Fears of China backlash

China's newly built islands and bases in the Spratlys can claim no exclusive economic zone under the ruling at The Hague. Photo courtesy Reuters

China’s newly built islands and bases in the Spratlys can claim no exclusive economic zone under the ruling at The Hague. Photo courtesy Reuters

Vietnam has responded cautiously to the legal ruling at The Hague which inflicted such an overwhelming rebuff to China’s long-standing territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Although not a party to the legal case, Vietnam has been handed a major victory by the arbitration panel’s declaration that China’s historic claim to some 90% of the South China Sea, marked by its “nine-dash line”, has no legal foundation.

But Vietnam, like the Philippines, which brought the legal case, faces a long struggle in its attempt to turn the ruling into gains in the real world.

There was little evidence of triumphalism in a statement released by the Vietnamese foreign ministry welcoming the conclusion of the panel, which sat at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

“Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of disputes in the East Vietnam Sea through peaceful measures, including diplomatic and legal procedures, without using or threatening to use violence”.

The statement reflect Hanoi’s concern at the possibility of an aggressive backlash from an aggrieved China, as it seeks to compensate for a major legal and diplomatic blow to its territorial claims.

Legally binding

Vietnam’s response will be conditioned by China’s next move. It will be looking closely for any indications that China could give ground to seek compromise.

But China says it will ignore the legal ruling, and may opt to increase tensions to deter any further challenge to its position.

The decision of the arbitration panel is legally binding under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which China is a signatory.

However, there are no provisions for enforcement.

China risks reputational damage by flouting international law, but with nationalist passions inflamed at home, President Xi Jinping appears to consider that a price worth paying.

The Vice-Foreign Minister, Liu Zhenmin, said China had the right to establish an air defence zone over waters it claims as its own – a step that could lead to enhanced confrontation with its neighbours and the United States.

If China did declare an ADIZ over parts of the South China Sea – in an attempt to bolster its severely weakened claim to the area – Vietnam could respond in kind, further escalating the danger of military clashes.

Highly provocative

Vietnam is already being encouraged by some to take its own legal claims against China to arbitration.

The Chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the US Senate, John McCain, urged as much in a statement released with another senator, Dan Sullivan.

“In the future, we encourage other South China Sea claimants, including Vietnam, to seek similar resolution of maritime disputes through arbitration as well as by negotiation among the parties,” they said.

The move would be seen as highly provocative by Beijing and would severely worsen already strained relations with Vietnam.

But the Communist authorities are under domestic pressure to show that they can stand up to their former allies in China.

Nationalist feelings are already running high in Vietnam amid a widespread belief that China is using its economic and military might to intimidate a smaller neighbour.

Soft on China ?

Vietnam must feel confident, given the wholesale rejection of China’s claims in the Philippines case, that it could win a similar legal victory in waters around the Paracel Islands, which are disputed by Hanoi and Beijing.

Vietnam has already sought to silence political activists at home, who want to press home the advantage against China.

Vietnamese police and their plainclothes assistants have carried out violent attacks on critics who accuse the government of being soft on China.

The authorities may fear a repeat of anti-China riots two years ago which showed just how explosive a domestic issue the territorial dispute has become.

Vietnam will for now try to tread cautiously as it plots a way through a legal, diplomatic and political quagmire that is fraught with danger.