-US comprehensive partnership … “
The US ambassador to Hanoi called on nations to believe in the “principles and values” shared by the US while emphasizing the common goal at the present time in the South China Sea and the region:
“… We urge all nations that believe in these principles and values to speak strong. That’s why the US is encouraging nations to oppose China’s wrongdoing and a lot of our partners and friends have done so.”
“I understand that Vietnam has issued a statement expressing concern about China’s provocative actions. The Philippines and many other partners in the region such as Australia and Japan have done the same. We emphasize that the most important thing at this time is to take measures to promote peace and prosperity in the region while focusing on coping with Covid-19, not acts that could destabilize the region.”
In a related development in the region, on April 28, Chinese international TV channel CGTN said Chinese forces in the region were “watching a US warship approaching the Paracels” that China calls Xisha.
US-based news sources on the South China Sea on this occasion were also quoted as saying that on April 28 the US sent USS Barry guided-missile destroyer to the waters near the Paracels.”
Last week, VOA confirmed and reported that US and Australian navies had conducted a joint exercise in the South China Sea with the participation of cruiser USS Bunker Hill, the amphibious assault ship USS America and the guard ship HMAS Parramatta on April 18.
The two US warships continued freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) according to the announcement on April 29, despite China’s claim to have had “expelled” American ships from the Paracels.
“USS Bunker Hill guided-missile cruiser transit in the waters near Spratlys in the South China Sea, April 29. Bunker Hill deployed for the 7th Fleet of the US to support security and stability activities in the Indo-Pacific region,” wrote the Fleet 7.
The moves of the USS Bunker Hill and the USS Barry attract attention in the context of the Chinese announcement that it had “expelled” an American warship operating in the Paracels.
This “deported” ship was identified as USS Barry. But in an interview with the USNI News Navy’s Academy website, the US Navy official said that USS Barry works as planned, “never encountered any unsafe action or lack of professionalism from Chinese ships or military aircraft.”
The case once again reflects tensions between China and the US over maritime freedom issues in the South China Sea. The US has long argued that its naval operations are in compliance with international law, within the framework of FONOPS freedom patrols. In contrast, China asserted that the US action was “a violation of its sovereignty.”
The moves came after the US State Department on the same day voiced deep concern over news of “China’s continuing provocative actions aimed at offshore oil and gas development.” At the same time, China has dispatched a group of ships, including the HD-8, present in the southern part of the South China Sea, with close access to Malaysia.
For its part, China has repeatedly stated that it conducts “scientific research” activities in addition to other activities in accordance with international law and plans.
On April 17, China also sent to the UN a note accusing Vietnam of infringing upon Chinese sovereignty and illegally occupying China’s seas and islands in the region.
Beijing attached to the UN evidence of its sovereignty in Hoang Sa, Truong Sa, including a note from 1958 of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Pham Van Dong, to his Chinese counterpart Zhou An Lai as a reference.
International public opinion does not seem to hide the disappointment of China’s attitude in the South China Sea.
Modern Diplomacy on April 26 published an article titled: “Controversy of international law in the South China Sea: is it still meaningful?” This article argues that China often refers to “international law,” using the terms of international public law, but actually does not mention international law at all. Specifically, Beijing did not mention that the “nine-dash line” was rejected by a court established in Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “It seems that China has chosen what kind of international law it wants to comply with, what kind it doesn’t,” the article wrote.
Filipinos these days especially understand what it means to be “united” by China. Just a few days ago, Manila also sent a diplomatic note protesting against China pointing a gun at Philippine ships offshore.
According to Filipino scholar Jay Batongbacal, China has long-term plans to slowly, gradually strengthen its influence in the South China Sea and will not rein in any opportunity to achieve that goal.
China’s plan is sponsored by economic and diplomatic influence.
Judging from Malaysia’s position, Batongbacal said that Malaysia chose to quietly fight with China to balance its economy and foreign affairs.
However, there is no guarantee that China’s tactics will succeed in the long run. In other words, if China continues to force countries to accept the “status quo“, there are still red lines in Beijing that cannot be crossed.
Prof. Batongbacal said that the pressure that China is placing on Malaysia’s oil and gas activities will have a negative impact on Malaysia-China relations later on.
“The simple reason is that China’s expansion in the South China Sea will require Malaysia to reduce or stop offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation. Malaysia’s economic development depends on the availability of energy, and this is certainly influenced by China’s increasing pressure or control over resources in the South China Sea,” Professor Batongbacal told Vietnam’s newspaper, Tuoi Tre.
Proposal for joint patrol between 3 ASEAN countries
Former Deputy Chief of Justice of the Carpio Supreme Court on April 27 also unexpectedly recalled a joint patrol proposal between Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, saying that this is a solution to deal with “serious escalation” from China’s recent activity in the South China Sea.
Such joint patrol coordination is “ideal“, according to Mr. Batongbacal. And while countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines still have a lot to do to reach the consensus needed for that, China’s aggression can be a catalyst.
“This can be considered if China continues to escalate its imposition of sovereignty, to the extent that the maritime states feel a real danger to their interests …” – Mr. Batongbacal analyzed.
According to EU Ambassador to ASEAN Igor Driesmans, some Asian partners want the EU to be more present in regional security issues and that is the goal that the bloc is heading.
According to Vietnam News Agency on April 27, EU Ambassador to ASEAN Igor Driesmans voiced concern about China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea over the past time such as deploying forces on artificial entities, harassing and threatening fishermen and trying to impose new administrative boundaries, alluding to China’s aggressive actions in the recent region.
The EU ambassador emphasized that the actions “created tensions” and “undermined” the maritime security environment in the region and “seriously threatened” the peaceful economic development in the region. At the same time, “weakening” international cooperation and trust amid the world needing these to minimize the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Driesmans argues that what happens in the South China Sea is also a worldwide problem because more than one-third of the global freight traffic passes through the sea.
Some Asian partners want to see more of the EU’s presence in the region and the EU itself is looking forward to this through pursuing multilateral mechanisms that are ASEAN-centric like the ASEAN Regional Forum.
The EU representative in ASEAN affirmed that the EU was cooperating “more closely than ever” with ASEAN and would continue to support ASEAN-led regional processes to promote regional and international law-based order, strengthening multilateral cooperation and close cooperation with third parties.
Driesmans also suggested that parties in the South China Sea could seek third-party assistance in mediation or arbitration roles to facilitate dispute settlement. The ambassador was full of implications when he said that the EU had a lot of experience in dealing with overlapping territorial claims and was “very willing to share this experience with Asian partners.”
Through the performances throughout 2019 and early 2020 until now, when the Chinese authorities have repeatedly engaged in acts of invading Vietnamese sovereignty over the South China Sea, we see other socialist nations like Laos, Cuba, and North Korea remain silent, leaving Vietnam to be under pressure of China. Finally, only countries with democracy and freedom in the world such as the US, Australia, Canada and EU speak out in support of the Vietnamese people against the encroachment of the Beijing authorities.
The Chinese mask has fallen and the people of Vietnam know: Who is friend, who is enemy.
Hoang Lan from Hanoi – Thoibao.de (Translated)