Tensions between China and Vietnam over the disputed Paracel islands erupted into anti-Chinese riots this week in Vietnam. The immediate cause is the positioning of a deep sea exploratory oil rig, the HD-9H1, 17 nautical miles from Triton Island, the south-western most feature of the Paracel group. It is also within 200 nautical miles of the Vietnamese coastline and therefore potentially within the EEZ of Vietnam. (The map at left shows China’s claims in the South China sea as well as each country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Click to enlarge. Credit.)
The underlying dispute is of course whether Vietnam or China has sovereignty over these maritime features. If they do belong to China, any maritime zone they generate would be opposable to Vietnam and a maritime delimitation would be needed to sort out the respective boundaries. Is recourse to international dispute resolution – if not by consent, then initiated by Vietnam – likely in such a case?
The situation obviously has some parallels with the Philippines v China arbitration initiated under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Indeed, such Annexe VII arbitrations under Part 15 of UNCLOS are undergoing something of a renaissance at present. Other than the Philippines v China case, there is also obviously the pending arbitration in the case of the MV Arctic Sunrise (Netherlands v Russia) – both cases in which a major power has threatened nonappearance. More positively, hearings under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration recently concluded between Mauritius and United Kingdom concerning the dispute which followed the UK’s pronouncement of a marine protected area around the Chagos archipelago. The attraction of UNCLOS arbitration is that dispute resolution under the Convention is, in principle, compulsory; the downside is that it is riddled with complex exceptions. (As I have noted in a previous post.)
Could this be the next case to go to an Annexe VII Tribunal? The problems with relying on this mechanism to resolve maritime boundary disputes, or disputes concerning the underlying title to an island, are well known. Read the rest of this entry…