China violating int’l law, says Vietnam leader
NEW YORK—Vietnam’s president told The Associated Press on Monday that China’s island-building in the disputed South China Sea violated international law and endangered maritime security.
President Truong Tan Sang also urged the United States, which has expressed mounting concern over China’s assertive behavior, to fully lift a ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam.
In the interview that took place as world leaders gathered at the United Nations, Sang said the lifting of the ban on arms sales would demonstrate to the world that US-Vietnam relations had been fully normalized, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War.
Communist-ruled Vietnam and China have long-standing fraternal ties but tensions have grown over oil exploration in disputed waters, and as China has undertaken massive land reclamation in the Spratly island chain, also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
“The East Sea is indeed a hot spot of the region and the world at this point, and in the last year China has done large-scale reclamation of submerged islands to make them very big islands,” Sang said, using the name Hanoi uses for the South China Sea.
“We believe that these acts by China violate international law,” he said, citing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. He added China’s actions also infringed a declaration of conduct reached in 2002 by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Sang said the concerns of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations were “obvious and easy to understand because the acts by China seriously affect the maritime safety and security in the East Sea.”
He underscored the importance of a peaceful environment to realize new goals for sustainable development just agreed at the United Nations.
Freedom of navigation
Speaking before the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama reiterated calls for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the vital shipping corridor where Vietnam and the Philippines in particular have been concerned about Beijing’s assertive moves.
“We will defend these principles, while encouraging China and other claimants to resolve their differences peacefully,” Obama said.
Addressing these concerns by the United States and Southeast Asian countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing was “committed to peaceful development.”
“No matter how the international landscape may evolve and how strong China may become, China will never pursue hegemony, expansion or a sphere of influence,” Xi said in his speech to the United Nations.
In Washington last week, Xi said China had “the right to uphold our own sovereignty” in the South China Sea, where five other countries also have competing claims to tiny islands and reefs.
China has reclaimed about 1,200 hectares of land in the past year-and-a-half by dredging sand from the ocean bed. China is also building airstrips and other facilities that could have military uses.
Warm words for US
While Sang talked tough on China, he had warm words for the United States and looked for further steps to cement stronger ties.
“The moment the United States fully lifts the ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam will send a signal to the whole world that the Vietnam-US relations have been fully normalized” and there’s no mistrust between the two nations, Sang said.
A visit by Obama to Vietnam—possibly this fall, when the US leader is due to visit the region—would also consolidate a comprehensive partnership formalized between the former enemies when Sang visited Washington in 2013, he said.
In October last year, the United States announced it would allow sales, on a case-by-case basis, of lethal equipment to help the maritime security of Vietnam—easing a ban in place since communists took power at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
Human rights issue
But the Obama administration has said that Vietnam needs to improve human rights conditions for the relationship to reach its fullest potential.
US lawmakers also feel that Hanoi should clean up its human rights act before getting privileges in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal currently under negotiation. Vietnam is one of 12 nations in the agreement, which appears close to completion.
Sang expressed willingness to keep discussing human rights with the United States. He said that a chapter on human rights was now included in Vietnam’s constitution, and that implementing legislation would be enacted in the “next few years” so those rights would be fully in place “on the ground.”
Human rights groups remain critical of Vietnam’s record. While conditions have improved sharply on the immediate postwar era of reeducation camps, its record on freedom of expression is poor and the government remains intolerant of dissent.
According to the US Department of State, at the end of 2014, Vietnam was still holding about 125 political prisoners.