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Woman's Self-Immolation Lights the Murky Fires of Sovereignty in the South China Sea

A 67-year-old woman set herself on fire in Ho Chi Minh City to protest China's oil rig movements near the disputed Paracel Islands.
May 23, 2014, 9:15pm
Photo via WikiMedia Commons

Le Thi Tuyet Mai lit herself on fire and burnt to death this morning to get your attention, and here's the reason why.

The 67-year-old Vietnamese woman arrived by taxi at Ho Chi Minh City’s (a.k.a. Saigon’s) Reunification Palace (a.k.a. Independence Palace) just after dawn, where she took out handwritten signs protesting recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea, doused herself in gasoline, and set herself on fire.

The proximate cause for Mai’s self-immolation is the May 2 movement of a Chinese offshore oil rig to a new drilling site not too far from the contested Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The repositioning of the $1 billion dollar Haiyang Shiyou 981 (meaning Ocean Oil 981) has sparked a range of sharp responses from Vietnam, from official protests to arsonists torching various Chinese-owned factories in the country.

The dispute over this rig is a snapshot of everything that can go wrong when you mix rampant nationalism, hard-to-define maritime boundaries, and hundreds of billions of dollars in oil and gas. In other words, the whole South China Sea is like the Middle East; what the sea lacks in religious factors, it makes up for with the fact that drawing a line in the sand is much harder to do in the middle of the ocean.

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The Paracel Islands are a tiny group of islands that lie (very roughly) 180 nautical miles (207 miles) from both Vietnam and China. Overall, they amount to a series of more than 30 islands, reefs, and banks, with less than three square miles of land (about two and a half times the size of Central Park), spanning 5,800 square miles of ocean (an area which is bigger than Connecticut).

China's massive tiny land grab continues. Read more here.

A big problem with determining ownership of the Paracels (or really, any of the islands of the South China Sea) is that they’re too tiny to support any truly sustainable, permanent population or settlements. The islands are sporadically inhabited by fishermen or military personnel, but the presence of military personnel is more like a way of staking out claims of sovereignty by squatting, albeit a kind of formal, flag-planting, national form of squatting. Today, China (both the one based in Beijing and the one based in Taiwan) and Vietnam claim the Paracel Islands, but Beijing is currently the only claimant with physical control.

The internationally-recognized concept of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) goes out 200 nautical miles from a country’s coastline and confers special rights about the economic and other kinds of activities the country can carry out there. Often when two countries have overlapping EEZs, they’ll split the different and divide their claims down the middle. In this case, the Paracels are just about where such a dividing line might lie.

Giving a friend something that they already partly controlled, but that your hated enemy has laid legal claim to is a good way to tick off enemies and please friends.

But if the Paracel Islands are part of your own national, sovereign territory, then you can claim, as the Chinese media often do, that the rig is about 170 nautical miles from Vietnam, but only 17 from the Paracels. So if the islands are Chinese, then the rig is a lot closer to China than Vietnam, and China would be well within its rights to drill there.

Except that Vietnam disputes the Chinese claims, a disagreement that dates back to the Vietnam War and beyond.

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Which is no small irony, considering that Mai burned herself to death right in front of the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, which was once South Vietnam’s White House (when it was known as Saigon's Independence Palace) until the capital fell to North Vietnam's forces in 1975, two years after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

The Crescent Group of the Paracel Islands. Photo via WikiMedia Commons.

After the end of China’s civil war in 1949, the People’s Republic sent a small garrison to the northern half of the Paracel Islands, locking in China’s claim there. Despite the presence of Chinese troops, the 1954 Geneva Accords between North and South Vietnam originally assigned ownership of the Paracels to South Vietnam.

In 1958, North Vietnam recognized the Chinese claim to the Paracels. It didn’t own them, but apparently decided that giving a friend something that they already partly controlled, but that your hated enemy has laid legal claim to is a good way to tick off enemies and please friends.

But when South Vietnam was being overrun by the North and was no longer receiving US support, China saw its opening to move in and finish annexing the Paracels. This precipitated the 1975 Battle of the Paracel Islands, during which China not only took the islands, but picked up an American prisoner, Gerald Emil Kosh, in the bargain.

A year later, when South Vietnam completely disappeared and North Vietnam simply became "Vietnam," the government in Hanoi reaffirmed its claim to the Paracels. In taking the South, they also inherited the South's legal claims. With this, Vietnam renounced their earlier backing of Chinese claims to the Paracels, claiming that they were compelled to do so, in order to keep Chinese aid flowing for their fight against the South.

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And if this were any random, remote piece of land, like the middle of an empty, uninhabitable desert, the rest would be a fairly unremarkable case of forcible annexation of a bit of territory: One party takes control, effectively responding to any theoretical claims with “Yeah? Says you and what army?”

But these are islands, and islands can kick up all kinds of legal issues that don’t apply on land. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which China and Vietnam are both signatories): “Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

So while anyone can put troops on a rock or island, whether or not they can sustain economic life or habitation is the question. In the case of the Paracels, China has established the “city” of Sansha, which has about 500 people, to establish it as a prefecture within the province of Hainan. Even if the only economic life is bureaucratic and involves supporting the local military presence.

Foreigners are fleeing as Vietnam violently riots against China. Read more here.

This ability to claim habitation is what’s behind a whole series of strange construction, unlikely resorts, and truly desolate outposts throughout the entire South China Sea. If a country can’t force some poor unhappy souls to stay there, they lose a huge chunk of fishing and offshore drilling rights. And if the validity of a national claim depends on things like that, or finding very old historical maps, or digging up artifacts, then the claim to sovereignty really isn’t that clearly concrete and represents more of a legal fiction.

It’s the tenuous nature of these claims that encourage countries to constantly flex their muscles and perform stunts — like setting up oil rigs, or harassing vessels — to try to show the world that their disputed rocks are really the same as the mainland. Conversely, it's why nations need to keep reminding their citizens that the incursions and threats to sovereignty are dire moral matters of national integrity and pride. The very stuff of self-immolation.

So, yes, today, a woman doused herself with gasoline and lit herself on fire to fight over oil.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via WikiMedia Commons