Vietnam could be considering legal action over rights in the South China Sea

Vietnam might resort to international arbitration to settle its territorial dispute with China over maritime rights in the South China Sea, reports say.


In November 2019, Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister Le Hoai Trung had already indicated that Vietnam had not ruled out the option of initiating dispute resolution proceedings against China under the United Nations Convention of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) to assert its maritime rights in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.  Recent reports suggest that such legal action might now be imminent.


A similar case was brought by the Philippines against China in 2013 under Annex VII to UNCLOS.  On 12 July 2016, an international tribunal unanimously ruled in favour of the Philippines (See The Republic of Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Award of 12 July 2016).  The tribunal rejected China’s position that it had historical rights based on the “nine-dash line” map, which China uses to claim sovereign rights over large parts of the South China Sea.  China, which had refused to participate in the proceedings, declared that it did not accept or recognise the tribunal’s ruling, which lacks an enforcement mechanism.


Despite the arbitral ruling, the South China Sea remains a disputed area, with China continuing to claim rights to the area within the “nine-dash line”.  Other States surrounding the South China Sea are also claiming maritime rights overlapping the “nine-dash line”.  States contesting China’s claims include the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.


Other actors have also recently weighed in on the matter.  On 27 June 2020, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (“ASEAN”) stated that UNCLOS was the basis “for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”, referring to the South China Sea.  Amid rising tensions between the US and China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on 13 July 2020 a formal rejection of parts of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.  For the first time, the US asserted that China’s claims were unlawful, making reference to the 2016 decision in the case of the Philippines against China.  The Chinese embassy in Washington rejected these claims as unjustified.