“Is Vietnam or China legally right in this confrontation?”: According to UNCLOS as has been interpreted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the answer is definitely Vietnam, regardless of the answers to the first two questions.
After two and a half months of confrontation with Vietnam, on 15/7/2014 China withdrew the billion-dollar oil rig HY-981 that it had deployed near the Paracel Islands, the subject of a territorial dispute between the two countries since the early 20th century. The withdrawal of the oil rig has lowered tensions in the South China Sea, which had risen to the highest levels since China’s seizure of Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands in 1988, in which over 70 Vietnamese personels were killed.
The simmering territorial and maritime disputes in the region mean that similar incidents are likely to occur again. It is therefore worth trying to see what international law has to say about the rights and wrongs in this incident. It will be seen that a clear cut answer can be found, even if some underlying questions remain unresolved.