The shift in world politics from the West to East is marked by the emergence of the Asian Century, which portrays the dominance of the eastern hemisphere. The much talked about Asian century has gained prominence from across the globe due to various reasons, such as, the growth of China as an Asian power; the increased Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific – stretching its presence into the Indian Ocean and extending till the African continent, and lastly, the territorial disputes of South China Sea (SCS). The South China Sea issue has acquired the centre stage in Asian strategic debates, particularly since the past three decades. The two main reasons why South China Sea is so significant amongst world’s major powers are, first, around thirty percent of global trade transits through the sea lanes and secondly due to its undoubted abundance in natural energy resources.
Vietnam is considered to be one of the most significant claimants of SCS and the nation is entangled into a political-sovereignty dispute with other SCS surrounding nations, most notably China. Vietnam’s claim over the two-hundred nautical miles EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) in the South China Sea clashes with some Southeast Asian countries, such as China, Cambodia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Philippines. However, Vietnam has reached a final agreement with Thailand in August 1997, regarding the delimitation of maritime boundaries, as mentioned by Stein Tonnesson in one of his articles in the journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia. Some advancements made by Vietnam in the SCS has reportedly enraged China, such as, Vietnam’s historical claims of ruling Spratly and Paracel Islands in 17th Century, introducing law in Vietnam for regulating the hydrocarbon resources exploration projects, Vietnam’s claim for a 50 nm fishing zone in SCS, Vietnam’s professing inherence over a certain part of the Gulf of Tonkin as their own and etc. On the other hand, China’s historical claim of the nine-dash line, which covers almost whole of SCS, has resulted in a territorial dispute with most Southeast Asian nations. This controversy has risen from being just a regional dispute, and has involved voices from the international community as well.
Repeated clashes took place between China and Vietnam with regard to their overlapping interests in SCS. Sometimes China flew airplanes to monitor Vietnamese energy exploration activities, along with Beijing’s announcement in 1992 about finalising agreement between Crestone Energy Corporation of Denver and Chinese national offshore Oil Corporation to explore natural oil in western Spratly, an area which is located on Vietnam’s continental shelf area, reportedly sparked anger amongst the Vietnamese strategic analysts.
Despite Vietnam’s clashes with China over continental shelves and island disputes in SCS, Vietnam finds it best suited to go along the lines of United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) to resolve this conflict and reach a mutually agreed solution to the problem. Thereafter Vietnam inclined towards a new approach towards its maritime claims which is more in consonance with the terms of UNCLOS. On 25th September 1999, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam, while delivering his speech at the UN General Assembly, explained how Vietnam held a consistent view about how the disputes in the Eastern Sea (Vietnam’s version of South China Sea) should be settled by peaceful means, through bilateral and multilateral negotiations among the concerned parties and on the basis of full conformity of international law, specifically 1982 UNCLOS and 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea. In this regard, it can be noted that keeping its national interests unhindered, Vietnam successfully and more so ever peacefully resolved its territorial disputes with countries like Malaysia and Thailand, as well as came into negotiating terms with China with regard to the delimitation of the Gulf of Tonkin, which is undergoing talks in the 9th round of negotiation between the two countries.
With regard to India, the SCS has facilitated cross-cultural linkages between India and East and Southeast Asia from the ancient times. It has also offered connectivity with broader Asia-Pacific region, paved way for trade through sea-routes, and last but not the least it has engaged India in offshore energy development projects, in partnership with Vietnam. Having said that, it makes complete sense why India would want to have the dispute in the SCS to be resolved with mutual agreement, especially in accordance with international law. With this perspective, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at the 13th ASEAN-India summit in Singapore in November 2015, reiterated the need for a common mechanism that can assist countries in maritime cooperation, as well as security from piracy, natural disasters and other emergencies. The growing geo-political significance of the Indo-Pacific tends to pull world’s major powers, to the eastern part of the globe and that apparently challenges China’s growing influence in the east with the presence of external powers in the region. India, being a developing power in Asia, has a political and strategic need to evolve better relationship with Southeast Asian maritime nations and their drive for common maritime spaces. Over fifty percent of India’s sea-borne trade is directed towards Southeast Asia, East Asia, East coast of United States and Canada. SCS and the Straits of Malacca play an immensely important role in facilitating this sea-borne trade and therefore keeping these sea lanes free from any possible instability in one of India’s top strategic agendas. Therefore, rightfully India chooses to stand by the maritime principles of the UNCLOS.
The Chinese dominion in the SCS, with the help of its strategic and economic might, as against the Southeast Asian littoral states calls for destabilisation of maritime Asia, as pointed out by several security analysts. To which, India and Vietnam stands together to counter the uncertainty of the Chinese intentions, and their determination for a peaceful and sustainable resolution aims at the restoration of the power equilibrium in the South China Sea.
(Ms. Sonia Dey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Vietnam Studies, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)