China is ratcheting up pressure on Vietnam in the South China Sea, urging Hanoi to back away from its legal threat to pursue international arbitration over their festering territorial disputes.

Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said on November 8 that Vietnam “needs to avoid taking actions that may complicate matters or undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea as well as our bilateral relations.”

Geng also stated that Vietnam would have to “face up to the historical fact”, by which he presumably meant that China’s claims to disputed islands and features in the South China Sea date back centuries.

Vietnam, for its part, has recently signaled it could seek arbitration and even litigation if bilateral negotiations do not soon deliver a mutually agreed solution.

Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung recently said their disputes, including over the energy-rich Vanguard Bank, where the two sides have been locked in a months-long naval standoff, should be resolved according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The problem, of course, is that China would not likely recognize any international arbitration award perceived as inimical to its interests. Beijing made that stance clear in July 2016 when The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in favor of the Philippines over China.

According to that landmark ruling, China’s so-called “nine-dash line” map, which delineates claims that encompass nearly 90% of the South China Sea, has no validity under international law, including UNCLOS. China ignored the fact that it has signed and ratified UNCLOS, and flatly rejected the ruling.

South China Sea-Map-Benham Rise-Map-2017

China’s recalcitrant reaction to moves by the Philippines and Vietnam has brought into question the broader issue of Beijing’s trustworthiness concerning its adherence to international treaties, as well as its own stated pledges.

In September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood beside his then-US counterpart Barack Obama in the Rose Garden outside the White House in Washington and solemnly declared that “China does not intend to pursue militarization” of the South China Sea.

Today, China has turned several of the shoals and reefs it controls into proper islands complete with radars, runways for military aircraft, sheltered harbors for warships and infrastructure for housing missiles that combined have extended Beijing’s military reach across the breadth of the strategic waterway.

Diplomatic observers in the region also recall that Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang in June 2017 repudiated the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Future of Hong Kong, under which the British colony would he handed back to China in 1997.

According to the agreement, which was signed in Beijing by then premier Zhao Ziyang and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Hong Kong would remain autonomous and nothing would change for 50 years after the handover.

But, in 2017, Lu stated “now that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for twenty years the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any realistic meaning…I hope relevant parties will take note of this reality.”

As for China’s “historical facts” regarding the islands it claims in the South China Sea, “facts” which were already once rejected by The Hague’s PCA, ancient Chinese cartographers were no doubt aware of their existence.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

But the 15th century explorer and trader Zhang He, whose voyages have been mentioned by Chinese policy makers to endow historical legitimacy to Beijing’s claims, did not visit, or even mention those islands.

The detailed accounts and maps compiled by Zheng He’s aide Ma Huan list more than 700 places in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, among them remote islands and ports in the Andamans, the Nicobars, Maldives and Lakshadweep, but not a single speck of land in the South China Sea.

The reason is quite simple: the features now in question were not actually islands, but rather treacherous shoals and underwater reefs which ancient navies, including Zheng He’s fleet of wooden junks, sailed around to avoid being shipwrecked.

But that has not prevented Beijing from making its revisionist assertions and, most recently, literally cementing those claims by turning shoals and reefs into man-made islands. Any opposing view, meanwhile, is branded by Beijing as interference in China’s internal affairs.

China’s overt disregard for international treaties would not be tolerated by the international community from smaller, less powerful countries. But China, as an emerging great power that can and often does throw its weight around, has so far been able to get away with it, say critical analysts.

Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at the US-based Rand Corporation think tank, told Filipino journalists in Washington on November 9 that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent decision to enter into joint oil and gas exploration with China in the South China Sea could be interpreted as an award for his “setting aside” of the PCA’s 2016 ruling.

The joint exploration “will be in Beijing’s terms” and “under the auspices of the Chinese,” Grossman claimed in the press interview. Significantly, Duterte has paid five visits to China since assuming the presidency in mid-2016, and none to the Philippines’ traditional ally, the United States.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

The navies of China and the Philippines confronted each other near contested islands in 2012, which led to Manila’s filing a case with the PCA the following year, with a ruling handed down three years later.

But, in early November this year, Manila gave in to China’s claims by agreeing once again to stamp Chinese passports emblazoned with its nine-dash line map, effectively recognizing China’s official mapping of the area.

Of all the countries with overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, among them Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, only Vietnam has stood up to China’s intensifying muscle-flexing in the region.

In October, a Chinese oil survey ship left Vietnamese-controlled waters after a three-month naval standoff over the contested Vanguard Bank. At the time, Hanoi’s foreign ministry accused the Chinese vessel and its escorts of violating Vietnam’s sovereignty.

It has not likely been forgotten in Hanoi that Vietnamese and Chinese troops clashed near contested South China Sea islands in 1988. Outgunned by China’s navy, Vietnam was forced to withdraw and the deadly incident ended with China occupying six reefs it had not previously controlled.

A Vietnamese naval soldier oversees a missile test in the South China Sea in a 2016 file photo. Photo: Facebook

The Vietnamese continue to say that they prefer to settle disputes through bilateral negotiations, though the option of bringing the case before an international arbitration tribunal is now also firmly on the table.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng recently maintained that the “core of the South China Sea problem” is Vietnam and other claimants “invading and occupying” Chinese islands.

With that attitude, a blatant disregard for international bodies like the PCA, and an often nationalistic interpretation of law-based treaties, China’s version of the maritime region’s history ensures more turbulence is on the horizon.