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An article by H.E. Mme. Yang Yanyi, Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to the EU,on New Europe
The China-Vietnam Maritime Dispute – Clearing Muddied Waters

The maritime standoff between China and Vietnam has made media headlines and become a hot political issue over recent weeks. The facts of the dispute – as it is portrayed in international debate – are however somewhat murky, with PR soiling the waters. Tackling pollution which harms the interests of all people, in China, our region and around the globe, is a priority of the Chinese government. This is one story which would benefit from a clean-up.

Having headed up the Asian Affairs department at the Chinese MFA for many years prior to my appointment to Brussels, I can offer some useful insight into the facts of the dispute as perceived by Beijing. These revolve around the answers to four key questions: Who provoked who? What is the situation as regards international law? Should the dispute be referred to an international tribunal? And is this a sign that China is becoming more assertive in the region?

Firstly, let us consider due responsibility for provocation and escalation of the dispute. Vietnam has accused China of changing the status quo unilaterally, by use of force. China, however, is only responding to Vietnam's attacks on our national territorial integrity. China was the first to discover, develop and exercise jurisdiction over the Xisha Islands, and they have been an integral part of China for more than 1000 years. The islands are situated only 17 nautical miles from China's Zhongjian Island, yet almost 160 nautical miles away from the Vietnamese coast. China began exploring the waters for oil more than a decade ago.

Vietnam is now making claims to the islands as well as to large swathes of the South China Sea. Asserting this perceived "right", Vietnam has sunk oil drills on more than 30 sites across disputed waters.

China, on the other hand, has limited its oil exploration to the undisputed waters of the Xisha Islands, and deployed only a single oil rig. While Vietnam accuses China of using force, the only Chinese vessels in the area are civilian and government boats. These ships have been subjected to a persistent campaign of harassment from Vietnamese vessels, including military vessels, numbering as many as 63 at any one moment in time, and thus far ramming the Chinese government ships a total of 1,547 times.

As tensions have indeed heightened due to this violent campaign, China has sought a diplomatic solution. More than 30 official communications have gone unanswered while Vietnam has raised the stakes by orchestrating an international smear campaign against China.

Secondly, regarding violations of international law: As noted, Chinese sovereignty over the Xisha Islands is well-established, and, prior to 1974, was never questioned by Vietnam – a fact reflected in its government statements and notes as well as its newspapers, maps and textbooks. Official Vietnamese statements of 1956 and 1958 reaffirmed Vietnam's recognition that the Xisha Islands are part of Chinese territory. Vietnam's current territorial claims to the islands are in blatant contradiction with these statements. They are also a clear violation of the principles of international law and the basic norms governing international relations. Recent Vietnamese actions have infringed upon China's sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and threatened the safety of Chinese citizens and property. They have violated among others the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation and the Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf. More broadly, Vietnam's actions have also undermined the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea, and damaged peace and stability in the region.

Thirdly, China has a strong interest in securing the South China Sea maritime routes through which some 100,000 ships pass every year. China is a staunch force for maintaining peace and stability in these waters in accordance with international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is however not applicable to the resolution of territorial disputes. China is a full party to this important international convention, but, in line with its other international engagements, exercised upon accession in 1996 its legal right to exclude disputes concerning sea boundary delimitations, territory and military activities from submission to international legal procedures and arbitration.

On the other hand, China is strongly committed to settling the disputes through consultations and negotiations between the sovereign states directly concerned, within full respect of international law and the basic norms of international relations, as well as the 2002 Declaration on the Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea between China and the Member States of ASEAN. China's aim is to promote regional cooperation and development, and our efforts to protect Chinese sovereignty and maritime rights in no case prejudice the rights of navigation and overflight enjoyed by other countries.

Fourthly, regarding China's neighborhood policy: There is a perception that China is becoming more assertive in the neighbourhood and that this might threaten regional security. This is a misperception. China is a rapidly developing country, but one which is committed to a peaceful rise, to building close, sincere and inclusive relations with our neighbours, and to contributing to regional peace and prosperity. In its international relations, China has always abided by the principle of seeking peaceful resolutions to any disputes through consultation and negotiation between parties on an equal footing. As a sovereign country, China will stand by its legitimate rights and defend its core interests. In doing so, we will neither bully smaller countries, nor bow to unreasonable demands. Based upon this principle, China is committed to playing a reliable and constructive role in regional and international relations. We will continue our efforts to ease tensions with Vietnam based on this principle and hope for the opportunity to strengthen our bilateral relations and mutual prosperity henceforth.

In order to promote the rapid and peaceful resolution of this issue, China has submitted the details of this position, including relevant supporting documents, to the United Nations. We trust that the international community will provide fair judgment of the situation.

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