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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123

South China Sea: International
Law, Maritime Militia and
Prospects for a Code of Conduct
Carlyle A. Thayer
July 27, 2019

We request your assessment of China’s latest moves in the South China Sea.
Q1. In your assessment, what is behind China’s move into Vietnam’s exclusive
economic zone and continental shelf at Vanguard Bank?
ANSWER: For the past three years China has been applying pressure on Vietnam,
including threats of force, to stop Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration activities in the
waters around Vanguard Bank, particularly in July 2017 and March 2018.
China argues that Vietnam is violating understandings reached by high-level leaders.
Since this issue remains unresolved, China has stepped up its pressure. It has
dispatched a survey ship to conduct seismic tests in the Vanguard Bank area and China
has deployed coast guard vessels to harass service ships in bloc 06-01 awarded to
Russia’s Rosneft Vietnam BV that resumed operations in May this year.
Last year, China made clear in its submission to the ASEAN-China Single Draft South
China Sea Negotiating Text that cooperation in maritime resources in the South China
Sea should only be undertaken by companies belonging to China and ASEAN member
states but not “outside countries.”
China’s aim is to assert hegemonic control over oil and gas exploitation in the South
China Sea by forming joint ventures with Southeast Asian states and excluding foreign
Q2. Three years ago, the Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favour of coastal states like Vietnam
and the Philippines in recognizing their exclusive economic zones and continental
shelves, but China implemented a policy of "neither accepting the tribunal's
jurisdiction and its rulings nor enforcing its judgments.” How can one reconcile China’s
position with international law?
ANSWER: The Arbitral Tribunal ruled on what the Philippines is entitled to as a littoral
state. It found that there were no islands in the Spratly archipelago and thus China
could not claim a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) any of its artificial
islands. The Tribunal found that China’s claim to historic rights was extinguished when
China acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); it
also ruled that China’s nine-dash line map had no basis in international law. China as
the flag state was found guilty of not controlling its fishing fleet.

Under UNCLOS, decisions by the Arbitral Tribunal are final, must be complied with
immediately and are. not subject to appeal. The Award applied to China and the
Philippines. Unfortunately, UNCLOS does not contain any enforcement mechanism.
International law and the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal were undermined by newly
elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who set aside the ruling in order to pivot
towards China. If Duterte had asserted the Philippines’ rights, the international
community, including members of ASEAN, could have given their support.
Given these circumstances, all Vietnam and the international community can do is call
for China to carry out its legal obligation and carry out the Award and make diplomatic
protests when China violate UNCLOS.
Vietnam has the option of initiating its own legal action under the compulsory dispute
settlement mechanism in UNCLOS Annex 7.
Q3. What are China's aims by promoting the use of its marine militia to assert its
territorial or maritime claims in the South China Sea over other claimants?
ANSWER: China seeks to change the status quo in its favour by using “grey zone
tactics.” This means using forces disguised to appear as if they were not regular
military forces and keeping the use of force at a low level. China has continually
employed its fishing fleet, maritime militia and Coast Guard to challenge the legal
presence of fishermen and maritime law enforcement agencies belonging to littoral
states. In other words, China tries to undermine the sovereign jurisdiction of littoral
states in their EEZs and continental shelf.
China’s use of “grey zone tactics” including low-level coercion is designed to intimidate
claimant states and get them to backdown and concede to China.
Q4. China is in the process of negotiating a Code of Conduct (COC) with ASEAN. Could
China's current activities make that process more difficult as the COC aims to enforce
rules of conduct in the South China Sea? Should China's moves be considered its "pre-
emptive coercion" against ASEAN countries to take advantage of the negotiation
ANSWER: ASEAN and China officials were upbeat earlier this year at the 34th ASEAN
Summit in June about how their relations and negotiations on a Code of Conduct were
progressing. China’s harassment of both Vietnam and Malaysia has undermined trust
and is very likely to lead to hard bargaining to ensure the final COC contains effective
rules to deal with deliberate illegal conduct and the use of force by any of the parties
to the final COC. Unfortunately, the Single Draft Negotiating Text does not contain any
effective enforcement mechanisms.
Vietnam should signal that it will not accept a COC unless its legitimate interests are
Q5. What can other countries in the region do to strengthen themselves against a
China wanting to control the South China Sea as well as to unite together to resolve
disputes peacefully and in conformity with the principles of justice and international
ANSWER: ASEAN states must rethink their declaratory policy, that is, how they set out
their assessment on the South China Sea in statements following ministerial and

summit meetings. Usually one paragraph says something positive about relations with
China, while the next paragraph notes concerns by “some members” about recent
developments that have eroded trust.
ASEAN repeatedly invokes international law and UNCLOS, but it never mentions the
Award by the. Arbitral Tribunal for fear of offending China. ASEAN only refers to “legal
and diplomatic processes.”
China’s recent behaviour of sending swarms of fishing boats and maritime militia to
surround the Philippine’s Thitu (Pag-a-sa) island, China illegal intrusion into Vietnam’s
EEZ at Vanguard Bank, and China’s harassment of Malaysian vessels at Laconia Shoal
must be called out for what it is, a blatant deliberate violation of international law.
The three states concerned – the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia – should confer
and present a united front to the other ASEAN members.
ASEAN should adopt stronger wording in its joint statements following summit and
ministerial meetings. ASEAN members should also call on China to comply with the
Arbitral Tribunal’s Award.
ASEAN diplomats must be blunt in their negotiations with China on a COC. They should
make it clear that no progress can be made until China stops its illegal actions in the
EEZs and continental shelves of ASEAN claimant states.
External states take their cue from ASEAN. ASEAN should follow Vietnam’s lead and
call for cooperation with external or outside powers – the major powers and maritime
states. China must be taught that its actions have consequences and its actions will
only further internationalise maritime disputes in the South China Sea. ASEAN littoral
states should step up cooperation with coast guards from the U.S., Japan and other
states. These coast guards should be invited to conduct training, capacity-building and
maritime domain awareness activities in the host state’s EEZ where oil exploration and
production is taking place.

Media Identification: The University of New South Wales, Canberra or The University
of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: International Law, Maritime
Militia and Prospects for a Code of Conduct,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief,
July 27, 2019. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.