There have been lots of reports out in the last 24 hours saying that the Government of Vietnam is planning to take legal action against China for its movement of an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea. Indeed, the Philippines Government has stated that Vietnam has consulted it about its ongoing arbitration case against China and the two nations issued a joint statement of solidarity opposing China’s actions in the South China Sea.
What would the Vietnam legal action look like? The most likely action would be to seek arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS, just as the Philippines has done. Of course, China would have the same defense and likely the same reaction to any Vietnam claim: that China’s Article 298 declaration excluding disputes over matters involving “sea boundary delimitations”or “involving historic bays or titles….” would exclude jurisdiction. Moreover, China might further argue that Article 298 also allows it exclude “disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service, and disputes concerning law enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction….”
At first glance, I can’t see how Vietnam’s claim would be any better or worse than that of the Philippines with respect to jurisdiction. Vietnam has the same objection to China’s Nine Dash Line, and Vietnam similarly argues certain South China Sea features claimed by China are not “islands” for purposes of UNCLOS entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone. So I think we will see a rerun of the Philippines arbitration. Vietnam will constitute a tribunal, China will not participate, and away it goes.
Some other reports out of Vietnam suggest it will file a claim with the International Court of Justice, if only to show their good faith, even though the ICJ has no jurisdiction over China. I don’t think this is a great strategy, but maybe it will be a useful diplomatic showcase.
Finally, there are reports Vietnam will allow its state-owned oil company to file an action against China’s state-owned oil company in Vietnamese courts. This actually seems like an interesting idea, since once the Vietnamese company won the judgment, it could in theory try to enforce it against the assets of the Chinese company overseas. It is not a slam-dunk, but it certainly could be a plausible claim.
I am doubtful that an additional arbitration will lead to China backing down. Certainly, the Philippines arbitration has not caused China to moderate its behavior toward the Philippines. The extra added pressure of a Vietnam arbitration is not huge, and my guess is that China will continue to simply ignore the arbitrations, reputational costs be damned. I am not saying that it is bad strategy for Vietnam to try the arbitration route, but Vietnam should be realistic about the veryreal costs, and limited benefits of this strategy.