MANILA – Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said his government was considering various “defense options” against China, including legal action, following the deployment of a Chinese oil rig to disputed waters in the South China Sea.
Dung’s comments, delivered to reporters as a written statement, are the first time he has suggested Vietnam would take legal measures, a threat that is likely to infuriate Beijing.
“Vietnam is considering various defense options, including legal actions in accordance with international law,” Dung said in an email sent while on a visit to Manila late Wednesday. He did not elaborate on the other options being considered.
“I wish to underscore that Vietnam will resolutely defend its sovereignty and legitimate interests because territorial sovereignty, including sovereignty of its maritime zones and islands, is sacred,” he said.
“Like all countries, Vietnam is considering various defense options, including legal actions in accordance with the international law,” said Dung, who held talks with his Philippine counterpart in Manila that focused on their territorial rifts with China.
He said Vietnam would fiercely defend its territory but would never resort to military action “unless we are forced to take self-defense actions.”
When asked if his country would risk going to war in disputed waters, Dung said his country would never venture into that.
“Military solution? The answer is no,” Dung said in the email. “Vietnam has endured untold suffering and losses from past invasive wars … We are never the first to use military means and would never unilaterally start a military confrontation unless we are forced to take self-defense actions.”
In late March, the Philippines submitted a case to an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, challenging China’s claims to the South China Sea. It was the first time Beijing has been subjected to international legal scrutiny over the waters.
Beijing has refused to participate in the case and warned Manila that its submission would seriously damage ties.
Anti-Chinese violence flared in Vietnam last week after a $1 billion deepwater rig owned by China’s state-run CNOOC oil company was parked 240 km (150 miles) off the coast of Vietnam. Hanoi says the rig is in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf. China has said the rig was operating within its waters.
The spat between Vietnam and China is the worst breakdown in shaky but important ties between the two Communist states since a brief border war in 1979.
The move was the latest in a series of confrontations between China and some of its neighbors. Washington has responded with sharpened rhetoric toward Beijing, describing a pattern of “provocative” actions by China.
On Wednesday, Dung said Vietnam and the Philippines were determined to oppose Chinese infringement of their territorial waters, calling on the world to condemn China’s actions in a rare public show of unity against Beijing.
After discussing China’s increasingly assertive behavior in disputed waters, Dung and Aquino read separate statements before journalists at the presidential palace in Manila on Thursday.
The “president and I shared deep concern over the current extremely dangerous situation caused by China’s many actions that violate international law,” Dung said. “The two sides are determined to oppose China’s violations and call on countries and the international community to continue strongly condemning China and demanding China to immediately end the above said violations.”
Aquino did not mention the territorial disputes with China when he and Dung faced journalists but said they discussed how their countries could enhance defense and economic ties, adding that both governments aim to double two-way trade to $3 billion in two years.
“In defense and security, we discussed how we can enhance confidence-building, our defense capabilities and inter-operability in addressing security challenges,” Aquino said.
Manila is seeking a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration to confirm its right to exploit the waters in its exclusive economic zone as allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. A ruling against China could prompt other claimants to challenge Beijing, experts have said.
At least two Vietnamese diplomats have told reporters that Vietnam might now file its own appeal or join Manila’s legal challenge against China. A senior Philippine government official said that Dung and other Vietnamese officials mentioned that plan to their Philippine counterparts in closed-door meetings Wednesday.
But any ruling would effectively be unenforceable because there is no body under the convention to police such decisions, legal experts said.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, displaying its reach on official maps with a so-called nine-dash line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the potentially energy-rich waters.
Many have feared that seething territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea could spark Asia’s next major armed conflict. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have overlapping territorial claims in the strategic area.
China and the Philippines are in a standoff over another South China Sea reef, the Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese coast guard ships have three times attempted to block Filipino vessels delivering new military personnel and food supplies to Philippine marines keeping watch on the disputed area on board a long-grounded ship.
Chinese maritime surveillance ships took effective control of Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines after Filipino government vessels withdrew from the disputed fishing ground two years ago. Alarmed by China’s move, the Philippines challenged the legality of Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration tribunal last year.
The Philippines took the legal step after exhausting other peaceful means to resolve its territorial disputes with China, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.
“I think Vietnam should make an assessment as to whether resorting to legal means is promotive of their national interest,” del Rosario said.