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THE SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTES:

A VIEW FROM VIETNAM

Dao Huy Ngoc

Institute for International Relations, Vietnam

The past several years have witnessed strategic transformations sweeping across the world; the most striking manifestation of this is the end of the cold war. As a result, the military and political confrontation between two security blocs led by the Soviet Union and the U.S. has come to an end. The world will now witness not only a period where the main and irreversible trend toward peace, development, and cooperation on a global scale will further develop, but also a period where particularistic nationalism and state interests, once relegated to the background in international politics, will again come to the forefront. The years that lie ahead are indeed full of uncertainties, especially in the fields of security and arms proliferation. But positive trends also are emerging.

Over the past few years, détente among the big powers has encouraged the Asia Pacific region to make substantial progress toward a relaxation of tension, settlement of regional conflicts, and promotion of cooperation. The normalization of relations between Vietnam and China, achieved in November 1991, the establishment of diplomatic relations by China with Indonesia and Singapore, and the "thaw" in relations between India and China have created not only more favorable conditions for the peaceful development of these countries but also constituted an important contribution to the promotion of a healthy political atmosphere in the region. Thus, after several decades of fierce wars and confrontation, the developing trend of dialogue and cooperation among the countries in the region reveals new possibilities. Southeast Asia will become a zone of peace, stability, friendship and cooperation.

Historians will see the October 1991 Paris peace accord on Cambodia and the adherence of Vietnam and Laos to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation at the annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Manila during July 1992 as key landmarks on the road toward lasting peace and prosperity in this region. Though it is only the beginning, it is a hopeful one because all the countries in Southeast Asia, after decades of confrontation and suspicion, have realized that close cooperation rather than confrontation is a permanent, persistent necessity.

There is little doubt that military power and politics will continue to be of paramount importance in many issue areas, especially national security, but economic well-being is also becoming a sine qua non of national security. Promoting and protecting economic prosperity is likely to become more and more the focus of national security.

The Eastern Sea (South China Sea): An Overview

One major trend in the South China Sea we have observed over the last decade is the "enclosure" of larger areas of the sea and its resources. Nations now give more attention to the real and potential value of ocean space and resources and have made strenuous efforts to secure their rightful, as well as unjust, claims over territorial waters and resources. Many nations argue for the natural right of coastal states to lay claim to their coastal waters and resources, but others argue for the principle of "freedom of the seas," believing that the ocean and its riches belong to every nation and equal rights to the ocean space and resources should be recognized on an equitable basis. These arguments are understandable if we consider the fact that seas and oceans are increasingly becoming the main areas for resource exploitation, not only because of the scarcity of land resources but also because of the very fast development of marine technology.

Disputes, and even armed clashes, between countries in the South China Sea over the Paracel and Spratly Islands are the result of competition for resources on the continental shelf areas or in the sea beds surrounding them. Besides this basic factor one can not forget that the maritime areas of Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea, are of interest to military strategists. Important sea lanes of communication crossing through the major straits and the South China Sea are of enormous economic and security significance to all nations conducting trade in Asia. These waters and adjacent islands are and have historically been points of political and strategic friction between neighboring states of the region. The fight for spheres of influence over the South China Sea among major maritime powers, the mini arms race in many countries surrounding the South China Sea, the armed clashes in this area, and the publication of various new maps and government decrees have brought the conflicts in the South China Sea, especially in the Spratlys, into sharper focus.

Asia's growing demand for energy has increased offshore exploration for oil and natural gas, and many countries have undertaken significant efforts to explore for these natural resources in the South China Sea. Oil, and to a lesser extent offshore, minerals and fisheries, are the focal point of the present disputes and conflicts.

The concept of the archipelagic state, incorporated in the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) complicated the situation in this area. All contiguous states have claimed 200 mile exclusive economic zones. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam have all made claims to areas in the South China Sea, while China has claimed the largest area in the South China Sea. Friction and violence have occurred in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China and Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The situation is further aggravated by the acceleration of a mini arms race in many countries concerned and also by the presence of many foreign oil companies.

The Natuna Islands dispute over conflicting claims concerning the continental shelf mainly involves Vietnam and Indonesia. Vietnam s position is based more on the principle of "equity" than on other legal theories, while Indonesia's position is based on its archipelagic claim supported by the UNCLOS. Looking at the friendly relations between the two countries, we can predict that sooner or later the two sides will find an acceptable solution. Though the negotiations between experts from both sides have lasted for many years, this dispute will not endanger regional stability.

In the Gulf of Tonkin, the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, the situation is somewhat more problematic. Until recently China did not even agree that there was