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Whoever rules the World Island commands the World”

Halford J. Mackinder

Tran khanh*



The dispute over sovereignty in the East Sea, first of all over the Hoang Sa (Pracel or Paracels) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos, had begun right after World War II. However, it has escalated to a pretty serious level since the end of the first decade of the 21st century as several concerned countries had taken tough actions to claim sovereignty in the area.

Such feverishness, coupled with a high frequency of international security meetings and forums on the issue (1) have signalled changes in the way of thinking and strategic actions over the East Sea by many nations, presenting complicated fluctuation of the geopolitical environment and order in the region. This is a big issue as it involves not only the dispute over territorial rights and sovereignty but also interests and greater strategic ambitions of many countries in this region. While historical and legal aspects pertaining to the sovereignty in the East Sea have been analysed; many writings, geopolitical aspect has not. This writing, partly answers the question why the East Sea currently draws intense interest from both the countries which have claimed their sovereignty there, and powerful outsiders, especially the US, and what lies behind the growing tension of the dispute in the East Sea and what should be done to head off a possible .geopolitical catastrophe. in this disputed waters in the future?

The analysis here is based on the geopolitical theory which studies the interaction between political and geographical elements in determining the order of power in a given territorial space (2). Specifically, we look at the policies adopted by related countries (mainly big countries) regarding the use of geographical factor and the current strategic situation in the East Sea as means and resources to achieving their geopolitical goals (the goal of power) in Southeast Asia.

1. Strategic position of the East Sea

The East Sea is a semi-enclosed sea to the west of the Pacific Ocean, covering an area of over 3.5 million sq. km, stretching from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan from 3o to 26o north latitude and 100o to 121o east longitude. Apart from Vietnam, it is bordered by mainland China, Chinese Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia. Possessing a system of islands and archipelagos (3), the East Sea is connected with the Hua Dong Sea of China and the Sea of Japan (through the Strait of Taiwan), with the Pacific Ocean through islands and seas of the Philippines and with the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca. The East Sea is surrounded by the Bac Bo (Tonkin) Gulf, the Gulf of Thailand, the Gulf of Subic, the Gulf of Manila, many deep-sea ports, and so on. That’s why the East Sea becomes a busy sea and air routes linking Northeast Asian countries with Southeast Asian countries. It is the shortest maritime route connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Five of the world’s ten main shipping routes go through the East Sea. Of more than 90 percent of international trade volume transported by sea, 45 percent pass through the East Sea (4). About 80 percent of crude oil volume imported by China, 60 percent by Japan and 66 percent by the Republic of Korea are shipped through the East Sea. As much as 42 percent of export products of Japan, 55 percent of that of Southeast Asia, 26 percent of that of newly industrialized countries and 40 percent of that of Australia are also transported through the waters. More than 95 percent of Vietnam’s export commodities are shipped abroad using this maritime lane. It can be said that the East Sea becomes a .regulating valve. for trade flows, especially the shipping of oil between the Middle East and African countries and economies in East Asia (5). With these mentioned advantages, the East Sea is described as “the Mediterranean Sea of Asia” (6).

Besides these advantages, the East Sea is also abundant in natural resources, especially oil, gas and marine resources. Data suggest that the sea possesses about 130 billion barrels of crude oil, of which 7 billion barrels have been verified, ensuring the production of 2.5 million barrels of oil a day (7), and 900 billion cubic metres of natural gas. Moreover, the East Sea also has a large reserve of natural hydrate, equivalent to the aforementioned reserves of oil and gas. In addition to that, the bed of the East Sea boasts precious metals like Coban and Mangan. Regarding marine resources, the waters area is home to more than 100 species of fish with high economic value, which are able to give a large catch. At present, the catch output yielded in this sea accounts for 7-8 percent of the world’s.

In the East Sea, the Truong Sa archipelago is the largest, covering more than 1.3 million km2, or 38 percent of the total acreage of the East Sea, and the richest in natural resources, especially oil and gas. It also holds a strategic position in terms of maritime and strategic defence. If a modern military base is stationed on the archipelago, it can control a vast area of nearly the whole Southeast Asia and Southeast of China. These big benefits have further fuelled geopolitical ambitions of many countries, making the East Sea rough in many decades in the past.

2. Dispute escalation in the East Sea

Prior to the 20th century, except Vietnam, no countries in the region had any evidence to prove that they had established sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos. The textbook called “Geography of China” that China published in 1906 did not refer to the names Xi Sha and Nam Sha, only said that the southernmost of China was Hainan Island. Meanwhile, throughout nearly three centuries (from the 17th century to the second half of the 19th century, the feudal states of Vietnam had often sent teams of militiamen to the two archipelagos to explore and exploit natural resources. While ruling Vietnam, the French colonialists took the management of the two archipelagos and handed it over in 1956 to the Saigon administration, which then set up new administrative units there. Taking the advantage of the French’s withdrawal from these archipelagos, China, however, in April 1956, secretly seized a group of islands to the East of the Hoang Sa archipelago. In January, 1974, on the eve of the upcoming collapse of the Saigon regime, China used force to occupy a cluster of islands to the West of the Hoang Sa archipelago and later occupied the entire 23 islands, sand beaches and rocks belong to the archipelago (8).

Regarding the Truong Sa archipelago, China also used force to illegally occupy the Chu Thap rock and the Gaven rock and a number of underground rocks of this archipelago in March, 1988 when Vietnam was in huge difficulties. In 1992, China occupied another rock field called Van An in Vietnam’s continental shelf. In February, 1995, China secretly occupied a rock field of the Mischief Reef island group managed by the Philippines. As such, the dispute relating to sovereignty over the Truong Sa archipelago involve five parties, including four countries, namely Vietnam, mainland China, Chinese Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia (9). In this dispute, Vietnam, mainland China and Chinese Taiwan have claimed sovereignty to almost all the Truong Sa archipelago while the Philippines and Malaysia have claimed part of this archipelago.

Besides the disputes in the mentioned two archipelagos, the East Sea dispute has expanded beyond to the waters area to the South of the Truong Sa archipelago, with the involvement of seven parties, including six countries, namely Vietnam, mainland China, Chinese Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The Chinese Government has regarded this sea area as lying within the “cow’s tongue” line, which is the historical water area whose ownership had been unilaterally announced by them since late 1947. After 1949, the People’s Republic of China also made a series of similar announcements (10) .

Due to various reasons, including the need for China and ASEAN to develop friendship and cooperation, the East Sea dispute between related countries having sovereignty claims seemed to be calm in the first half of the first decade of the 21st century. It has then, however, become strained again, especially since 2009. In May, 2009, China officially submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (CLCS) “a report on an expanded area outside the People’s Republic of China’s 200 nautical mile continental shelf”, and at the same time continuously sent diplomatic notes to protest the documents submitted by other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines (11). These diplomatic notes attached with the “cow’s tongue” (nine-dotted U-shaped) map said “China has an indisputable sovereignty over the archipelagos in the South China Sea (the East Sea) and sovereign right and jurisdiction right to related waters areas as well as the seabed and the subsoil under the seabed” (12). Since then, China has, furthermore, resorted to other measures to support the goal of establishing its sovereignty through exercising its law in the disputed areas, pressurizing a number of multinational companies which are jointly exploring and exploiting oil and gas with Vietnam and the Philippines, conducting many large-scale military exercises on the East Sea, implementing an annual fishing ban and harassing fishermen of other countries who have been operating legally in their waters areas and so on (13) . These new acts run against the fundamental principles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 and the Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea (DOC) in 2002 which was signed by China, further straining the East Sea situation. This has not only negatively affected the security and cooperation environment, especially the Southeast Asia connectivity process, causing concerns to many Southeast Asian countries, but also harmed the “peaceful rise” strategy of China itself.

Along with the mentioned acts, China is ready to clash with the U.S ships currently operating in the East Sea (14) and at the same time is intensifying the modernization of its naval and air forces, building large-scale military units on Hainan island (15), launching big military exercises on the sea area nearing the first chain of islands which run from Japan through Okinawa, Chinese Taiwan to the Philippines. Particularly, China’s consideration of the East Sea as part of its .core national interest. (16) in terms of sovereignty and its stern request for holding bilateral negotiations separately with each country with sovereignty claim have not only sparked concerns among regional countries but also stimulated the intervention of outside countries, especially the US, the country that has pursued strategic interest and geopolitical ambitions in this region.

3. Intertwined strategic interests and geopolitical disputes in the East Sea

The East Sea dispute, which has become complicated and been pushed to an increasingly fierce level in recent years, has not only stemmed from disagreements or outstanding disputes over sovereignty over territorial waters left by history and jurisdiction right to economic executive zones and overlapping sea areas of countries with claim, but also from intertwined interests and geopolitical pursuits. On top of which is the control of strategic shipping and air lines and rich natural resources, especially crude oil, in this region. From this, related countries aim to expand their influences over the entire Asia-West Pacific area.

First of all is Chinas interest; the great importance of the East Sea to China is unquestionable, particularly when it has become the second largest economy in the world and is on the path to grow more robustly. It is not accidental for Chinese scholars to repeatedly emphasize that the East Sea represents an “axis of two oceans, a core stone featuring strength of the sea and the coin of fate of China at sea” (17). In history, the Chinese used to view Southeast Asia, including the East Sea, as their traditional influential region and also a direction that favours their money-making trade. The view has greatly affected China’s current claim of sovereignty in the East Sea.

Geostrategically, China feels that it is besieged. To the East, there is the presence of the firm strategic ally bloc formed by the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea. This ally bloc has increasingly been reinforced, especially after the incident of “ship Cheonan” in March 2010. Meanwhile, Chinese Taiwan still remains a separated island from mainland China and has still been patronized by the US and Japan in the fields of security and defence. These hurdles make it difficult for China to reach farther out to deep waters of the Pacific to the East to become a sea-driven power. To the Southwest, China is bordered by India and Myanmar. China’s endeavour to broaden its power in the Indian Ocean through this direction is quite narrow because India is emerging with efforts to become a sea power and Myanmar and India are targeted for improved ties by the US. To the Southeast, especifically the East Sea, this area can provide the most favourable position for China to realize the goal of advancing towards all oceans in the world. Southeast Asian countries having claims of sovereignty over territorial waters in the East Sea are all small countries with a limited naval capacity. Since the beginning of the 1990s of the previous century, the US had withdrawn step by step its big military bases out of this region, especially the Subic and Clark in the Philippines. Since the first decade of the 21st century, the US has taken the advantage of the war against terrorism to re-station its troops on several locations in the Philippines and Thailand, though at a modest level. Moreover, over nearly the past decade, the US has been bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq with its troops being scattered. Meanwhile, Russia, for its part, withdrew its military forces out of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh port. So, to a certain extent, Southeast Asia in general and the East Sea in particular have seemingly faced a “vacuum of power” over the past two decades. This can provide more favourable conditions for China to deploy its naval forces down in the disputed East Sea to realize their strategic goal.

Regarding geoeconomic aspect, China has become both the second largest crude oil importer and consumer in the world. In 2008, its imported crude oil accounted for 50 percent of the local consumption capacity (with 3.8 million barrels/day). The figure is predicted to jump to 70 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2035 with around 11.6 million barrels a day (18). That.s why China has considered the East Sea as “the second Persian Gulf” in terms of oil and gas, which can supply an additional significant source of energy serving the next development stage of its national economy(19).

The complexity of addressing the dispute on the grounds of historical evidence and the differences in the interpretation of international laws, are accompanied by the needs for supplementary supplies of crude oil and abundant natural resources in the East Sea and Chinese desire to have a more favourable international environment for China’s cooperation and development. Deng Xiao Ping once proposed the policy of “putting dispute aside so as to work together in exploitation”. This policy, however, has not been responded by concerned countries. It seems that Southeast Asian countries having claims are all small countries and they are all concerned about the four first words in the 16-word motto of “sovereignty is ours, dispute is put aside, exploitation is carried out together, and benefits are shared” introduced by China in 1992 (20). Moreover, the fact that China’s advocacy to hold bilateral talks with each country involved in the dispute and its consideration of the East Sea issue as a regional issue unfitted to the reality of intertwined interests and claims in the East Sea of multilateral parties and the international community, have hampered the above mentioned efforts made by China. In reply, Southeast Asian countries engaged in the dispute have proposed solving the East Sea issue multilaterally on the grounds of international laws, aiming to confine China’s behaviours. This contradicts China’s advocacy and goal of managing and controlling the East Sea area, which can hardly be accepted by both the countries involved in the dispute and the outside countries, including the US.

For the US, it has seen Southeast Asia in general and the East Sea in particular as its strategic goal since late 19th century. With the doctrine “the destiny of history” and “the decision of geography”, the American had since the 19th century hold the view that conquering Asia, first of all the sea there, could help the US exist and continue prospering to become the number one power in the world. Realizing this idea requires it to establish a strong navy to defend the safety for current trade flows and trade changes as well as military activities in the future (21). The U.S replacing of Spain in occupying the Philippine island in late 19th century marked a huge turning point in the US’s power expansion strategy in the Western part of the Pacific. Since then, the Gulf of Manila has become the “back yard” of the US. During the Cold War, the US navy stationed in this area (Fleet No.7) greatly supported the strategy to rein in China and fight against communication in Southeast Asia. In the first two decades after the Cold War, due to different reasons, the US seemed to neglect the East Sea area but they have never taken this waters region lightly. China’s unacceptable demand for territorial waters sovereignty and tough actions taken by its maritime agencies in the East Sea since 2009 have not only trigged concerns for many Asian countries but also challenged the US’s strategic interests.

Historical reality and prospects show that the East Sea is of special importance to the US geopolitically, militarily and strategically. Three out of the US’s ten most important shipping routes go through the Western part of the Pacific and the Strait of Malacca. At present, the US’s annual bilateral trade value reaches $1.2 trillion, accounting for 22% of the world’s bilateral trade value made through the East Sea (22). The US’s close allies in Northeast Asia, like Japan and the Republic of Korea, depend largely on this trade route, especially their imports of crude oil and other materials for the development of the industrial sectors. In its military and security strategy, the East Sea forms a crucial chain in the US’s Asian coastal military system, stretching from the Persian Gulf through the East Sea to the Korean peninsula, supporting the U.S to maintain an “iron belt” to control China to the East, particularly in maintaining the status quo of Chinese Taiwan as well as the US’s strategic ally ties in East Asia and Southeast Asia and the Southern part of the Pacific. Moreover, the US also wants to have a higher level of presence and intervention in the East Sea to watch the Chinese navy’s deployment in this waters area. Besides, the countries bordering the East Sea are also big trade partners and investment recipients of the US (23). In the context of the increasing scarcity of crude oil and political instability in the Middle East and North African countries, enhancing cooperation in oil and gas exploitation in the East Sea is among the U.S goals.

Stemming from strategic interests and the traditional approach to navigation freedom, the US has quickly taken the advantage of the dispute escalation in the East Sea to strengthen its influence on this area amid China’s robust rise. Before 2009, the US still maintained a neutral attitude and did not take sides concerning the parties’ legal sovereignty claim and laid stress only on free navigation. Later, especially since 2010, it has actively “got involved”, publicly criticized China.s tough actions in the East Sea and considered this sea area as part of their “national interests”(24). Moreover, the US and many countries in the region are determined to internationalize the East Sea issue and put them on the agendas of the conferences which discuss regional security and cooperation despite China’s protest (25). In fact, this is a clear surface and in a stronger manner of the strategic interest that the US had pursued in the East Sea, especially after World War II(26).

It can be said that the US’s “active involvement” in the East Sea is included in its “returning to Asia” strategy(27). Speeches made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, and especially those by President Barack Obama during his historical trip to Asia and Australia in November 2011, have confirmed that the US’s most important task in the next decade is to increase sustainable investment in terms of diplomacy, economics and strategic affairs and other issues in the Asia-Pacific. This represents a decisive policy that the US has studied carefully and of strategic nature(28).

The U.S has pursued the above mentioned strategy, in a comprehensive manner joining the Treaty for Amity and Cooperation (TAC), appointing a permanent ambassador to ASEAN, proposing a Mekong river basin initiative, establishing a cooperative mechanism for the River Mississippi and the Sub-Mekong region (2009), participating in and boosting the Trans-Pacific Partnership program (2010), reinforcing its military operations along the waters area from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia and strengthening its strategic ally relations in this region, especially with Japan, the Republic of Korea and Australia. In particular, in November 2011, the US decided to reestablish its military base in Darwin in Australia. This is the first military base near the Southeast Asia sea that the US has re-established since the end of the Vietnam war. According to the US, increasing the military presence will firmly and more efficiently support their economic and diplomatic involvement in this region. This is leading to big conflicting strategic interests to many countries, especially China, which wants to be the master of the East Sea.

Though at different levels, Japan, India, Russia and Australia and other countries have big stakes in the East Sea. Safety and smoothness of shipping through the East Sea, especially through the Strait of Malacca, is more important for Japan than for the US. Moreover, this region also provide a huge supplementary supply of natural resources for the upcoming development of the Japanese economy. In addition to that, the growing economic and military strength of China coupled with the tough actions it has taken on the East Sea as well as on the Hoa Dong Sea, have put more geopolitical and economic pressures on Japan, which has been driven down to the third place in the world.s economic ranking by China. In the context that many ASEAN member countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, are making efforts to seek other partners to reinforce claims for their sovereignty, especially after the US “has openly declared its return to Asia”, Japan wants to take this chance to retain its long-established influence on the area as well as create a better position for its sovereign dispute over the Senkaku / Diao Yu archipelago with China.

Those above-mentioned reasons have drawn Japan to increasingly get involved in the East Sea issue although it does not have sovereignty claim. This reflects clearly through Japan’s signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2010 and a military cooperation agreement in 2011 with the Philippines under which the two sides have agreed to broaden joint naval drills and hold regular negotiations between their coastguard senior officials. Earlier in April, 2010, Japan put forth a proposal of establishing a tripartite dialogue forum for Japan, the US and India to discuss maritime security and disaster relief in the Asia-Pacific. This mechanism took shape with the first meeting of foreign senior officials of the three countries held in Washington on December 19, 2011. Moreover, in early 2011 the Japan Maritime Self-defence Force (JMSDF) was deployed to the East Sea for a joint military exercises with the American and Australian navies off the coast of the Brunei Sea. It is worth-noting that at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Bali, Indonesia in November 2011, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda boldly tabled a proposal to establish a maritime cooperation forum in the region with the participation of the EAS members. Besides, Japan has strongly supported a viewpoint of settling disputes over territorial waters in the East Sea in compliance with the 1982 UNCLOS (29).

Similarly, Indias interests in the East Sea has been rapidly growing in recent years, which has stemmed not only from its time-honoured traditional relationship with the region(30) but also from the need to expand the economic and security cooperation with Asian-Pacific countries. The East Sea is an open sea, where nearly 50 percent of trade activities conducted by India pass through. Oil and gas reserves here are pretty plentiful. In fact, since the late 1980s and early the 1990s of the 21st century, ONGC Vides Limited (OVL) of India has cooperated with Vietnam to conduct oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the East Sea. Furthermore, by intensifying its role in the East Sea, Indian aimed to tighten its relations with ASEAN and the group’s member countries, of which Vietnam is one of the prioritised partners, through which it can increase ties with Australia, Northeast Asian countries and even the US, and at the same time ease the pressures of the competition with China in the Indian Ocean and South Asia. Besides, India is trying to become a power at sea and it has, in fact, built a strong navy. This helps India to become reliable partner in building cooperative mechanisms at sea with many other countries. That’s why, apart from reinforcing maritime security cooperation with Australia, the US and Japan, India has been expanding its comprehensive relations with ASEAN and its member countries, including Vietnam. Typical is the fact that in the second half of 2011, the Indian group OVL has, in spite of China’s strong protest, continued investing in the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas at Lot 127 and Lot 128 off Vietnam’s coast. India has given strong support for the viewpoints adopted by ASEAN and many other nations regarding the multilateralization and internationalization of the East Sea issue (31). It can be said that this is one of the moves that have been taken by India in its “East-oriented” strategy with the aim of confirming its status as a big power in Asia in face of strong competition generated by neighbouring China.

As a power in the Asia-Pacific region, Russias interests in the East Sea are not small. Apart from having maritime trade benefits like other countries, Russia has enjoyed the traditional friendship and cooperative benefits with Vietnam, the country with large sovereignty over the East Sea. Since the 70s of the last century, the Soviet Union, the then Russia, has invested, explored and exploited oil and gas in the East Sea and it is currently gaining large economic benefits from the area. Furthermore, as a big country, which is restoring its long-established standing in the world; Russia cannot fail to take care of its global strategic interests at present as well as in the long term. The East Sea is put in their strategic interests. It is not accidental for Russia to send S- 400 missile regiment to station in the Far Eastern region, declare its willingness to take part in modernizing the Cam Ranh port to become an international naval service centre, sell Su 30 fighters and Bastion-programmed missiles to Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, and regularly dispatch war ships to many Southeast Asian countries having sovereignty disputes in the East Sea with China(32).

For Australia, as a middle-sized nation and a neighbour of Southeast Asia, this country has strategic interests in the East Sea, in terms of trade, defence and security. By signing the TAC and joining the EAS in 2005, putting forth an initiative of the “Asia-Pacific Community” (APC) in 2008, agreeing to take part in negotiations on the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) in 2011, particularly depending closer trade linkages with East Asian countries (33), increasing the modernisation of its navy forces, cooperating in security and launching joint military drills at sea with the US, Japan, India and a number of ASEAN member countries in the East Sea or in waters adjacent to the East Sea (34), especially agreeing to allow the US to re-establish its military base in Darwin in late 2011, Australia has increased its involvement in security issues in the area. Though having over the past decade it has tried very hard to balance its East-West ties, especially that with the US and China, the economic and political benefits Australia has obtained, particularly regarding its standing in the world have not been improved much. In facing of economic imbalance due to focusing too much on exporting natural resources (mainly to China)(35) and amid concerns about security issues arising in the East Sea, Australia has adjusted its security strategy. In addition to that, the US return to the East Sea and its desires to reinforce its ties with strategic allies in this region has also encouraged for Australia to increase its participation in the security issues of the region, in which lies its traditional geopolitical space.

For ASEAN, the East Sea dispute has not only related to security interests and development of each member country but also become a geopolitical space of this organization, now acting as a regional community and a centre to connect and create a new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific. This comes from the fact that ASEAN members in this waters area have made claims to sovereignty over the area, where interests, both economic and strategic, need to be shared by all, especially in trade liberalization, defence and security, and where one country’s strategic interests are intertwined with others’ and with big countries’.

It can be said that the ambitions and goals of ASEAN, since its inception, are to create an environment of peace, stability and development in Southeast Asia. This has been reflected clearly in almost all documents of ASEAN, especially in the ASEAN Charter, which has been brought to life since 2008. Furthermore, the prevention, reconciliation and management of disputes have become one of the important contents and elements in the process of forming the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC).

In reality, ASEAN and many of its member countries have shown constructive response to the East Sea issue. In response to the first presence of the Chinese naval forces on the Truong Sa archipelago in the late 1980s and the U.S troop withdrawal from its crucial military bases in the Philippines in the early 1990s, of the last century ASEAN adopted “the ASEAN Declaration on the East Sea” in 1992, in which it underlined that “all unfavourable developments in the East Sea directly affect peace and stability in the region (36)”. By 1995 after China occupied a number of rocks in the Mischief Reef islands, ASEAN reacted strongly and announced that “ASEAN will seek an early and peaceful solution to the East Sea dispute and will continue to seek measures and methods to prevent disputes and promote cooperation in the East Sea” (37). The next move was in 2002 when ASEAN and China jointly adopted the “Declaration on Conduct of The Parties in the East Sea” (DOC). This is a collective tireless effort made by ASEAN in its negotiations with China on the diplomatic-political front with the aim of gradually forging “a code of conduct in the East Sea” in the future. However, the implementation of DOC, including the ratification of “the guiding of the DOC” has not been effective (38). In fact, tension in the East Sea remains. This shows that the participation and the role of ASEAN in preventing and reconciling disputes in the East Sea, though progressing and gaining certain results, is still incommensurate with interests and responsibility of the centre that is playing as a driving force for regional peace and cooperation, an important element in the forming of a power order in the Asia-Pacific.


So, the escalation of the East Sea dispute in a quite serious level in recent time has originated not only from the dispute of interests in terms of territorial sovereignty, national security, jurisdiction and exploitation of natural resources of concerned parties but also from strategic ambitions to control geopolitics in Southeast Asia. In the context when China, a big country, which is rising strongly and is increasingly determined in claiming its sovereignty over the area and the US, which is declining but wants to maintain its leading role in this area, the East Sea dispute is becoming increasingly complicated, threatening to grow into a geopolitical dispute. Experiences in history show that wars erupted in strategically sensitive locations in the world, like the Korea war in 1950-1953, the Vietnam war in the last century, the wars in Kosovo and north Kavkaz, and the most recent ones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and so on, all have involved power competition, which parties stems from geopolitical conflict of big countries. Once again, the growing dispute in the East Sea is sending a warning to the international peace-loving community, first of all the countries bordering the East Sea.

Southeast Asian countries having sovereignty claims and other countries having interests in the East Sea can hardly accept a power politics, occupation or division of influence of big countries in this area, because the East Sea is their space of existence. People and governments of the countries bordering the East Sea want to live in friendship and peace with all other countries, first of all with both China and the US. They don’t want to face “a geopolitical catastrophe” in a place where the Mother Nature gives it to them. Accordingly, concerned parties need to respect history, abide by international laws and practices and treasure intertwined interests of each other in settling the East Sea dispute. To do so, concerned parties, first of all leaders of these countries, are required to embrace strong political will and view peace as the prime interest and a common asset on top of others. Only by doing so can legitimate interests of concerned parties in the East Sea and the entire region be guaranteed.

For ASEAN countries, the East Sea is their geopolitical scope. This organization needs to be more proactive in participating in solving the dispute. This is a new testing method to prove the organization’s efficiency and central role in defending its people and member states ensuring that they can live in peace as well as maintaining its leading driving force to promote the region.s peaceful and cooperative relations with the outside partners, especially with big countries as indicated in the ASEAN Charter(39)./.


* Associate Professor, Dr.Sc. Tran Khanh, Institute of Southeast Asian Research for Southeast Asia Studies, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences

1. Since 2009 to now, a series of large-scale international symposiums have been organized in many countries around the world to discuss the East Sea issue. In Vietnam alone, three big international seminars on the issue were jointly held by the Academy of Diplomacy and the Vietnam Lawyers. Association from 2009 to 2011. In particular, the East Sea issue has been mentioned at bilateral and multilateral security cooperation forums held in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in ASEAN’s cooperation mechanisms. Moreover, there is a sudden surge in the number of articles digging in the East Sea dispute carried by different means of communications.

2. The concept of Geopolitics was first introduced by Rodolf Kjelle in 1899 and was then perfected by various scholars, including Phridrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder of the UK, Karl Haushofer of Germany and Nicholas John Skyman of the US. The scholars viewed that geographical features, including territory, population, strategic position, natural resources and relations between nations have not only played a central role in theoretical decisions on international policies of this country or that country but also have been significant in determining who hold the ruling position in the region and the world.

3. The East Sea possesses four main island groups, namely the Dong Da archipelago, the Hoang Sa archipelago, the Truong Sa archipelago and a submerged rock field called Trung Sa.

4. This sea area records an average 41,000 turns of ships crossing a day. The number of ships transporting crude oil passing the Strait of Malacca triples that crossing the Suez canal and is five-fold higher than that passing the Panama canal.

5. Further reference: Annual report to the Congress. Military Power of People’s Republic of China, 2009, Office of the Secretary of Defence. Department of Defence, United States of America, p4; Bronson Pervcival. The US “is back to Asia and the East Sea issue” (Reference document at the third international symposium themed “The East Sea: security and development cooperation in the region”. Hanoi, November 4-5, 2011), p3; Hoang Viet. A view on China’s policy on the East Sea dispute/New Era magazine, No. 22, August, 2011, p14-15.

6. Geo-politician Nicolas Skyman calls the East Sea “The Mediterranean Sea of Asia” (Further reference: Tetsuo Kotani. Why China wants South China Sea//the Diplomat, July 18, 2011; Tran Dai Nghia. The strategic position of the East Sea and our country.s counter policy and advocacy/ Vietnam Sea magazine, No. 4, 2007.

7. According to another source from China, the East Sea boasts a crude oil and natural gas reserve of 225 billion barrels, including 105 billion barrels of crude oil in the Truong Sa area, which is capable of turning out 18.5 million barrels a year (further reference: the East Sea is the meter of future of the US in Asia, do-tuong-lai-cua-my-o-chau-a.

8. Ancient books and maps of Vietnam, including Toan Tap Thien Nam Tu Chi Lo Do Thu (Route Maps from the Capital to Four Directions) in the 17th century, Phu Bien Tap Luc (Miscellaneous Records on the Pacification of the Frontier) in 1776, Dai Nam Thuc Luc Tien Bien and Chinh Bien (the First Part of the Chronicles of Dai Nam and the Main Part of the Chronicles of Dai Nam), and many other documents of foreign priests, who were present in Vietnam during the 17th-18th centuries, defined Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos since that time. Since the French colonized Vietnam in 1884, they directly managed these archipelagos. The Saigon administration took over the French’s management in 1956 and they put the Truong Sa island under the Phuoc Tuy province’s management. Between 1961 and 1963, the Saigon administration planted sovereign markers on the main islands, including Truong Sa, An Bang, Song Tu Tay, Song Tu Dong, Thi Tu and Loai Ta, etc. The management right of the Hoang Sa archipelago had been transferred from Thua Thien province to Quang Nam province since 1961. Further reference: Nguyen Nha. Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa since the beginning of the 17th century to the time under the French domination. The East Sea Research Fund, 2008, Hoang Sa-Truong Sa belong to Vietnam. The knowledge pool of the Youth Publishing House, 2008; Nguyen Quang Ngoc. Vietnam’s sovereignty in Hoang Sa and Truong Sa in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries: historical documents and truth//Chinese studies, No. 6 (118), 2011; Luu Van Loi. Vietnam-China dispute over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos. Hanoi: the People’s Police Publishing House, 1995; Monnique Chemillier- Gendreau. Sovereignty on the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos; Hanoi: the National Politics Publishing House, 1998; History of administrative management of the Hoang Sa archipelago//Research and Development Magazine, the Thua Thien- Hue Science and Technology Department, No.4 (75), 2009; Le Huynh Hoa, official document of the Nguyen Dynasty . historical grounds on Vietnam.s sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa// Historical Research, No. 12 (428), 2011, p 45-51.

9. Prof. Rommel C. Banlaoi. New tensions and a no-win situation of marine security continue in the East Sea area: the Philippines. viewpoint/the East Sea - cooperation for security and development in the region (Dang Dinh Quy cb.). Hanoi; the World Publishing House, 2010, p183.

10. On December 1, 1947, the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Jiang Jie Shi administration made public a document on the “cow’s tongue” or the 11-dotted U-shaped line for the first time. In January, 1948, they introduced an additional map on the 11-dotted U-shaped line. In February, 1948, this map was officially published. This publication was strongly protested by the French government. During the 1960s of the 20th century, the People’s Republic of China re-drew the 11-dotted cow’s tongue map and turned it into the 9-dotted cow’s tongue map without giving any explanations.

11. On May 6, 2009, both Vietnam and Malaysia submitted the joint report on the two countries’ expanded continental shelf to the CLCS. In addition to that, Vietnam also sent its own report to the organization. On May 7, 2009, China sent a diplomatic note opposing these documents and on May 11, 2009, it submitted to the CLCS a report on their expanded continental shelf and made public for the first time its 9-dotted U-shaped line claims in writing and in map. On April 5, 2011, the Philippines sent a diplomatic note to the CLCS to protest against China’s report. Ten days later (December 14, 2011), China sent a diplomatic note protesting the Philippines. April 5, 2011 diplomatic note.

12. The People’s Republic of China. Diplomatic note to the UN Secretary General. New York, May 7, 2009, CML/17/2009. http;// files/preliminary/chn2009preliminaryinformation_ english.pdf

13. In July, 2007, China established the San Sha administrative unit, which consisted of the Truong Sa and Hoang Sa archipelagos. In 2006, Chinese Taiwan started building an airport on Yai Ping island and inaugurated the facility in 2008. In February, 2011, two Chinese ships collided with an oil and gas surveying ship of the Philippines. The ship belongs to the Forum Energy company. On June 5 and 9, 2011, Chinese patrol ships cut surveying cables of Vietnam’s ships which were conducting seismic surveys in an area off Vietnam.s central coastal region and about 120 nautical miles offshore. In July 2011, ship INS Airavat of the Indian Navy en route to Vietnam’s Nha Trang port for a friendship visit, was requested by a Chinese ship to leave “China’s waters area” when it was moving to Hai Phong. In September, 2011, China protested Indian Company ONGC Videsh’s oil and gas exploration activities at Lots 127 and 128 of Vietnam. Since 2004, China unilaterally issued a fishing ban in the East Sea and at the same time constantly seized Vietnamese fishermen going fishing in the waters area of Vietnam’s sovereignty.

14. Like a strike between the Chinese fishery administration ship and the US ship USNS Impreccable in March 2009; between a Chinese submarine ship with Sonar sounds of the US Ship John S. McCain in June, 2009 etc..

15. Like the test of the first aircraft carrier and the fifth-generation aircraft J-20 (in March, 2011), the building of a HY-2 missile defence system equipped with DF- 21D capable of destroying the 3000 tonne destroyer on Fu Lin island, the development of modern submarine fleets and the building of new military bases reaching out to the ocean, like the Yulin base near San Ya on Hainan island, etc.

16. Word phrase “core interest” has been increasingly used by Chinese scholars and pressmen in about the recent decade with the aim of confirming sovereignty and the right of use of army to Taiwan, Tibet and Xin Jiang when these entities moved to ask for secession. This word phrase was used by China to the US in late 2009 during President Obama’s official visit to China. Although the US President disliked paraphrasing “core interest”, he agreed to let China put this term in a joint statement. In March 2010, Chinese officials told the two US representatives that the East Sea can be called “core interest” of China. In May, 2010, Dai Bingguo, a senior official of China, told US Secretary of State Clinton about this and the US Secretary of State said she did not agree with that. The US side was shocked and then released the information to the media. Meeting with strong protests of the international community, in Autumn of 2010, China told state news agencies to avoid from writing about this topic. During the US visit by President Hu Jintao in January 2011, the two sides did not bring out the meaning of .core interest.. In fact, Chinese officials branded “core interest” on the East Sea, but leaders as well as official documents of the Chinese State did neither declare clearly this thing nor deny this (further reference: the origin of word phrase “core interest” of China. Tuan,, January 10, 2011).

17. Further reference: the importance of strategic position of Nam Hai- the Mediterranean Sea of Asia. News V1.Cn, July 18, 2011.

18. In 2011, China consumed only about 5 million barrels of oil a day while its production output was 3.3 million barrels a day and it needed to import 1.7 million barrels a day. But in 2008, the country’s consumption capacity reached 7.8 million barrels a day while production capacity increased to 4 million barrels a day. It needed to import up to 3.8 million barrels a day. It is forecast that China’s oil consumption in 2035 will hit 16.9 million barrels a day while the local production capacity stands about 5.3 million barrels a day, meaning it will import up to 11.6 million barrels a day (reference: a threat of a new cold war in Asia. The Vietnam News Agency, bulletin for special reference, Friday, January 6, 2012).

19. Since 2005, the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources of China introduced a plan to boost exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in deep-water areas in the Nam Hai Sea (the East Sea). The document stressed that China could increase unilateral efforts to exploit natural resources in Truong Sa in the future (reference: China Youth Daily, June 15, 2004;;Za ng Fengjiu. The prospect of national gas exploitation in the South China Sea Vol 29, No. 1, 1 Jan. 2009, pp 17-20.

20. The 16-word motto of China was put forth at the 7th National People’s Congress in February, 1992. Later, it was shortened to include 8 words, .putting dispute aside, jointly exploiting..

21. Typical for this doctrine is US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. His thought of ruling over sea was reflected clearly in two works: the influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783, Boston, 1890; the interests of American in Sea power . Present and Future, Boston, 1897. It can be said that this is an extension of Doctrine Monroe which was introduced in 1823, in which it was said that America is of Americans. The US needed to develop maritime trade and naval forces to prevent foreign intrusion into waters areas surrounding the US.

22. Rodney Jaleco. When the US “plays with a rope” in Southeast Asia, http://vietnamweek. net, February 03, 2011.

23. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the US’s investment in Southeast Asia totalled 160 billion USD, accounting for 8.5 percent of the total investment pumped into the region, which put the country on the third place after the EU and Japan. The sum represented a fourfold rise over China’s investment volume. Southeast Asia is currently the fifth trade partner to the US.

24. At the ARF in July, 2010, the US and 11 other countries criticized China’s actions in the East Sea, which led to a diplomatic war with China. Later, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the press that the US has a national interest in freedom of navigation in the East Sea. At the Shangri-la conference in Singapore in June, 2011, US Defence Secretary Gates reiterated the US.s stance on the issue, emphasising that the US has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to economic development and trade, and adheres to international laws in this sea area and is willing to facilitate talks on the implementation of the DOC and work toward compiling the COC.

25. Among 18 countries participating in the East Asia Summit organized in Bali, Indonesia in November 2011, 15 countries voiced their concerns about the East Sea situation amid China’s tough actions to claim its sovereignty.

26. Under the Cold War era, as the prioritized goal was to fight against communism, especially the Soviet-Vietnam alliance, the US was yet to pay due attentions to tough actions taken by China in the East Sea. But after China.s occupation of several rock islands belonging to the Mischief island chain of the Philippines, the US took a clearer response. The US congress in March, 1995, issued a statement stressing “the right to freedom in navigation in the East Sea and this place lies in the US.s strategic interest”.

27. The word phrase “The US is back” used by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Thailand in July, 2009. She said “on behalf of our country and the Obama Administration, I want to send a very clear message that the United States is back, that we are fully engaged and committed to our relationships in Southeast Asia” (Hillary Rodham Clinton, .remarks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu. US Department of State, 21 July 2009, uly/126271/htm.). The word phrase “to return to Asia” was stated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her statement at the East West centre (Hawai), in January 2010 and at ARF in Hanoi in July, 2010. In fact, the US never left Southeast Asia. Since the end of the former President Bill Clinton and the beginning of the former President G. Bush, the US had a plan to “return” to this region but the process was slowed down by the terrorist war after the September 11, 2001 event.

28. Further reference: Carlyle A. Thayer. The United States, China and Southeast Asia//Southeast Asian Affairs 2011, Singapore:ISEAS, 2011; Hillary Clinton, America.s Pecific Century//Foreign Policy, November, 2011 http://www.foreignpolicy. com/articles/2011/10/11/americas pecific century page=full; Trong Nghia. The US.s new defence strategy officially places its centre on Asia. chien-luoc-quoc-phong-moi-cua-hoa-kychinh- thuc-chuyen-trong-tam-ve-chau-a.

29. Further reference: Japan, Philippines agree ‘strategic ties’//Jane.s Defence Weekly, 5 October 2010; Japan teke stand in South China Sea row but eclipsed by US-China clash (by May Masangkay)//Kyodo News. http://english. kyodonew.ip./new 2011- 11127233.htmh; New role of Japan in the East Sea, October 04, 2011.

30. Ancient countries bordering the East Sea like Phu Nam and Champa, took shape and developed partly under the influence of Indian culture.

31. At the first ADMM+, which took place in Hanoi in 2010, Indian Defence Minister Antony said that security of maritime lanes is important to the Asia-Pacific region and that we are working with other countries in the region to improve security level for the maritime sector in the region and collective approach in marine security will benefit the entire region (further reference: Kar Sitanshu. Towards an Inclusive Security Architecture: ASEAN+8 Defence Ministers. Meeting in Hanoi, India Strategic, October 2010.

32. A Russian war ship made a friendship visit to the Philippines on January 31, 2012 for the first time after 96 years.

33. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Australia’s annual trade value with Asia, mainly with Southeast Asia averaged around 200 billion USD, accounting for three fifths of the country.s total trade turnover. Since 2009, China became Australia’s largest trade partner with bilateral turnover reaching 105 billion USD in 2009.

34. According to Australia’s military plan made public in 2009, in the next two decades Australia will spend about 72 billion USD modernizing its army, especially buying warplanes and modern submarines. In July, 2011, Australia joined a joint military drill with the US and Japan off shore Brunei in the East Sea area for the first time.

35. Australia’s export of natural resources to China boosted the economy of its western part. This, however, made its national economy imbalanced with the competitiveness of many industrial sectors reducing due to a lack of highly skilled workers and an increase in value of US dollar. This made many of Australians displeased.

36. 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea.

37. 1995 Bangkok Summit Declaration.

38. ASEAN-China Joint Working Group was set up in 2004 to implement the DOC. In July, 2011, the two new partners adopted principles guiding the implementation of the DOC. However, eight points in this document basically see no difference from 10 points in the DOC. They remain general commitments and are not legally binding.

39. ASEAN Charter, Article 1, clause 1 and 15.