University of Social Sciences and Humanities, VNU Hanoi

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“The East Sea disputes have to be solved peacefully”

On July 21st, 2014, as invited by the Center for International Press of Vietnam Foreign Ministry, Prof.Dr Pham Quang Minh, Vice Rector of University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi, had an interview with reporter of VOA (Voice of America) surrounding the current East Sea disputes, in which he stressed the need for a peaceful solution and preconditions for its realization. The details of this interview are below
“The East Sea disputes have to be solved peacefully”
  • VOA’s reporter: Dear Professor, why do you believe the disputed territory belongs to Vietnam?

Prof.Dr Pham Quang Minh: I can point out at least 4 legal foundations to prove Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands.

First, right in the late 19th century, the French in Vietnam conducted various activities to exercise France’s sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands and publicly declared their sovereignty over them in 1933. France maintained its sovereignty until the end of the Second World War and officially transferred it to the State of Vietnam on October 15th, 1950.

Second, several international treaties and statements including Cairo Declaration in 1943, Potsdam Declaration in 1945, San Francisco Agreement in 1951 and the Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and Japan in 1972, when the two had normalized their relations, did not include Spartly and Paracel islands as the terrorities to be returned to China by Japan.

Third, at San Francisco Conference in September, 1951, the USSR’s proposal to return Spratly and Paracel islands to China was rejected by 46 out of 51 participating nations. Also at this Conference, former Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam Tran Van Huu, at its 7th session, declared: “To remove any potential conflicts in the future, we would like to claim Vietnam’s historical sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel islands”. This declaration was not met with any disputes or rejections from any participating country.

Fourth, at the Geneva Conference that ended the war in Indochina in 1954, all participants, including those from the People’s Republic of China, admitted Vietnam’s independence and territorial integrity, despite Vietnam being temporarily divided by the 17th parallel, and the then State of Vietnam and later Republic of Vietnam maintained legal management and sovereignty over the Spartly and Paracels islands from 1954 and 1975. After the American war ended, the united Vietnamese government – Socialist Republic of Vietnam – at once inherited and has relentlessly exercised its sovereignty over the two archipelagos whose ownership belonged to Vietnam's entities in the past.

(Photos: Dinh Hau)

  • VOA reporter: Why do you think this territory is important to your country?

Prof.Dr Pham Quang Minh: This territory is important to Vietnam in many ways:

Firstly, geographically, Vietnam is a coastal country, with a 3.260 km – long coastal line, over 1 km square of maritime area and 100 deep sea ports that serve transportation. This coastline runs through 29 out of 63 provinces nationwide, and there reside approximately 20 million Vietnamese, accounting for ¼ of Vietnam’s population.

Secondly, economically, the oil reserve in Vietnam’s maritime areas accounts for 23% of that in the East Vietnam Sea. Annually, Vietnam gathers approximately 20 million tons of oil, which constitutes 24% of the country’s GDP. Additionally, in the East Sea, Vietnam obtains around 1.5 – 1.8 million tons of maritime resources. Vietnam is cooperating with large international oil syndicates such as VietsoPetro, Bp, Total, ExxonMobil and Conoco Phillips in oil exploitation.

Thirdly, strategically, Vietnam lies in the most dynamic maritime route connecting Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, through which 70% of the goods of China, Japan and Korea are transported annually and more than 50% of ships in the world pass. The East Sea also links Southeast Asian mainland and coastal countries, thus uniting the area. It is strongly associated with peace and security in the whole Southeast Asia and Asia – Pacific.

  • VOA reporter: Why do the current disputes come to a head now?

Prof.Dr Pham Quang Minh: After more than 3 decades of reformation and development, China has risen and become a great power with a vice for global domination and catching up with the United States. The East Sea is a strategic location for the realization of China’s dream. With the anchoring of HD – 981 oil rig in Vietnam’s continental shelves and EEZ last May, China aimed to test other countries' responses:

As for United States, China wanted to protest the US’ pivot to Asia, particularly after the visit in April, 2014 of President Obama to Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.  

As for ASEAN: China aimed to test the “consensus” among ASEAN’s member states before their Summit in Myanmar. ASEAN’s solidarity was threatened in 2012, when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN and later the Summit, and there was no common statement issued by its leaders.

As for Vietnam: China attempted to find out how a strategic partner such as Vietnam responded. China and Vietnam share particular associations in history (1000 years of China’s domination), geography (bordering countries), politics (similar political systems) and economy (Vietnam has trade deficit with China).

As for the international community: The world was so concerned about other security issues such as the crises in Ukraine, Iraq and Korean Archipelago that it was unable to pay adequate attention to the East Sea.

Thus, the time is ripe for China to show off its power.

  • VOA: Is it possible that the disputes are solved peacefully?

Prof. Dr Pham Quang Minh: I think it is possible, provided that China restrains from intimidating behaviors, commits to refraining from using force and threatening to use force in its relations with others, respects small countries’ independence and sovereignty, and adheres to the UNCLOS 1982 and especially DOC 2002 to which China is a party. 

  • VOA: What role should the United States play in these disputes?

Prof.Dr Pham Quang Minh: The United States should play a more constructive and positive role. As an Asia – Pacific country, the US has core interests and strategic alliances in this region. The important thing is the US should lend a hand to claimant states in their trust-building. Specifically, it must make known of its regional strategy to others, call for China to respect UNCLOS 1982 and DOC and cooperate with ASEAN to establish a Code of Conduct (COC) as soon as possible. The US can act as intermediary player in negotiations between China and ASEAN, preventing China from “bullying” smaller countries. Besides, it should strengthen cooperation with ASEAN and help its member states consolidate their capacity and resilience.

VOA reporter: What role can ASEAN play in resolving these disputes?

Prof.Dr Pham Quang Minh: ASEAN is a 10–member regional organization. Since its establishment in 1967, it has proved to be successful in solving security issues. Not any war has occurred between member states. In the 1980s ASEAN played a positive role in the unification of Cambodia. It is also the creator of common norms and rules accepted by big countries. In 1994, ASEAN created the ASEAN Regional Forum, the first multilateral security platform that included even big participants. Regarding the East Sea, for the first time China had to consider ASEAN a party in the East Sea disputes when it signed the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (South China Sea) in 2002. What China currently attempts is impairing multi-lateral negotiations for a Code of Conduct and seek bilateral negotiations with each ASEAN claimant state. What ASEAN has to do is unite and put the East Sea disputes in the overall regional context rather than consider them matters among claimant states. ASEAN must recognize that if China was able to anchor its oil rig in the continental shelves of Vietnam, it will likely do the same to that of others.

  • VOA reporter: Do you want to add any other remarks?

Prof. Dr Pham Quang Minh: Vietnam has been through many wars with lots of losses and casualties. Vietnam values peace above all. The government and people of Vietnam want no war with any other countries. Thus, Vietnam longs to peacefully solve the East Sea disputes by means of negotiation, respect for independence and sovereignty, and on the basis of international accords, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982.

Author: Thanh Ha - Tran Minh

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