The truth about who is the biggest aggressor in the South China Sea
Historical evidences show that VN has been the first State having administration over the Spratly and Paracel Islands at least since the 17th century. Only until 1909, did China take interest in the Paracel Islands.

Satellite images taken from AMTI (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiatives) about the extent of land reclamation of China and Vietnam in the South China Sea have raised debates on who is the biggest aggressor and what is the status quo in the South China Sea.[1]

The concept of "Aggression" is mentioned in Resolution 3314 of December 14, 1974, of the United Nations General Assembly. Aggression is the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations. The aggressed Nation has the right to defend.

A platform at the southern entrance to the reef, on March 16, 2015 _ Photo: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe

The recent land reclamation works in the South China Sea are attached closely to the sovereign claims. Historical evidences show that Vietnam has been the first State having administration over the Spratly and Paracel Islands at least since the 17th century. Only until 1909, did China take interest in the Paracel Islands. In 1932, China claimed Paracels as the southern terminus of its land. China was also the last country to put its foot on the Spratly Islands in 1988 after having used force to shoot down three Vietnamese logistic ships and brutally massacred 64 Vietnamese military civil engineers without any weapon in their hands. China is also only a party who used force in 1974, 1988 and 1995 and threat of using force in getting Scarborough in 2012. Philippines took interest in the Spratly Islands at the end of 1950s and Malaysia was attending at the southern part of these islands in 1980s. The first step that a sovereign State got attacked by force must take is to reinforce its garrisons to prevent any violation of its sovereignty. In 1988, Vietnam increased its troops on 21 features in the Spratly Islands and informed clearly about that to the world.[2] The Philippines has stationed on 8 features, China 9, and Taiwan 1. Malaysia has increased its occupation from 3 features in 1980 to 5 features in 1999.

Greg Austin in his recent article wrote: “By 2015, according to the United States administration, Vietnam occupied 48 features and China occupied eight.” Firstly, he didn't quote the exact speech of U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, David Shear, on May 13, 2015: "Vietnam has 48 outposts." He reported it as "outposts" but not "features". In 1995, in order to minimize the tension, create the favorable conditions and opportunity to peaceful settlement of disputes, Vietnam was the first one to call other concerned nations to keep the present status quo.[3] Vietnam didn’t expand its garrisons in any feature. It additionally puts only some observation points on the same one feature to ensure administration and prevent the invasion of foreigners to the features. For example, on the Barque Canada Shoal (Bai Thuyen Chai) with 17 nautical miles in length and 3 nautical miles in width, Vietnam has a garrison in the central part and two observation outposts on the two termini of the shoal. The speech made by General Phung Quang Thanh on June 1, 2015, tells that Vietnam still maintains its outposts on nine islands and 12 reefs.[4] Many outposts on one natural feature are not like the land reclamation of a feature many times larger than the original size to build the military complex as China is doing. So, the use of misinformative and confusing data, without looking at the nature of it, is just unfair game.

The construction activities carried out by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia started all before the ASEAN-China DOC 2002. They have similarities: being conducted on the islands or reefs naturally surrounded by water in the high tide; having an aim to prevent erosion and improve the living standards, and protect materials transported from the mainland; the features being civilized incrementally and starting to open for tourism; having no heavy weapons; and being not big military bases that can threat other nations; having been used only for defense, and not changing the nature of the feature. The land reclamation by China on the low tide elevations (LTEs) far from the Chinese mainland approximately 1,000 km has started since 1988, at a very fast pace and on a huge scale. Satellite images show that China has been expanding the land reclamation area from 20 hectares to 810 hectares.[5] In Subi, an LTE, the speed of land reclamation from May to June 2015 is 8 hectares per day, having transformed the LTE into a military base the area of which until now is 3.87 km2 and capable to build an airfield strip of about 3 km.[6] Remember that the whole area of all islands and reefs in the Spratly Islands is not more than 10 km2 stretching over the sea area which is about 160,000-180,000 km2. China uses the biggest dredge ships in the world to destroy the coral reef ecosystem for extracting materials. Their activities violate the World Conventions on environmental protection, damage over 300 hectares of coral reef, cause an initial loss of more than USD 100 million every year for countries in the South China Sea as well as non-compensable and non-renewable loss to the environment.[7] China constructs LTEs under its control, transforms them into artificial islands then demands the world community to give them the legal status of natural islands, which meant that an artificial island having got only a safe zone of 500 m around will be recognized to have a 12 nm territorial water and even a 200 nm EEZ (exclusive economic zone). This provision has not been included in the UNCLOS that China has acceded to. The extent of Vietnam land reclamation is only 0.2% as compared to China land reclamation made in March 2015.[8] China declares that construction work on these LTEs is to serve the interest of marine protection, marine scientific research, and SAR (search and rescue). However, above all, they are military bases equipped with heavy guns, ports and airfields. The extension and speed of land reclamation by China has worried the world as it threats the freedom of navigation of States, at least around 12 nm from the Chinese construction. These military bases serve as departure points of Chinese enforcement forces such as Coast Guard, Fishery Inspection and Navy to drive away, shoot, loot and rob fishing boats of Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, slowly engage to establish a ban of fishing in the area and the nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea. These bases are clearly to have an offensive nature, threatening peace and stability in the region. Therefore, it forces the US, G7 and other countries to raise their voice to protest. The process of land reclamation by China would trigger an arms race in the region as smaller nations for their sovereign security of sovereignty must invest a large amount of money in weapons.

China has set up its own rule in sea law.

Nguyen Hong Thao

Assistant Professor in Law at the National University of Hanoi, Vietnam

Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

[1] Greg Austin,

Andrew Chubb ,

[2] Nhan Dan daily, April 14, 1988.

[3] AFP, Tokyo April 21, 1995. On April 20, 1995, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Do Muoi stated officially in Tokyo that: "The Vietnamese position is to keep the present status quo for maintenance of peace and stability in the region and for searching a peaceful solution for dispute more than to use force or threaten to use force”.

[5]; “Mr Carter reported that China has filled in over 2,000 acres (810 hectares), "more than all other claimants combined... and more than in the entire history of the region…. in remarkably short time, over the past 18 months."


[8] Carlyle Thayer, Review of the implementation of the 2002 ASEAN-China DOC and COC and challenges, Seminar Workshop on the implementation of the DOC-SCS, Manila, May 14-15, 2015, p. 10.

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