China, Vietnam churn diplomatic waters

Just as Hanoi prepared to enjoy the rewards of a diplomatic charm offensive, culminating in taking up for the first time a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council beginning next year, tensions have resurfaced with China over long-disputed and potentially oil-and-gas rich territories in the South China Sea.

Public exchanges between Hanoi and Beijing asserting their respective territorial claims of the Paracel Islands, in the north of the South China Sea, and the Spratly Islands in the south, and surrounding waters are becoming increasingly shrill.
Underscoring the escalation of words, Vietnam authorities for the first time in recent memory permitted several hundred students and others to demonstrate over the past two weekends outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Waving Vietnamese flags and wearing T-shirts with the red and gold starred Vietnamese flag, protestors held maps of the disputed islands and signs saying ”China hegemony jeopardizes Asia” and ”Beware of the invasion.” They were quoted as shouting ”Defend the homeland”and ”Down with China.”

Given the usual official intolerance of public demonstrations in Vietnam, the fact that these protests were allowed indicates that the dispute over the South China Sea, or what Vietnam refers to as the East Sea, has the potential to dangerously escalate moving into 2008.

There have been occasional naval clashes over the Spratly Islands. In 1988, China and Vietnam clashed over possession of Johnson Reef in the Spratlys. Chinese gunboats sank Vietnamese transport ships supporting a landing party of Vietnamese soldiers.

Over the past year, the problem periodically made news headlines then quickly faded as the two countries moved to defuse tensions and reassert their confidence in recent warming bilateral ties, which have included several reciprocal visits by political leaders and top officials, and growing economic links.

Yet the failure to resolve the South China Sea dispute has kept historical antagonisms alive. In April, Beijing complained that a BP-led gas exploration and development project off southern Vietnam was being conducted in China’s territorial waters. Hanoi denied Beijing’s claim, but BP has suspended its exploration in the area, known as block 5.2. China has recently challenged energy exploration in other offshore blocks tendered by Vietnam.

One case in particular involves India’s state-owned ONGC and the offshore blocks 127 and 128, located off Vietnam’s central coast, it was awarded in May 2006. On November 22, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi wrote to ONGC to say that the concession award of the blocks by Vietnam was not valid. To date ONGC has invested US$100 million in its exploration program in the concession areas.

More dramatically, in early July Chinese naval vessels fired on a Vietnamese boat near the Paracel Islands, causing one death and several injuries. While it is has not been uncommon for Chinese naval vessels detaining Vietnamese fishing vessels for straying into contested waters, the use of force was unusual and seemed to represent an escalation in tensions.

Hanoi has so far responded with restraint. While being firm about its territorial claims in official statements, Hanoi declined to take a provocative stand and remained reticent in speaking publicly about meetings it held with Beijing over the issue. But the December demonstrations outside China’s diplomatic missions suggest that Hanoi is now taking a firmer stand.

That has not been lost on Beijing, which publicly chided the Vietnamese for allowing and possibly even encouraging the protests. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China was ”highly concerned” and urged Vietnamese leaders to ”prevent further developments and avoid harming bilateral relations”.

”China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands,” ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news conference amid the protests.

What may have finally provoked Hanoi was a policy measure enacted in November by the Chinese State Council administratively incorporating both the Paracel and Spratly Islands into Hainan Island Province. A Chinese administrative outpost on one of the Paracels, Woody Island, was reportedly given the new status as ”county-level city” of Sansha through the administrative act.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said in apparent response that Vietnam had “adequate historical evidence and sufficient legal basis to proclaim its sovereignty” over both archipelagoes. The ministry also said that the Chinese action had seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty and did not correspond with the prior common understandings reached by the two countries’ leaders. In November, Hanoi also protested against a Chinese military exercise conducted in the Paracels.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung raised the issues on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore in mid-November while meeting Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Dung later said the two countries should continue to exchange opinions to find suitable fields and forms of cooperation in disputed and overlapping areas in accordance with international laws and with full consultation and consensus with related parties.

Diplomatic divergence
From Vietnam’s perspective, that would include adherence to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the more recent 2002 ASEAN declaration for the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have competing claims.

Wen said he agreed that the two sides should implement their top leaders’ agreements to cooperate, maintain peace and stability, and ”keep calm in dealing with emerging issues through solutions acceptable by both sides, so as not to affect bilateral relations.” Wen also reportedly said that he hoped the South China Sea issue could be solved through a joint exploitation approach, while putting to one side maritime boundary claims.

That would draw a box around the disputed areas and allow exploitation of any petroleum or other resources found in the areas through a joint development scheme under which returns would be shared. There is already one tripartite exploration program underway between China’s CNOOC, Vietnam’s PetroVietnam and the Philippine National Oil Company in one eastern region of the Spratlys.

Apart from churning diplomatic waters, the re-emergence of the South China Sea dispute casts an unwelcome cloud over Vietnam’s latest international triumph, given its recent selection to assume one of the two-year non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. Just as accession to the World Trade Organization earlier this year marked a milestone in Vietnam’s efforts to open and integrate globally its economy, so its election to the Security Council underlined the country’s rising stature in the regional and international community.

Over the past year, Hanoi has pushed hard to raise and improve Vietnam’s international profile. Prime Minister Dung, a 58-year-old who assumed office in April 2006, has made a series of diplomatic forays. These include a visit in late January to Rome to meet Pope Benedict in the Vatican to discuss the situation of Vietnam’s several million Catholic adherents. Foreign leaders, ministers and business delegations have also been beating a path to Vietnam’s door, attracted by the country’s strong commercial prospects.

Hanoi has sought to avoid diplomatic controversy. It has reached out in all directions, maintaining ties with old communist allies in Cuba and Russia while building trust with former adversaries in the US, Europe and Australia. Hanoi has also innovatively looked to build ties in South America, especially with Venezuela and Brazil, and has demonstrated a willingness to transcend US-led antagonisms and reach out to North Korea and Iran.

Aside from the South China Sea dispute with China, the only major diplomatic issue facing Vietnam has been recent criticism in the US and European Union about its harsh treatment of pro-democracy dissenters and its ongoing restrictions on religious freedom. Even here, Hanoi has tried to defuse tensions, declaring that human rights are respected in Vietnam and taking certain actions to moderate criticism, such as the occasional release or reduction in sentence of high-profile imprisoned dissidents.

Some contend that Vietnam’s conciliatory approach was part and parcel of its lobbying effort to win a seat at the UN Security Council, where Vietnam will speak for the 53 Asian nation block along with the existing non-permanent Council member Indonesia and permanent member China. Hanoi will soon find itself in more difficult diplomatic terrain, when it will be called upon to make binding decisions and votes that have an impact on relations with countries it has recently cultivated at a bilateral level.

For Dung and his generation of leaders in the Communist Party-led government, the importance and prestige of achieving Security Council membership cannot be underestimated. Dung, who in the American war was a young Viet Cong guerrilla in the south and has been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party since 1967, has watched the full cycle of Vietnam slipping into international isolation in the 1970s and 1980s, tentatively coming in from the cold in the 1990s and now assuming a senior leadership position at the UN’s central decision-making forum.

It wasn’t that long ago that Vietnam was the focus of Security Council criticism, following its invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and its subsequent 11-year occupation of the neighbouring country. Then Vietnam’s relations with China were a point of global concern after a short but bloody border war between the two sides in 1979, Beijing’s armed response to Hanoi’s military move to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime.

Only after the UN-brokered 1991 Paris Peace Agreement ended Cambodia’s foreign-influenced civil war was Vietnam able to restore normal relations with non-Soviet bloc countries, including China, with which it re-established full diplomatic ties that same year. Now those crucial bilateral relations are strained again, this time over contiguous island chains but similarly with wide-ranging implications for regional stability. As Vietnam prepares to enter the front ranks of the international community through its UN posting, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that its own bilateral tensions with China could during its term end up on the Security Council’s agenda.


Quyết Vượt Khó Vì Hoàng Sa & Trường Sa

Vietnam wary of China’s moves to claim Spratly Islands

Vietnamese province is reconsidering a resolution protesting China’s assertion of sovereignty over the disputed Spratly Islands, the chairman of the council said Wednesday. The Thanh Nien newspaper reported Wednesday that the People’s Council of Khanh Hoa province, which includes the coastal city of Nha Trang, would issue a resolution protesting China’s establishment last month of an official government district to administer the islands. The paper said the resolution would affirm that the islands are part of Khanh Hoa province. But the council’s chairman, Mai Truc, said the council was backing away from the idea. “We initially planned to issue a resolution on the Truong Sa Archipelago,” Truc said, using the Vietnamese name for the Spratlys. “But now, we have to reconsider whether to issue it or not, as it is a sensitive and complicated issue. We have to wait for instructions from the central government.”The Spratlys and the nearby Paracels are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. The waters around the islands are believed to contain substantial petroleum reserves. China last month established a new government district, called Sansha, to administer the islands. Vietnam officially protested the Chinese move, and Vietnamese students have staged apparently spontaneous anti-China protests each of the last two weekends in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. China, in turn, has sharply criticized the Vietnamese protests. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported today that China had officially asked Vietnam to prevent future demonstrations. Truc said the Khanh Hoa People’s Council would decide whether to issue a resolution during its current session, which lasts through Saturday. “I cannot say anything about the resolution at the moment,” Truc said. “But we all disagree with what China has done about the Truong Sa.”

Trường Sa – Hoàng Sa – Ta Là Một

VIETNAM: Anti-China protests staged in Vietnam

Anti-China protesters have been rallying in Vietnam in the past week, apparantly angry over China’s claim on the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in the South China Sea. The islands are considered strategic outposts and have potentially rich oil and gas reserves as well as plentiful fishing grounds. The rallies in support of Vietnam’s official territorial claims, were initially tolerated by police, triggering a diplomatic protest from Beijing.

Presenter – Sen Lam Speaker – Dr Esta Ungar Senior Lecturer History at The University of Western Australia.

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Vietnam students overloaded with outdated text books

Many teachers and educators are concerned that the Education Publishing House has sole rights to publish all school textbooks nationwide.

Teachers and educators have criticized school text books and curriculum, for expecting students to learn too much broad and diverse information.

As a result of cramming for exams, students did not retain valuable lessons, teachers said.

For instance, some students forgot important national events because they were being forced to learn huge amounts of out-dated facts and theories from text books.

The Ministry of Education and Training started to revise textbooks for students from grade 1 to grade 11 in 2002.

But according to some teachers the revised editions were still impractical.

“It’s like we’re asking our children to become experts in everything,” said Professor Pham Phu, who is frequently consulted on the textbook debate.

“Our students aren’t [all] going to become literary experts or mathematicians. It’s ironic that a twelfth grader doesn’t know how to calculate the area of a house. They can’t bring the theories they learn in the classroom into the real world.”

For example, fourth graders had to study a thousand years of Vietnam history, from the early society of Van Lang, to the period of Chinese domination, to the early independence of Dai Viet (the former name of Vietnam).

Many teachers and educators were also concerned that the Education Publishing House had the sole rights to publish all school textbooks nationwide.

From 2002 to June 30, 2006, the government publisher printed more than 821 million copies, with an average revenue of nearly VND900 billion (US$56 million) a year.

Due to the monopoly and lack of competition there was little incentive to improve textbook quality.

“Nearly 80 percent of textbook writers no longer work as teachers,” the Minister of Education and Training, Nguyen Thien Nhan, told the National Assembly at its recent meeting in Hanoi.

The principal of Duc Tri Secondary School Nguyen Thi Phi said students in middle and high schools should be taught real-life lessons about moral values instead of being asked to memorize philosophical ideas.

The Ministry had tried to reduce course loads by providing study and teaching guidelines to schools, to omit sections of textbooks but the reduction was not adequate, teachers said.

Khmer Krom: Peaceful Protest Silenced

Representatives of the Khmer Krom civil society voice their concerns over the police assault on a peaceful demonstration of Khmer Krom monks in Phnom Penh asking for the release of Tim Sakhorn and respect of minority rights.

Below is  press statement published by CCHR-CHRAC Secretariat , LICADHO and CLEC:

We, representatives of civil society, strongly condemn the excessive use of violence by the authorities against a group of Khmer Kampuchea Krom monks who gathered peacefully in front of the Vietnamese Embassy on the morning of 17 December 2007.

A group of 48 Khmer Kampuchea Krom monks, ethnic Khmer originally from southern Vietnam, had convened peacefully in front of the Vietnamese Embassy to submit a petition calling for the release of Kampuchea Krom Buddhist monk Tim Sakhorn and five other monks imprisoned in Vietnam, the resolution of land issues, and respect for minority rights. The Ministry of Interior responded swiftly by deploying a large contingent of police and anti-riot forces who arrived armed with shields, electric batons and guns.

After the monks request for a meeting with an Embassy representative was officially rejected, they sat down at the site to conduct a traditional Buddhist ceremony.

At the end of an hour-long of standoff, the monks decided to walk towards the gate of the embassy, where they were met with heavy resistance by the anti-riot police, who used their batons and shields to hit and force back the monks. Some of the monks then threw plastic bottles at the police. The anti-riot unit responded instantly, brutally charging against the monks with their shields and electric batons. The monks then scattered and tried to run away to avoid further injury.

The police continued to violently attack the monks even after they dispersed. They chased the monks four blocks down various side-streets in the area around the Vietnamese Embassy, hitting and beating the monks. Surprised passers-by were told by the police “those who we are beating are not real monks.” (In khmer: “yung wai mun men dejekhun.”)

Two monks were seriously injured after being shocked by electric batons on the backs of their heads; causing one to temporarily lose conscious. Four other monks suffered minor injuries after being assaulted by the police.

Like all citizens, monks have the right to express their opinions and gather peacefully. We appeal to the authorities to refrain from any further use of violence against monks and to ensure that the monks who gathered today will not face any recriminations from religious or state authorities. Furthermore, we request that the relevant authorities investigate and take action against officials that were responsible for assaulting the monks.