A Difficult Summer in the South China Sea



Chinese coercive activities persist in one of Asia’s hottest flashpoints.

In July, a China Geological Survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and commenced seismic surveying in waters near Vanguard Bank. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 was accompanied by several escorts including China Coast Guard (CCG) ships.

China’s actions were in blatant violation of international law because it had not sought, nor was it given, permission by Vietnam to conduct a seismic survey. Under international law, Vietnam has sovereign jurisdiction of the relevant waters and seabed. Vietnam has the exclusive right to exploit all marine resources in the water column in its EEZ, as well as resources on its continental shelf. Vietnam responded by sending a small number of Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) ships and other vessels to monitor the situation.

China’s actions precipitated a three-month diplomatic standoff that shows no sign of ending. This article discusses why the South China Sea is important to the international community, provides historical background relating to Vanguard Bank, discusses current Chinese maritime operations and the response by Vietnam and the international community.

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea stretching from northern Taiwan southward to the Straits of Malacca, bordered by the Philippines on the east; China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore to the west; and Indonesia, Brunei, and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to the south, according to the International Hydrographic Organization.

The South China Sea is a vital artery for international commercial shipping connecting the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean with the western Pacific through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore as well as straits in the Indonesian archipelago. These maritime routes, or sea lines of communication (SLOCs), are the second busiest in the world and carry goods estimated at $5.3 trillion per year or 30 percent of global trade.

The SLOCs that traverse the South China Sea split into two main routes in order to avoid the “dangerous waters” comprising reefs and rocks in the middle; one route runs parallel to the west coast of the Philippines, while the other route runs west paralleling Vietnam’s coast. These SLOCs carry oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) that are absolutely vital for the economies of northeast Asia. Fifty percent of China’s oil imports and 65 percent of petroleum imports to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan traverse the South China Sea. The SLOCs and airways above the South China Sea are also a vital military artery for maritime powers, particularly the United States.