Can Vietnam negotiate with China to regain Paracels?

Can Vietnam expect any solution to “regain” the Hoang Sa (Paracels)?

Vietnam accused China of “using force in 1974 to invade” the Hoang Sa (Paracels) managed by the Republic of Vietnam government.

Vietnam’s official position is that Vietnam has “undisputed sovereignty” over the Paracels and the Truong Sa (Spratlys) in the East Sea (South China Sea).

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Demonstration of Hanoi people on January 19, 2017 on the anniversary of the Hoang Sa naval battle

However, while China has actual control over Paracels, how will the dispute between Vietnam and China take place in the future?

Several long-standing experts on the South China Sea dispute have answered BBC News Vietnamese.

Gregory B. Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington DC, said that there is no hope of “solving” the Paracels issue in the near future.

But the parties can overcome this problem.

The first step is that China should accept that Vietnam has the right to historic fishing around the Paracels, guaranteed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thus, China will cooperate with Vietnam to have a mechanism to manage the fishing.

This can be done if it is part of a larger effort to include Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia to manage fish production throughout the South China Sea, including the Spratlys.

If the parties can cooperate on fishing, then they can seek mechanisms to tame other issues in peace.

And sovereignty disputes can be resolved through negotiation or arbitration, decades later.

Donald R. Rothwell, a professor of International Law, Australian National University. He co-authored The International Law of the Sea (in 2010), said there

 may be solutions as follows: Diplomatic arrangement between China and Vietnam or settle it with a third party. These two options are in accordance with the UN Charter. A diplomatic solution means one party acknowledges the other’s sovereignty over the islands.

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The journey of the Chinese ship “Tian Yi Hai Gong” on May 28, 2020, to Vietnam’s Paracels to install underground cables for the cluster of islands to the northeast of Hoang Sa area and cable installation for the western island group is underway.

A third party solution means that the dispute can be brought to an intermediary, mediator, arbitration or court. The UN Secretary General, in theory, may be invited to intervene or help mediate.

In the world, there are many examples when the two options above helped successfully settle territorial disputes. However, whether China or Vietnam considers these options or not depends on political will. But now it seems that no country has much interest in this.

In particular, China will be reluctant to take these options, as they may be considered precedent. That precedent will affect China’s disputes in the South China Sea, as well as with Japan and South Korea.

In the current political climate, I see no solution. China may seek to offer some benefits to Vietnam to make concessions to diplomacy and to recognize China’s sovereignty. But Vietnam will probably not accept that, at the present time and in the short term thereafter.

Grigory Lokshin is a senior researcher of Vietnam and ASEAN Research Center – Far East Institute (Russian Academy of Sciences). He responded to the BBC directly in Vietnamese: “Basically, I agree with the ideas of the two colleagues above. International law and historical experience have many methods of resolving issues of relative peace, political, and righteousness for both sides.

But like Professor Donald R. Rothwell, I think the Chinese Communist Party leadership has no real political aspirations to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.

This dispute is necessary for them to uphold nationalism in the country, distracting the attention of the masses from internal problems.

They need the image of foreign enemies to unite the society around the Party Central Committee and the president of the state.

In my opinion, the first and certain condition for starting to negotiate on this issue is that China must stop propaganda against Vietnam and not make completely false comments about Chinese sovereignty in Paracels and Spratlys.

The nine-dashed line called the U-shaped line claimed by China to occupy the South China Sea, but no country is recognized

The nine-dashed line called the U-shaped line claimed by China to occupy the South China Sea, but no country is recognized

Vietnamese expert: Hanoi  is actively preparing to sue China regarding the South China Sea issue

Vietnam has been preparing to sue China over the South China Sea for the past two years and is actively speeding up the work, two Vietnamese researchers told VOA on June 16, a few days after a national director of China said Hanoi “would pay expensively” if it sues Beijing.

Dr. Ha Hoang Hop from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said that among Vietnamese leaders there was a “consensus” on policies and strategies related to suing China at an international judicial body.

Vietnamese experts involved in the preparation work have had a lot of contacts with the US, the UK, and French partners, etc. in recent months, though their efforts were affected from the COVID-19 pandemic which has prevented direct meetings, Mr. Hop added.

Vietnam “has done a lot, promoting relations with international courts, including the PCA [Permanent Arbitration Court],” said Hoang Viet, a member of a Vietnamese maritime and island law research committee told VOA.

According to Master Hoang Viet, Hanoi has now “got closer and closer” and he describes that the preparation “is also very complete.”

As VOA reported, on June 12, Dr. Wu Shicun, director of China’s National Institute on South China Sea Studies, published an article for the “Nanhai Strategic Situation Initiative” program, belonging to the Marine Research Institute at Peking University.

In the article, scholar Wu said on May 7 on Asia Times that Vietnam had serious consideration for suing China in an international arbitration tribunal for disputes in the South China Sea. He made comments which researchers think also express the views of the Chinese government.

The Chinese director affirmed that if he chose the way of litigation, Hanoi would witness the Sino-Vietnamese relationship being set back and “paying expensively” for Beijing’s countermeasures, including besieged action to halt and cut Vietnam’s logistics routes to the Spratly islands, as well as China can begin oil and gas exploration right in Vietnam’s Vanguard Bank.

In the eyes of experts, Dr. Ha Hoang Hop commented that the words that contain the threatening implications of scholar Wu are just “a blow,” because if they need to exchange messages, the two countries have channels from senior leaders to ministerial level, especially through the two ministries’ foreign ministries.

Still, according to a researcher from the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, since the summer of 2014, when China sent a large survey ship into Vietnam ‘s exclusive economic zone, Hanoi was increasingly disappointed in the ability to use peaceful means to resolve disputes at sea bilaterally.

Dr. Hop told VOA:

Since then, it has been more than 6 years, the process of applying peaceful measures has been exhausted, only one more peaceful measure is the legal measure. Currently, both sides of Vietnam and China all feel that that step is almost needed.”

Master Hoang Viet made the comment:

I think China threatens to be one thing, but I still assert that sooner or later Vietnam must sue China. Because China will not stop its ambitions in the South China Sea and increasingly encroach, and to a certain extent, Vietnam can not stand it, forced to bring China to court.

If the lawsuit loses, China’s reputation collapses

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Three Chinese surveillance vessels chased and eventually sunk Vietnamese fishing vessels in the Hoang Sa area around 3am on April 2, 2020. The incident was condemned by Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of Defense.

In his article, “Does Vietnam think twice before filing a lawsuit against the South China Sea?”, Published on June 12, Dr. Wu hypothesized that if Vietnam sued, Vietnam will do the same as the Philippines.

In July 2016, after reviewing Manila’s lawsuit against China’s claim to the South China Sea, an international arbitration tribunal ruled against China’s nine-dash line on the South China Sea.

Dr. Hop told VOA about a potential result if Vietnam sues China: “The probability of winning a case is very large. And it can also be predicted that China will not recognize the results of the ruling here. The result of the decision, if Vietnam sues, will be similar to the result that the Philippines had in 2016 and China will have the same attitude, not to recognize the judgment made by the international court to the Philippines.”

Thus, China will “intensify harassment and threaten” Vietnam in all fields – politics, economy, at sea, on international forums – Dr. Hop said.

China’s maritime disruptive actions against Vietnam may be more and more serious than what they have done to the Philippines, even possibly “shooting“, Mr. Hop added. (Translated)

Kasse animation 7.8.2023