China, Vietnam clash over lonely islands

Vietnam and China have plunged into a new war of words over Asia’s most hotly contested pieces of real estate, the Spratly Islands.

For the second week in a row, hundreds of Vietnamese nationalists have been holding rare public demonstrations outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Shouting anti-Chinese slogans and singing patriotic songs, they accuse China of staging a creeping invasion of the Spratlys, which have become one of Asia’s major potential flashpoints.

Most of the islands are low-lying coral reefs and rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea, home to little more than a few dozen seabirds. Some of them are so small they are covered at high tide.

Yet the island chain is strategically located in the centre of one of Asia’s largest potential reservoirs for oil and natural gas, and surrounded by rich fishing grounds.

Six nations, including China, have staked overlapping claims to the 200 islands, rocks and reefs that make up the chain.

Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have claims to some of the islands, while China claims sovereignty over them all. Taiwan’s claim is similar to China’s.

There have been numerous military skirmishes in the past 30 years to reinforce the conflicting claims, the most serious in 1976, when China invaded and captured a nearby island chain, the Paracel Islands, from Vietnam.

Twelve years later, the two countries clashed again as their navies waged a brief battle off Johnson Reef in the Spratlys. Several Vietnamese boats were sunk and more than 70 sailors died.

Since then, Beijing and Hanoi have tried to ease tensions by promising to seek a diplomatic solution.

But China has continued to build military installations on some of the islands and reefs, insisting they are only shelters for Chinese fishermen.

More recently, the legislature in Beijing ratified a plan to manage the Paracels and Spratlys as a new administrative district of Hainan province, turning the islands into a new “county-level city” called Sansha.

That has infuriated Vietnam, which tried last spring to let drilling and pipeline rights for a US$2-billion gas field to energy giant BP in an area of the Spratlys off its southern coast.

When Beijing accused Hanoi of infringing Chinese territory, the company decided to halt exploration work.

Still, Vietnam insists many of the Spratly Islands lie within the bounds of its sovereignty and it resents China’s claims, which are backed by an assertive new nationalism and one of its biggest military spending sprees ever.

Regional rivalries take on an added geopolitical importance because the islands straddle Asia’s most vital seal lanes.

About 25% of world shipping passes through the region, carrying Middle East oil to Japan and the western United States.

Washington’s alliances and defence agreements with countries in the region could drag the United States into a confrontation with China if the conflict over the Spratlys turns violent.

That concerns Washington, because in 1995 the U.S. Naval War College ran a series of computer war games simulating a conflict with China over the South China Sea, and in each case China won.

Since then, Beijing has spent billions modernizing and expanding its navy with an eye to a possible confrontation in the Spratlys.

China has filled a virtual power vacuum in the South China Sea after the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the former Soviet Union’s navy from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay and the U.S. withdrawal from Subic Bay in the Philippines.

As if to assert that fact, China infuriated Vietnam by staging a naval exercise in the South China Sea in November near the Paracels.

Now, Beijing is accusing Vietnam of threatening relations between the two countries by permitting street demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy for two weekends in a row.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry insists the protests were spontaneous and quickly ended by police.

But a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “We are highly concerned over the matter. We hope the Vietnamese government will take a responsible attitude and effective measures to stop this and prevent bilateral ties from being hurt.”



Cambodian monks clash with police

TODAY (Singapore)

PHNOM PENH – About 40 Cambodian Buddhist monks fought with police (picture), knocking one unconscious before being beaten back with batons, at a demonstration yesterday to demand religious freedom for monks in neighbouring Vietnam.

At least 16 people were injured in the clash that broke out when 100 police refused to allow the monks to approach the Vietnamese Embassy in the Cambodian capital.

Police used batons to beat back the monks, who responded by pelting water bottles at the police, said Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naroth.

He said six police officers were injured, including the man knocked unconscious, while Cambodian rights watchdog Adhoc said at least 10 monks were hurt.

The Buddhists had marched to the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh to submit a petition against the authorities’ alleged mistreatment of Buddhist monks in the communist country.

The protesters accused the Vietnamese authorities of arresting and defrocking several ethnic Cambodian monks over the past few months.

“They wanted to enter the Vietnamese Embassy, but police asked them to move back. The monks then beat and kicked the police. The officers had to use force to protect themselves,” the police chief said. “What the monks did was illegal.”

One of the monks, 20-year-old Thach Mony, told AFP that they simply wanted to drop off their petition calling for the release of Cambodian monk Tim Sakhorn and for the return of land that Cambodia claims was seized by Vietnam in 1978.

“But the police misunderstood us,” he said. “They blocked us and they used violence on us.”

Vietnam said in early August that it had arrested Tim Sakhorn on charges of undermining national unity for organising anti-Vietnam demonstrations in neighbouring Cambodia. He was the abbot of a Cambodian pagoda, but was defrocked in late June. He disappeared amid unconfirmed reports that he was detained by the Cambodian authorities pending deportation to Vietnam.

The Vietnamese authorities allow only a few state-sponsored religious organisations to operate inside the country, a situation that has led to altercations there with some groups including Buddhists.

Vietnam’s secretive military opens up

Straits Times HANOI – IN A landmark change, Vietnam’s secretive Defence Ministry is opening up and inviting foreigners to come and study the country’s military operations and strategy.

Senior military officers from around the world have been urged to go to Hanoi to be tutored by their Vietnamese counterparts at the prestigious National Defence Academy.

With 455,000 men under arms, Vietnam has the largest standing army in South-east Asia.

It is battle-tested and in the past half-century has fought and prevailed against the military might of Japan, France, the United States and China.

However, military experts concede that their knowledge of Vietnam’s vaunted fighting machine remains patchy due to the obsessive secrecy imposed by the Defence Ministry’s top brass.

So, the proposed change to open up is both surprising and portentous. It has pleased other countries in the region and the West, especially the US, which has long encouraged Vietnam to take this kind of action.

And it indicates that the normally conservative and insular Vietnamese military is embracing the government’s credo of seeking to integrate more with the global community.

Said Professor Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy: ‘It shows that Vietnam is embarked on opening up its military to the outside world and assuming more proactive roles.

‘The initiative is unprecedented and highly significant because it signals not only a more outward-looking military, but a more confident one.’

At a top-level briefing last month, defence attaches were told that the decision to open up is linked to Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organisation and its coming membership of the United Nations Security Council. Vietnam will take up a two-year seat as a non-permanent member of the council on Jan 1.

Lieutenant-General Pham Xuan Hung, the national defence academy’s commandant, said: ‘Vietnam now attaches special importance to enhancing international cooperation, exchange visits and mutual understanding in the military field.’

Said Mr Marvin Ott, professor of national security policy at the National Defence University in Washington: ‘Vietnam’s strategically savvy Defence Ministry is now adopting a security strategy to maximise linkages with other nations, particularly those with capable militaries in Asia.’

Several countries, including some from Asean, have already confirmed they will attend the course.

Vietnam’s new military initiative will likely be replicated by more outreach moves, including offers to take part in UN peacekeeping operations and greater involvement in the multinational Proliferation Security Initiative designed to thwart the maritime transportation of terrorist devices.

92-day course

FOREIGN military officers will be invited to Hanoi for a 92-day course at the defence academy, which trains Vietnam’s high-ranking commanders and strategists, starting on March 4.

It will include three weeks of tutoring in key military topics such as Vietnam’s national defence policy, its security and anti-terrorism strategy, and the protection of territorial sovereignty, including ‘practical experiences in solving situations at sea’.

There will also be lectures on Vietnam’s past military triumphs, including the liberation struggle against France and the reunification campaign against US-led forces during the Vietnam War.

Nine hurt as Cambodian monk protest turns ugly

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) – Three Cambodian Buddhist monks and six riot police were hurt on Monday in a fight that broke out when the monks tried to deliver a protest letter to the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh, officials and witnesses said.

About 40 saffron-robed monks were trying to demand Vietnam stop persecuting Buddhists. When their path was blocked, they started throwing bottles and hitting the 100 riot police positioned near the embassy compound.

The riot police, who were not armed, chased the monks away with electric batons.

One of the marchers, 20-year-old Thach Many, accused police of overreacting. “We just wanted to deliver a protest petition,” he told Reuters.

The petition urged Vietnam to free a jailed Cambodian monk called Tim Sakhorn, release five others disrobed by Hanoi early this year and respect the religious rights of the ethnic Cambodian minority in Vietnam’s Mekong delta area.

Tim Sakhorn, 39, was defrocked in June and sentenced to a year in jail in Vietnam on charges of upsetting Cambodia-Vietnam relations.

Police accused the monks of staging an illegal and violent protest.

“Monks hid stones in their bags and hit police, injuring them in the arms and legs,” said police chief Touch Naroth.

Nobody at the Vietnamese embassy was immediately available for comment.

Vietnam Helmet Law Changes Culture Overnight

A new law has taken effect in Vietnam requiring all motorbike riders to wear helmets. Motorbikes are the most common form of transportation in Vietnam, but drivers long refused to wear helmets, leading to huge numbers of traffic fatalities. In Hanoi, Matt Steinglass has more.

People ride motor bikes without helmet during rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam (File Photo)
People ride motor bikes without helmet during rush hour in Hanoi, Vietnam (File Photo)

The sound of a Vietnamese city is the sound of motorbikes. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, motorbikes account for more than 90 percent of all the vehicles on the road.

But for decades, most Vietnamese riders refused to wear helmets, which they derisively call “rice cookers”. Traffic safety advocates wondered what it would to change people’s behavior.

On Saturday, they got their answer.

Traffic police officer Nguyen Ngoc Hieu says according to Government Decree Number 32, from December 15, everyone riding a motorbike anywhere in Vietnam, including passengers and children, must wear a helmet. He says the government is doubling the traffic police force to more than 1,000 officers to enforce the new law.

Hieu spoke Friday at the entrance to Hanoi’s Long Bien bridge, one of the busiest intersections in the city. It was the day before the new law took effect, but at most, only a quarter of the riders were wearing helmets.

Nguyen Van Hoa, a public security official at the People’s Committee in the Hanoi neighborhood of Ba Dinh, says the helmet campaign is going slowly. Hoa says at one local primary school, many parents hadn’t bought helmets for their children. He says this had made officials angry.

Meanwhile, the sidewalks of Hanoi are crowded with helmet vendors doing a brisk trade as people try to comply with the new law.

Longtime helmet shop owner Nguyen Nga Thao says her sales are up more than 10 times, to about 2,000 helmets a day.

Thao says helmets have become much more fashionable since September, when the new law was announced. The new ones are lighter, with designs such as hibiscus flowers and panda faces, for female riders who would not have bought a helmet before.

Nguyen Thi Bao owns Ba Café, a fashionable coffee shop. She says she just bought her first helmet, a green Piaggio model, to match her green Piaggio motorbike.

Bao says she would still prefer not to wear one. With such beautiful hair, she says, how can I wear a helmet when I go out at night?

Government Decree Number 32 took effect at six o’clock Saturday morning. By noon, it was clear that compliance rates were more than 99 percent. In one night, Hanoi’s streets had become a sea of brightly decorated motorbike helmets.

Dang Van Binh, 52, has driven a “xe om”, or motorbike taxi, for 13 years.

Binh says in the entire morning, he had seen only a few drivers without helmets. He says several were stopped by police and fined – 150,000 dong, or about $9, more than the price of a cheap helmet.

Le Huong, 25, was wearing a helmet for the first time.

Huong said she still thought helmets were ugly, and was only wearing them because of the law.

Then Huong’s friend Hong, who was driving the motorbike, explained in English.

“The government, they approved for all the people to follow, and we are Vietnamese and we are the good ones, so we follow,” said Hong. “We are Vietnamese, and we love our country. So we follow our government.”

Cambodia Buddhist monks, police clash during protest to show solidarity with Vietnam monks

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Dozens of Buddhist monks kicked, punched and hurled bottles at baton-wielding police in Cambodia’s capital Monday at a demonstration to demand religious freedom for monks in neighboring Vietnam.

The clashes erupted as about 40 monks approached the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh to submit a petition against authorities’ alleged mistreatment of Buddhist monks in the communist country.

The protesters accused Vietnamese authorities of arresting and defrocking several ethnic Cambodian monks over the past few months.

Authorities let only a few state-sponsored religious organizations operate in Vietnam, a situation that has led to altercations there with some groups including Buddhists.

A large part of southern Vietnam, known in Cambodia as Kampuchea Krom, used to be part of Cambodia’s Khmer empire centuries ago. Many ethnic Cambodians still live there.

In the Phnom Penh protest, about 100 riot police used batons to beat back the monks, blocking them from marching near the embassy.

The monks responded by punching the police and throwing water-filled plastic bottles at them. One monk was seen kicking a police officer in the groin.

Touch Naroth, the Phnom Penh police chief, said six policemen were slightly injured.

“They tried to storm the embassy, and police had the duty to protect the embassy,” he said.

The police bruised seven monks on their heads or bodies, said Chan Saveth, an investigator with the nonprofit Cambodian human rights group Adhoc. He accused police of violence against the monks, who are widely revered in Cambodia.