This article is by Emma Williams.
On November 6, Vietnam announced it may pursue legal action against China after Beijing conducted a months-long seismic survey in Vietnam’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. International frictions regarding this territory are not a novel occurrence. In 1974 and 1988, China and Vietnam engaged in skirmishes over the Paracels and a section of the Spratlys resulting in the deaths of Vietnamese sailors. In 2012, the Philippines engaged in a military standoff with China over the Spratlys, and claims of Chinese interference in Vietnamese exploration operations resulted in anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. The South China Sea has been a highly contested area for decades, and this article will provide insight into the tensions in the region.
The South China Sea territories consist of two island clusters: the Spratly Islands, which are close to Malaysia, and the Paracel Islands, which are off the coast of Vietnam. Japan relinquished possession of the islands following World War II, leaving the area unclaimed. The South China Sea region is valuable for a number of reasons. The territory’s position is ideal for both trade – as it is in the middle of international shipping routes – and militarily. Additionally, the region contains natural resources: a large amount of oil and natural gas is estimated to be within the region, and fish and wildlife populations are large and diverse. Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all claim portions of the South China Sea region in addition to the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. China and Taiwan both claim the entirety of the South China Sea territories, citing archeological evidence of imperial China settling the area, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei claim smaller portions of the region, all closer to their own shorelines as exclusive economic zones.
While five countries have laid claim to the South China Sea, China has dominated the region. In 2014, China built an oil rig in the area, and in 2015, satellite images showed that China had begun installing military bases on the islands. In 2016, although the Philippines won a legal battle against China for breaking the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas, the Chinese maintained their presence. The Philippines has actually embraced more of a pro-China policy under President Duterte who assumed leadership in 2016. As Vietnam mulls over whether to pursue legal action against China for the same regional dispute, one question that must be asked is if legal action is worth Vietnam’s time and effort. As evident with the Manila tribunal, legal action does not dissuade China from occupying the South China Sea. Furthermore, Vietnam’s position as a trade partner, aid recipient, geographical neighbor, of China gives more pressure to comply with China in order to avoid conflict or retaliation. It should be interesting what decision Vietnam makes about China’s intervention in the coming months.