Vietnam adds voice, calls for restraint in Philippine-China sea row

It is so far the only member state of the Association of Southeast Nations to issue a statement on the incident, which a Philippine official has described as the “most serious incident yet” between Manila and Beijing.

Frances Mangosing

Frances Mangosing

Philippine Daily Inquirer


An aerial view shows the BRP Sierra Madre on the contested Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal on March 9, 2023. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER

March 11, 2024

MANILA – Vietnam has called for restraint in the South China Sea following fresh tensions between the Philippines and China in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, according to a report in Vietnamese state media.

It is so far the only member state of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) to issue a statement on last week’s incident, which a Philippine official has described as the “most serious incident yet” between Manila and Beijing.

A report by Voice of Vietnam, Hanoi’s national broadcaster, quoted Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Pham Thu Hang as saying that Vietnam was deeply concerned that the recent maritime tension in the East Sea may affect peace, security and stability in the area.

Vietnam refers to the South China Sea as East Sea while the Philippines calls these waters within its exclusive economic zone the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

According to Hang, any activity in the East Sea must adhere to international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and also respect countries’ sovereignty, sovereign right and jurisdiction established in line with Unclos.

Activities should also “not complicate the situation or escalate tensions; guarantee the freedom of navigation and overflight; and not use or threaten to use force,” she said.

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“We call on the parties concerned to exercise self-restraint, seriously implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea, resolve disputes by peaceful means, and together contribute to the maintenance of peace, stability, and cooperation in the East Sea,” Hang said.

On March 5, China Coast Guard (CCG) ships blasted with water cannons against a Philippine resupply boat, shattering its windshield and causing minor injuries to four Navy men. Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, the top Philippine Navy commander overseeing the country’s claims to the Kalayaan Island Group in WPS, was also onboard the supply boat, but he was unharmed.

One of the two Philippine Coast Guard ships escorting the resupply boats also sustained minor structural damage after a collision with a Chinese coast guard ship during the same mission.

‘Most serious’ so far

National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya has said, regarding these developments, that they were the “most serious incident yet” between Manila and Beijing.

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., for his part, called China’s actions “patently illegal and downright uncivilized.”

“They (China) take great pains to mischaracterize their provocations as lawful under international law and the actions of their CCG and maritime militia as ‘professional, restrained, reasonable and lawful. This claim is, simply put, one that no right-thinking state in the world agrees with and which many outright condemn,” he said.

Beijing, which claims sovereignty over Ayungin Shoal, responded by demanding that the Philippines “stop maritime infringement and provocation, and refrain from taking any action that may complicate the situation at sea.”

“[We] will continue to firmly safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in accordance with domestic and international laws,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.

Chinese coast guard and maritime militia have been disrupting Philippine ships conducting resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded Philippine Navy warship that serves as a military outpost in Ayungin.

Beijing insists that the warship’s presence in the shoal is illegal and violates Chinese sovereignty. A 2016 ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague rejected these claims, but China has refused to recognize the decision.

Ayungin is a low-tide elevation about 194 kilometers off Palawan province. It is about 37 km northwest of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, which is also within the country’s exclusive economic zone. However, Panganiban Reef was seized in 1995 by China which has since transformed it into a massive military outpost capable of launching missiles.

Beijing claims nearly the entire South China Sea but the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have overlapping claims. Along with the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are also Asean members.

First to laud Hague ruling

During President Marcos’ visit to Hanoi in January, the Philippines and Vietnam signed agreements on incident prevention in the South China Sea and on maritime cooperation between their coast guards.

Vietnam was the first Asean member to laud the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling that dismissed China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea. On the same day the decision came out on July 12, 2016, it issued a statement welcoming it, adding that it strongly supports peaceful resolution of disputes as it also reasserted its own sovereignty claims.

“Vietnam welcomes the arbitration court issuing its final ruling,” then Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Hai Binh said in a statement. “Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes, and refraining from the use or threats to use force, in accordance with international law.”

Two other Asean members have likewise cited the 2016 arbitral ruling in letters to the United Nations.

In May 2020, Indonesia sent a diplomatic note to the UN head to emphasize its support for the PCA decision.

It said China’s “nine-dash line” demarcation for the South China Sea lacked basis in international law, citing the Hague tribunal’s decision.

On July 29 that year, Malaysia also sent a diplomatic note to the UN, stating that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis.

The Malaysian mission to the UN told United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres that it “rejects China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line.’”

Noting that China’s claims were contrary to Unclos, it said “the government of Malaysia considers that the People’s Republic of China’s claim to the maritime features in the South China Sea has no basis under international law.”

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