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Opinion | National

LOVE-HATE TRIANGLE | What is the result of China's heavy-handedness vis-a-vis Vietnam, PH?
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Amado “Bong” Mendoza is a faculty member of the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines (Diliman) and is primarily interested in Philippine politics and political economy. He used to write for Business Day covering the finance beat and the online edition of Inquirer. He now writes regularly for

Unfortunately for assertive rising powers like China, might is not always right.

If too much pressure is applied on smaller powers, defiance rather than acquiescence may result. And these smaller powers may find succor in international courts and with favorable global opinion.

Recently, China got into a nasty scrap with Vietnam as it move a billion-dollar rig into disputed waters off Vietnam's coast in late May 2014. Later, a Chinese vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat about 17 nautical miles southwest of the oil rig, the state-run Vietnamese television network, VTV1, reported. All 10 crew members were rescued according to the network.

The New York Times reported that China labeled Vietnam as the aggressor, with the Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua, saying the Vietnamese fishing boat “capsized when it was interfering with and ramming” a Chinese fishing vessel from Hainan, a province of China. Then China accused Vietnam of sabotage and interfering with the operations of the oil rig, which has become a flash point ever since Vietnam learned that the Chinese had anchored the rig in waters contested by both nations.

Legal luminaries opined Vietnam can sue China at the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for the use of force.

Prof. Dr. Nguyen Van Nam, a lawyer and a senior researcher in international law, gave the advice in an interview with Tuoi Tre  (Youth) newspaper on how to sue China for violating Vietnam’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf by placing its oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 off Vietnam's coast since May 1 this year.

Specifically, Vietnam can file a suit against China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for using force against Vietnamese ships that have been protecting Vietnam’s territorial waters from being violated by the Chinese rig and its guarding ships, Dr. Nam said.

China’s violations

China’s use of force – in which Chinese ships have rammed or fired their water cannons at Vietnamese vessels, causing injures to 12 Vietnamese fisheries surveillance officers and damaged several boats so far – has violated Article 2, paragraph 3, of the Charter of the United Nations, Dr. Nam said.

This paragraph reads: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.”

China’s use of force has also violated Article 279 of UNCLOS, which reads: “States Parties shall settle any dispute between them concerning the interpretation or application of this Convention by peaceful means in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 3, of the Charter of the United Nations and, to this end, shall seek a solution by the means indicated in Article 33, paragraph 1, of the Charter."

“We should base our lawsuit on these two legal foundations to avoid the fact that China has applied another article of UNCLOS to exclude UNCLOS’s jurisdiction over all kinds of disputes involving China in relation to sovereignty over seas and islands."

While Dr. Nam is admittedly a Vietnamese legal expert, his views make sense.

Common cause with Vietnam

China's moves against Vietnam made the latter make common cause with the Philippines. 

Al-Jazeera America reported that China denounced Vietnamese and Philippine troops early this month for getting together on a disputed island in the South China Sea to drink beer and play volleyball, calling it "a clumsy farce" and demanding that their governments stop causing trouble.

The gathering on the Vietnamese-held Southwest Cay in the contested Spratly archipelago on Sunday was billed as a display of unity that underscored growing cooperation between Vietnam and the Philippines. Both countries, along with China, claim the Southwest Cay, and Hanoi and Manila have disputed China's claims over the South China Sea and its islands.  The Philippines calls part of the SCS as the Western Philippine Sea to signify its claim while Vietnam similarly avoids the term and calls the territory the East Sea.

Philippine naval officials described the meeting of soldiers from the two sides, which also featured soccer and a tug-of-war competition, as a chance to show there can be harmony despite a web of overlapping claims to the potentially energy-rich waters.

That presents a strong contrast to the bilateral relations between China, on one hand, and both the Philippines and Vietnam, on the other.

The Chinese gambit

In its latest move reported by Philippine Star, China's representative to the United Nations (UN) claimed that the Philippines started the territorial dispute over the South China Sea and accused the country of trying to gain global sympathy.

In a report at the 24th meeting of state parties of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Deputy Permanent Representative Wang Min said the Philippines' accusations against China are "false."

"[W]e must point out that the root cause of the disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea is the Philippines' illegal occupation of some islands and reefs of China's Nansha islands (Spratlys)," Wang said.

"The Philippines attempts to legalize its infringements and provocations by dragging China into arbitral proceedings. The Philippines is also trying to win international sympathy and support through deception. This is what the problem is in essence," he added.

Wang said pursuant to the provisions of UNCLOS, the Chinese government made a declaration in 2006 excluding disputes over maritime delimitation and territorial sovereignty from compulsory dispute settlement procedures.

He said China, as a sovereign state and a state party to UNCLOS, has the right under international law to do this.

Wang's statements reveals his country's low regard for world opinion; that the global publics can be easily deceived by a small country like the Philippines (or even Vietnam) to take its side in an international dispute.

In addition, Wang makes a unilateral assertion that China, through a mere declaration in 2006, can exclude disputes over maritime delimitation and territorial sovereignty from compulsory dispute settlement procedures.

In effect, China uses UNCLOS provisions to claim ITLOS lack of jurisdiction over its SCS claims. It uses international law to refuse to be bound by the same law and the bodies that applies international law to settle international disputes.

There are several choice words to describe such a state. Among them, nouns, adjectives and verbs: bully, tyrant, rogue, heavy-handed, oppressive, scoundrel, rascal, intimidator, and harsh.

The Chinese should not be surprised if nobody in the neighborhood loves them back for their "tough love."