Professor-Doctor Lee Woong-Hyeon (R) answering VNA
correspondent Manh Hung in Seoul
As an expert on international relations, can you
give us your general assessment on the current security situation in the
East Sea and speak about the China's intentions?
As far as I know, the Chinese geological survey
vessel’s activities in this area are not new. The Chinese survey ship
Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered waters near the Vietnam-controlled Vanguard Bank on
July 3, with the first encroachment of China’s oil rigs five years ago. The
first intrusion of a Chinese oil rig triggered fierce anti-China protests in
Vietnam, without any special international reactions. But this time, the
incident upset Vietnam, the Government and people, and went further to make
the United States criticise Beijing for “bullying behavior” in the area.
This means that July’s action came from the desire to demonstrate China’s
presence in this area and reflected the recent the US-China relations
including economic conflicts.
As the result of the trade war with the US, China’s
economy is reported to continue to stall, and the Chinese government may
want to incite nationalism to distract the public’s attention from some
difficult diplomatic situations. Of course, China’s political and military
intention in this area should not be excluded. China has remained the power
with the upper hand over its neighbours, along with about 25 to 30 military
outposts from the Paracel islands to the Spratlys. The dominant status in
this area will give China a lot of diplomatic cards at the negotiating table
with the other great powers and with the states in this area including
Vietnam. China’s intention is said to originate from its ‘national
interests, virtual or real’, territorial [maritime], military, economic,
diplomatic gains and desire for recognition (in the Hegelian term), which
are pursued by all the states in general, especially by the rising great
In your opinion, what are legal frameworks necessary
for ensuring the security and freedom of aviation and navigation in the sea?
Personally, I cast doubts on the capability and
possibility of the international law in solving the international
territorial problems. But I think, for the peace and prosperity of people,
we should not resort to only naked power or military force. We should not
give up the efforts to cite, utilize and adopt international norms for the
peaceful solving of the problems among states. There is a legal framework
for security and peace in this sea besides the general and traditional
principle of free navigation.
The Vanguard Bank, the westernmost reef of the
Spratly islands, hosts Vietnam’s strategic DK1 oil rigs which are called
‘ocean fortresses’, and sits well within the 200 nautical miles of Vietnam’s
exclusive economic zone. The exclusive economic zone, set by the United
Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is the foremost legal
frame of reference with which the Hanoi Government can strengthen its own
position. Although the Chinese government has contested the UNCLOS rule,
especially as interpreted by Vietnam and other countries around this sea,
Beijing’s method of justification for its action, the nine-dash line, cannot
be said to be an international legal frame consented to by other states.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) dismissed
the nine-dash line claim as groundless in 2016, which has not been respected
by the Chinese government. But PCA, like other international courts, has no
realistic power to enforce of its own decision. This is the limitation of
international norms and legal judgments we sometimes look to. But a legal
frame would be a weak state’s good weapon for criticizing the illegal action
of the stronger state and for getting the world’s opinion support.
Can you predict developments relating to the
security situation in the area in the coming time?
Considering the salami-slicing tactics of China in
this area and Hanoi’s cool (this means ‘reasonable’) and wise policy
reaction even under the pressure of Vietnamese people’s anger and protests,
we can forecast that outright and armed conflicts will not happen. But every
statesman should be careful not to escalate an incident into a serious
confrontation or conflict especially in a crisis which is stirring public
protests like this. Crisis management is a statesman’s vital virtue.
When a claimant intrudes into the area which it
claims as ‘its area’ or as having an interest in it, its actions are apt to
make itself a recurrent pattern, though not going up to the extreme line.
That is the salami-slicing or grey-zone tactic. Of course, those activities
threaten the security situation in the area, provoking the concerns of
people. This kind of tactic will be witnessed for the foreseeable future in
In your opinion, what should the Vietnam authorities
do to protect its legitimate sovereignty and interests in the Vanguard Bank
in particular and the East Sea in general?
Vietnam, sharing a dozen hundred kilometre border
with China and having experienced a war with China in 1979, is evaluated as
a state with high tolerance of strategic risk, including during the
confrontation with China in 2014. At the end of a very dangerous and
collision-possible period of two-month stand-off, China eventually backed
down and pulled its energy rig in that year. This is the diplomatically and
strategically wise course to be taken in the coming time.
In an international crisis threatening the state’s
security and sovereignty, the most important stance a state should take is
to maintain strategic, theoretical and policy consistency, which could
gather international support and could get the normatively stronger
position. And it is needed for academics to study and research the related
maritime history of this area, preparing for the possible debate on who the
historically and internationally legitimate sovereign of this area should
be. Sometimes the pen is mightier than the sword. VNS