South China Sea – Disputed islands revive enmity between China and Vietnam
In the last several weeks, China and Vietnam have been accusing each other over the disputed islands situated in the South China Sea. The last episode to rekindle tensions between the two former enemies occurred 26 May, when Chinese patrol boats intentionally severed a seismic cable towed by a Vietnamese survey vessel working about 120 miles (193 kilometres) off Vietnam’s shores and hundreds of miles south of China’s Hainan Island.
The incident, as underlined by ATimes online, “occurred well within Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile (370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone as defined by the Law of the Sea Treaty (signed by both Vietnam and China).”
China’s response to the Vietnamese accusations was clear and left no room for doubts. Two days after the incident, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jiang Yu’s affirmed that “China holds a consistent and clear-cut position on the South China Sea issue. China opposes Vietnam’s oil and gas exploration activities within the waters under the jurisdiction of China which undermine China’s rights and interests as well as jurisdiction over the South China Sea and violate the bilateral consensus on the South China Sea issue.”
This remark was followed by a speech made by Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie at the 10th annual IISS Shangri-La Security Dialogue held this weekend in Singapore. In his speech, Liang said that “democracy in international relations,” and respect for “each other’s core interests” were necessary to ensure “lasting peace, harmony and stability.” During the meeting, attended also by US and Russian representatives, Liang sought to ease fears about Chinese military ambitions and to send a reassuring message to its smaller neighbours.
Two faces of the same medal. On the one hand China strongly reaffirms its claim on the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, which are believed to hold major oil and gas deposits and parts of which are also claimed not only by Vietnam, but also by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. On the other hand, China seems to underline the fact that the issue is a regional dispute that should be solved by countries in the region. As reported by China Daily, Chinese Major General Luo Yuan said that “a third party, who is not familiar with the history and culture in the region and has a different mode of thinking, can make things more complicated.”
This last remark is clearly aimed at the US, represented in Singapore by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who, before leaving office at the end of June to be replaced by the current CIA director, Leon Panetta, remarked on the importance for the US to maintain a “robust” military presence across Asia.
While at a political and international level government officials have been accusing each other of trying to play down tensions with empty remarks and by calling meetings “positive”, the situation seems to be more complicated at a local level. During the weekend, as reported by international news agencies, hundreds of Vietnamese marched on the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City in a rare public protest to condemn what they called ‘China’s violation of Vietnamese sovereignty’ in the disputed South China Sea. The demonstrators in Hanoi sang patriotic songs and chanted slogans including “The Paracels and Spratlys belong to Vietnam.”
Vietnamese media denied that a protest had been announced through the web: ‘Incorrect news on gatherings to protest China’, was the title of an editorial released by the Vietnam News Agency and highlighted by a Vietnamese web-news agency in English. According to them, “news carried on June 5 by several means of communication abroad on ‘demonstrations protesting China’ in front of the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City were wrong.”
This is similar to an incident in December 2007, when widespread anger about China’s growing assertiveness over its claims to the Paracels and Spratlys drew hundreds of people into the streets in Hanoi. An episode that, like the present one , was played down by the media, neither covered nor denied. The Vietnamese government seems inclined to also show a double face.
Officially, and on an international political level, the Vietnamese government does not leave out any chance to mark its claims after every potential diplomatic effort to solve the critical issue, either through bilateral talks with their Chinese counterparts or by bringing up their plight within the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), where three other members — the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia –- have been raising the problem for years.
ASEAN countries, while keeping bilateral channels open, have found comfort in the protective blanket of the regional body, even though Beijing has tried to steer efforts to resolve the territorial disputes along bilateral lines.
While the Vietnamese government seems to play down frictions with its bigger neighbour, strong nationalist sentiments and anger seem to mount among Vietnamese society, even spreading throughout the web. At the moment there are dozens of websites and Facebook pages supporting the Vietnamese claims, sometimes containing harsh messages and statements. One, for instance, is a petition to “Put an End to China’s Terrorist Attacks and Expansionism in the Southeast Asia Sea”, and a second one supports a proposal to “Change the name of the South China Sea to the Southeast Asia Sea.”
Although officials from China, Vietnam, the US and other Asian countries repeat and underline the importance of solving the issue “in a peaceful way”, since recovering from the 1997 Asian financial crisis “most ASEAN countries have been upgrading and modernizing their militaries,” as Security Sector Reform analyst Fabio Scarpello told PlanetNext. With the increasing demand for fossil fuels needed to maintain their respective economic growths, the South China Sea is already an area of geopolitical and economic interest and a potential area of regional and international conflict.