Trouble and Strife in the South China Sea: Vietnam and China

A source of serious interstate tension between some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China for much of the 1990s, territorial disputes in the South China Sea became less contentious in the early 2000s: A less assertive stance by China being a critical component in Beijing’s Southeast Asian “smile diplomacy,” a diplomatic offensive designed to assuage the ASEAN countries’ security concerns vis-à-vis a rising China. Recent controversies, however, have underscored the seemingly intractable nature of the dispute and the continued sensitivity over sovereignty issues, particularly between the main protagonists: Vietnam, China, and the Philippines. In the first part of a two-part series, this article examines the impact of the dispute on Vietnam’s relations with the PRC.

Among the 10 members of ASEAN, Vietnam’s relationship with the PRC is without question the most complicated, multifarious, tense, and conflict-prone. From Vietnam’s perspective, it is also the most laden by historical baggage. Two millennia of Chinese overlordship—first as a formal part of the Chinese empire from the first century BC to 938 AD, then as a tributary state until 1885—combined with an intense relationship over the past 60 years characterized by extremes of amity and enmity, have shaped Vietnam’s China psyche to be almost schizophrenic. There is respect, even admiration, for Chinese culture, system of governance and economic reform on the one hand, coexisting with deep resentment, bordering on hatred, of Chinese condescension, bullying, and perceived attempts to control its political destiny. China’s perception of its southern neighbor is equally conflicted: A tenacious fighter of colonialism worthy of massive Chinese support from 1949 until the early 1970s, but a devious, unfilial “puppet” of the USSR during the 1980s.

In 1991, after more than a decade of hostility—the low point of which was a short but intense border conflict in 1979 following Hanoi’s occupation of China’s ally Cambodia—Vietnam and the PRC normalized relations.

Chinese forces enter Vietnam in the 1979 border war

Since then, bilateral relations have broadened, deepened and improved to an extent few would have predicted. Today, bilateral relations are guided by the official mantra of “long-term stability, orientation toward the future, good neighborliness and friendship, and all round cooperation” in the spirit of “good neighbors, good friends, good comrades, and good partners.”

Vietnamese Pres. Nguyen Ming Triet and Chinese President Hu Jintao affirm relations in 2005

Political relations have been buttressed by the regular exchange of high-level delegations, while economic ties have burgeoned. The value of two-way trade has risen from almost nothing in 1991 to $15 billion in 2007, making China Vietnam’s largest overall trade partner (Xinhua News Agency, January 23). For Vietnam though, this has been a mixed blessing: As cheap Chinese-manufactured goods have flooded the Vietnamese market, its trade deficit with the PRC has ballooned, reaching $2.87 billion by 2005; expanded cross-border trade has also led to an increase in counterfeit goods, smuggling, and illegal trafficking in people and narcotics; and the Vietnamese are continually disappointed at the low level of Chinese investment.

Since 1991 bilateral relations have been dominated by three sets of territorial issues: Demarcation of the 850-mile land boundary, delineation of the Gulf of Tonkin, and overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, particularly the Paracel and Spratly Islands. It is important to stress, however, that early on in the post-normalization phase of the relationship the Vietnamese and Chinese governments determined not to let such problems fetter the development of bilateral ties, and to that end agreed to norms of behavior and put in place a framework of negotiations to manage and eventually resolve their disputes. Despite frequent flare-ups, mutual suspicions and distrust, and political grandstanding, substantial progress was achieved and, most importantly, conflict between their armed forces has been avoided.

South China Sea conflicting territorial claims

In the early 1990s, joint working groups were established to discuss the three disputes, with priority given to the land boundary and Gulf of Tonkin problems. In 1997 the two sides agreed to resolve the land frontier issue by the end of 2000. On December 30, 1999, the Land Border Treaty was finally signed; it came into effect in July 2000 following ratification by both countries’ national assemblies. Details of the treaty’s provisions remained secret, however, and this fueled rumors inside Vietnam that under the dual pressures of the 2000 deadline and bullying from China, Hanoi had conceded too much land to Beijing. These rumors were partly propagated by so-called “cyber-dissidents,” several of whom were imprisoned in 2002 for posting “anti-government” material on the Internet. In late 2002 the Vietnamese government was able to quash these rumors by publishing details of the treaty online; it also revealed that ownership of 87.6 square miles of land had been under dispute, and that the treaty had awarded Vietnam 43.6 sq mi and China 44 sq mi (Associated Press, September 16, 2002). By the time details of the treaty had emerged, work had already begun on planting 1,533 border tablets. Laying the border markers has been a very slow process, mainly due to difficult terrain and the movement of peoples required by exchanges of land. In 2005 the two sides agreed to accelerate the process and complete the task by the end of 2008. Currently 85 percent of border tablets have been planted, and the entire process is expected to be completed by mid-year. An agreement concerning border management and regulations is due to be signed before the end of this year.

Substantial progress in the Gulf of Tonkin has also been achieved. After 17 rounds of negotiations, on December 25, 2000, Vietnam and China signed the Agreement on the Demarcation of Waters, Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelves in the Gulf of Tonkin, which divided the gulf along an equidistant line. At the same time, they concluded an Agreement on Fishing Cooperation in the Gulf of Tonkin which delineated exclusive and common fishing areas. These agreements were not ratified, however, until July 2004 due to protracted negotiations over lucrative fishing rights in the area, and it was not until a Supplementary Protocol to the fishing agreement was signed that ratification could take place [1]. Nevertheless, even after ratification skirmishes between fishing vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin continued to occur, leading each side to accuse the other of infringing the agreements. The most serious incident took place in January 2005 when Chinese patrol boats opened fire on Vietnamese fishing trawlers, killing nine crewmen. In its wake, the two sides agreed to a series of measures designed to prevent further incidents and enhance cooperation in the area. These have included regular joint naval patrols beginning in 2006, the first between China and a foreign country; a joint survey of fishing resources; joint exploration for oil and gas (in November 2005 state-owned PetroVietnam and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation inked an agreement to this effect); and a commitment to start negotiations on demarcating areas outside the Gulf of Tonkin.

Progress toward resolving overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea have been less than encouraging. During the 1990s the two sides remained fundamentally at odds over the issue: Vietnam wanted to discuss sovereignty of the Paracel Islands—occupied by China in 1974—while China considered the matter closed; Vietnam wanted to discuss the Spratlys issue in a multilateral setting with ASEAN, while Beijing favored a bilateral approach. Neither side was willing to compromise its sovereignty claims, leading to a number of tense Sino-Vietnamese stand-offs in the mid-1990s.

The November 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), an agreement aimed at freezing the status quo and encouraging cooperative confidence-building measures among the disputants, represented both a victory and a defeat for Vietnam. It was a victory because China had conceded the need to approach the problem multilaterally, but it was a defeat because Hanoi had wanted to clearly define the scope of the agreement to include the Paracels—China objected, Hanoi relented.

When the Philippines and China agreed to conduct joint explorations for oil and gas in contested waters in September 2004, Vietnam initially condemned the move as a violation of the DoC, but eventually agreed to participate in the tripartite Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in March 2005. Officially Vietnam claimed it had joined the JMSU in the interests of promoting regional stability; in reality, Hanoi was prepared to participate in the project because the survey zone covered by the agreement was not located in waters claimed by Vietnam—or China for that matter. As will be examined in Part Two, in the last few months the JMSU has aroused considerable political controversy in the Philippines, and a question mark hangs over the agreement’s future.

Moreover, the JMSU has done little to mitigate Sino-Vietnamese tensions in the South China Sea as a whole. Indeed, in 2007 relations sharply deteriorated over the dispute. Three sets of incidents combined to rile Vietnam. The first took place in April when China accused Vietnam of violating its sovereignty by allowing a consortium of energy companies led by British Petroleum (BP) to develop two gas fields in the Con Son Basin, 230 mi off Vietnam’s southeast coast. Vietnam rejected China’s protest by claiming the project was well within its EEZ. In June, however, BP announced that it was suspending work in the two gas fields until further notice, fueling speculation that Beijing had put pressure on the company by threatening to exclude it from future energy deals in China. Energy-hungry Vietnam was furious at China’s perceived bullying.

The second set of incidents related to the Paracel Islands. In July 2007, Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor; in August 2007, China announced plans to begin tourist cruises to the Paracels, leading Vietnam to reaffirm its sovereignty claims over the archipelago; and in November Vietnam protested Chinese military exercises in the Paracels.

The third incident concerned the allegation—not yet confirmed by the PRC government—that the National People’s Congress had passed a law in early December 2007 creating a county-level city in Hainan province called Sansha to administer China’s claims in the South China Sea, including the Paracel and Spratly Islands. For the Vietnamese government the Sansha proposal was the last straw. Over two consecutive weekends in December it allowed hundreds of students to conduct anti-China protests near the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and consular office in Ho Chi Minh City. The demonstrators expressed anger over China’s claims in the Paracels and Spratlys, accusing Beijing of pursuing hegemonic ambitions (Straits Times, December 17, 2007).

Protester in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. “The Paracels and Spratlys of Vietnam”

The Vietnamese government claimed the coordinated protests had been spontaneous, though this is highly unlikely in tightly controlled Vietnam; in fact, Hanoi had taken a leaf out of China’s playbook and used the demonstrations to register its indignation with Beijing. The Chinese government declared itself “highly concerned” at the rallies and chided the Vietnamese authorities to adopt a “responsible attitude” and “avoid bilateral ties from being hurt” (Xinhua News Agency, December 11, 2007). Relations took another hit in January when China accused Vietnamese fishermen of attacking Chinese trawlers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam responded that Vietnamese and Chinese fishing boats had merely bumped into each other after getting their nets entangled.

In keeping with their long-standing commitment to resolve outstanding disputes through peaceful means and not through force, and not to let territorial issues hinder the forward momentum of ties, Vietnam and China moved quickly to stabilize relations. The China-Vietnam Steering Committee met in Beijing on January 23, 2008 to douse the flames: Co-chairs Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem agreed to “properly handle the problems in bilateral relations” through “dialogue and consultation,” and accelerate negotiations on the delineation of remaining areas of the Gulf of Tonkin and issues relating to the South China Sea (Xinhua News Agency, January 23). Prior to the steering committee meeting, Vietnamese and Chinese officials had met on four separate occasions in January to discuss the land border, Gulf of Tonkin, and South China Sea, agreeing on the need to maintain peace and stability in the area, refrain from complicating the situation, and promote cooperative activities (BBC, January 30).

Since normalization, Vietnam has had to contend with the problems posed by being the weaker party in an increasingly asymmetric relationship: How to accommodate a rising China, steer a middle path between hostility and dependence, and preserve the country’s political autonomy. The South China Sea dispute is emblematic of Vietnam’s problems, and despite improved ties with China, the sovereignty issue is as far as ever from a resolution and continues to overshadow the relationship. While both parties have a vested interest in avoiding confrontation so that they can concentrate on economic development, against a backdrop of ascending oil prices and rising demand for off-shore energy resources, future Sino-Vietnamese contention in the South China Sea seems more likely than not.

Note

[1] Guifang Xue, China and International Fishery Law and Policy (Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2005), p. 225.

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