Vietnam’s strategies in the South China Sea


A year ago on 12 July 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal handed down its award on the claims brought by the Philippines against China over their maritime disputes in the Spratly Islands. The Tribunal ruled unanimously on almost all of the Philippines’ claims.

If China and the Philippines had complied with the findings of the award, as required by international law, Vietnam would have been a major beneficiary for four reasons.

People take part in an anti-China protest to mark the 43th anniversary of the China’s occupation of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea in Hanoi, Vietnam, 19 January 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Kham).

First, the Tribunal ruled that China’s nine-dash line claims to historic rights, other sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea are contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and ‘without lawful effect’. Further, the Tribunal found that UNCLOS ‘superseded any historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction’ claimed by China that are in excess of the limits imposed in the Convention.

Second, the Tribunal ruled that none of the land features in the Spratlys are islands in terms of international law and, therefore, none of these features are entitled to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Third, the Tribunal found the conduct of China’s law enforcement vessels, such as ramming and the use of high-powered water cannons, breached China’s obligations under international law. In addition, China’s law enforcement vessels violated sovereign rights by interfering with commercial oil exploration operations, imposing an illegal moratorium on fishing, failing to prevent Chinese-flagged vessels from fishing illegally and preventing other fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing.

Fourth, it was found that China failed to meet its obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment in the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands and not cooperating with other littoral states to protect and preserve the marine environment.