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Maritime Delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin is Too Important to be Ignored

May 29 , 2015

A recent workshop organized by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Ha Long City, Vietnam, highlighted the importance of maritime delimitation and fishery co-operation in the Gulf of Tonkin. It also served as a platform to discuss the implementation of the agreements and ways to expand and deepen co-operation in and around the Gulf. Both China and Vietnam recognize the significance of developments relating to the Gulf of Tonkin and consider the agreement on delimitation of the maritime border in the Gulf as a major achievement in managing disputes between the two countries. Unfortunately, this achievement has not yet received the international recognition it deserves. This article will explore some of the reasons why there is a lack of both recognition and attention to the positive developments in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The Gulf of Tonkin Agreements

The Gulf of Tonkin issues were handled through a system of talks and discussions developed by China and Vietnam in the early 1990s, which were structured as follows –expert-level talks; government-level talks, i.e. deputy/vice-minister; foreign minister-level talks; and, high-level talks, i.e. presidents, prime ministers, and secretaries-general of the Communist Party of China and the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Talks at the expert level were initiated in October 1992 and up to late 1995 the talks focused mainly on the Gulf of Tonkin and land-border issues. Talks at the government-level began in August 1993. The first achievement was the signing of an agreement on the principles for handling the Gulf of Tonkin and the land border in October 1993. Joint working groups at the expert level were set up to deal with the two issues. The joint working group on the Gulf of Tonkin met 17 times from 1994 to 2000. The negotiation process led to the signing of the maritime delimitation agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin on Dec 25, 2000. On the same day, the two sides also signed an agreement on fishery co-operation in the Gulf of Tonkin following six rounds of talks during 2000.

In order for the two agreements to enter into force, it was necessary to complete talks on a supplementary protocol to the agreement on fishery co-operation. An agreement on the additional protocol was eventually signed in Beijing on April 29, 2004. Both the boundary and fishery agreements entered into force on June 30, 2004 following the completion of the ratification process.

Significance of maritime delimitation in the Gulf of Tonkin

The maritime delimitation agreement of 2000 relating to the Gulf of Tonkin established the first maritime boundary between China and Vietnam. It was also China’s first maritime boundary agreement. This is of significant importance due to the fact that it is the only case of maritime delimitation involving China and thus the only case to study China’s practice in maritime delimitation. The agreement reaffirms the Vietnamese position of using a single line for both the continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone in an area of less than 400 nautical miles between opposite and adjacent coasts. The agreement is also relevant from the perspectives of the effects of coastal and outlying islands, most notably Bach Long Vi Island, as well as the role of low-tide elevations in delimitation, the issues of the outlet of a boundary river, and the question of a closing line for the Gulf of Tonkin. The effect of Bach Long Vi Island is of particular interest given its location in the Gulf and the agreed coordinates indicate that was given a quarter of impact, i.e. 15 nautical miles from the island.

The Gulf of Tonkin agreements have created conducive conditions for China and Vietnam to expand collaboration in the Gulf itself as well as between the provinces in the two countries bordering the Gulf. Two economic corridors and the pan-Gulf of Tonkin economic circle have been initiated to boost economic links between bordering provinces of the two countries. The economic circle was initiated to cover China’s provinces of Hainan, Guangdong, and Guangxi as well as Vietnam’s northern coastal area. The two economic corridors form a V-shape geographic pattern with the east economic corridor linking Kunming in China with Lao Cai, Hanoi, Haiphong, and Quang Ninh in Vietnam while with the west economic corridor linking Nanning in China with Lang Son, Hanoi, Haiphong, and Quang Ninh in Vietnam. These developments have been considerably facilitated through the Land Border Treaty of December 1999 and of the Gulf of Tonkin agreements of December 2000.

Why the lack of recognition and attention?

The main reason why the maritime delimitation agreement between China and Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin has not been given the recognition and attention it deserves is that it does not fit into the dominant narrative relating to China, i.e. China is an “assertive” power which ”aggressively” pursues its claims in the South China Sea. This narrative is evident in the Western-dominated international media. It is also promoted by some regional countries, such as the Philippines and Japan, as well as by the United States. To highlight that China has actively negotiated a maritime delimitation agreement and a fishery co-operation agreement would not fit into the narrative or image of China being “assertive” or even “aggressive” trying to “bully” its smaller neighbors. Since the Gulf of Tonkin agreements do not fit the narrative, they are simply ignored. Given that China’s media outreach both regionally and globally is limited there is not much that China can do to counter the intentional attempt to minimize the attention given to the Gulf of Tonkin agreements.

There is also an ideological dimension to the reason why the Western-dominated international media ignores the Gulf of Tonkin agreements. The fact that two countries governed by communist parties have reached the agreements is not appealing to many Western media outlets owned by people who are strongly opposed to communism. Thus, positive news about communist countries including their foreign policies does not fit into the agenda of such media outlets. To highlight the Gulf of Tonkin agreements would definitely be considered as good news about China, Vietnam and their bilateral collaboration, in particular their efforts at managing and resolving disputes. This would run counter to the ideological conviction and preferences of many Western media outlets.

Thus, a combination of a negative narrative about China andideological preferences has created a situation in which the Gulf of Tonkin agreements are largely overlooked not to say ignored by the Western-dominated international media. This is unfortunate, as all progress made in managing and eventually settling disputes in the South China Sea region should be highlighted to act as a counterweight to repeated news about tension in the area.

More attention is deserved

The Gulf of Tonkin agreements, and in particular the maritime delimitation agreement, also deserve more scholarly attention. Thusfar, it is mainly Chinese and Vietnamese scholars who have studied the agreements. Given that the maritime delimitation agreement is China’s first and thus far only agreement, it is all the more important that international scholars study the case to get a better understanding of China’s state practice in dealing with maritime disputes. Furthermore, to study the China-Vietnam approach to managing disputes would also generate a deeper understanding of China’s practice in dispute resolution.

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