Tensions are continuing to escalate in the South China Sea as China begins military drills around disputed islands in the run-up to a long anticipated legal ruling on its territorial claims.
Vietnam strongly protested against the exercises, saying that they violated the country’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, which have been fully controlled by China since a bloody clash in 1974.
“Vietnam …demanded that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty, behave responsibly, immediately stop and do not take actions that threaten security, maritime safety in the East Sea or escalate tension in this region,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.
China warned ships from other countries to keep away from an area, stretching from the east of Hainan island to the Paracels, for the duration of the drills.
They are due to last until June 12 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will deliver its verdict on China’s claim to large parts of the South China Sea.
Legal and diplomatic blow
The case was brought by the Philippines, but other claimants, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, are watching closely for its impact on their own, often overlapping, territorial disputes.
Beijing has made clear that it will not accept the ruling, which is widely expected to be in favour of the Philippines.
The court could deliver a significant legal and diplomatic blow to China’s claim to waters and islands within its famous nine-dash line, a perimeter that extends many hundreds of kilometres from China’s southern shore and reaches close to the coastline of neighbouring countries.
China has energetically canvassed diplomatic support for its case in recent weeks and has signalled to neighbouring countries that they will pay a price for challenging its position.
The United States has stepped up its naval presence in the region and is preparing for an angry response from China in the aftermath of the ruling.
There is concern that China could declare an air defence identification zone across the South China Sea. That would give it the right to challenge civilian and military aircraft flying over the region. The aim would be to bolster its claim to sovereignty following a legal set-back at the Hague.
“Prepared for military confrontation”
Vietnam has been cautious in signalling its next move.
It has merely requested that the verdict by the court of arbitration be “fair and objective”. It said it hoped the ruling would lead to a peaceful resolution.
However, if China does respond by declaring an ADIZ, or by further militarising its positions in the Paracels and the Spratlys further south, Vietnam could consider taking its own legal challenge against China to the court.
It could also declare its own ADIZ, which would be seen by Beijing as a direct challenge to its long held sovereignty and administrative control of the Paracels.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia all control islets, reefs and bases in the Spratly chain, where China’s position is far less entrenched.
The nationalistic Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, has indicated just how high the stakes are in what has become one of the world’s most dangerous flash points.
“China hopes disputes can be resolved by talks, but it must be prepared for any military confrontation. This is common sense in international relations,” said the newspaper in one of its recent inflammatory comments on the confrontation.
Vietnam has been building up its military capabilities to deter Chinese aggression and is developing an ever closer strategic partnership with the United States.
A hot-headed response from China this month is likely to drive Hanoi ever further into the US camp, and could significantly increase the chance of a clash, at sea or in the air, with its giant neighbour and erstwhile communist ally.