Vietnam said Friday the presence of nearly 200 Chinese militia and fishing vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef, where it has overlapping claims with the Philippines, is a “serious violation of its sovereignty.”
“It must be reiterated that Vietnam has sufficient legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in line with international law,” Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Thi Thu Hang said.
Vietnam protested its fellow communist country’s swarming of the disputed area in the West Philippine Sea as it warned that such action could derail ongoing negotiations for a code of conduct.
Hang said China’s activities in the reef violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
Like the Philippines, Vietnam said it also “fully enjoys sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over these waters as identified under the UNCLOS.”
On Thursday, President Rodrigo Duterte asserted the international court’s 2016 arbitral ruling favoring the Philippines against China’s massive claims in the WPS during his meeting with Chinese ambassador Huang Xilian.
The United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom have backed Manila’s diplomatic protest and called on China to withdraw from the reef - a move that angered Beijing.
The presidential assertion came as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief-of-staff, Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, ordered the deployment of additional Philippine Navy ships to bolster the conduct of maritime sovereignty patrols in the disputed waterway.
The National Task Force on the WPS earlier raised the alarm about a Philippine Coast Guard report that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were sighted in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Duterte raised the issue when the Chinese envoy visited the President to greet him for his birthday. Duterte is turning 76 on March 28.
The UNCLOS is an international treaty signed by 160 states, including the Philippines and China, which gives coastal nations the right to explore, manage and exploit resources within 200 nautical miles from their shores.
China and five other governments - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan – are locked in years-long disputes over the South China Sea, particularly in its southern part, called the Spratlys.
The reef is a large boomerang shaped shallow coral reef at the northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Union Reefs, located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
It is within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf, over which the country has the right to explore and exploit its resources.
“The President is not surrendering our sovereignty by not aggressively pursuing the arbitral ruling in our favor rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” Roque said.
“Before the presence of the ships, the Ambassador already made an appointment to greet the President for his upcoming birthday. So it was a personal visit between two very close friends,” he added.
China insists on historical claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, but the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands in 2016 invalidated this assertion in a landmark ruling on a case filed by the Philippines.
Hang said China should “cease all violations” and respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and adhere to the rule of law.
China’s huge presence in the disputed area “complicates the situation” and “prove detrimental” to ongoing talks for a code of conduct between China and Southeast Asian nations in the disputed South China Sea, Hang said.
A regional code of conduct aims to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the vast potentially-oil rich region from erupting into violent confrontations or worse, an economically-devastating major conflict.
In place of a legally-binding code, China and the Association of South East Asian Nations, which groups the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, settled for a mere declaration in 2002 that calls on claimants to exercise restraint and stop new occupation in the South China Sea.
However, its non-binding nature and lack of provision to sanction misbehaving claimants, render the accord useless against aggression.
Finalizing the code has acquired urgency due to a series of confrontations between China and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors with competing claims to the waters, like the Philippines and Vietnam.