Rowan Callick, China correspondent | September 11, 2008
THE Rudd Government’s warnings of substantial regional arms build-ups have been thrown into sharp relief by Chinese “netizens” warning that Vietnam risks invasion if it continues with its moves to explore the South China Sea for valuable oil and gas.
The Chinese internet threats underline the risk of energy issues triggering clashes between east Asian neighbours, a problem highlighted by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Tuesday.
China has been pressuring ExxonMobil to withdraw from an exploration deal with PetroVietnam, and Vietnam is lodging a complaint about Chinese online rumours of invasion plans.
China has claimed much of the Spratly Islands and part of the continental shelves of The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as of Vietnam, in its determination to control the development of petrochemical exploitation in the region. The Association of South East Asian Nations has pinned some of its reputation on resolving these disagreements.
The sporadic diplomatic spats over access to resources in the South China Sea became more serious several weeks ago, when China warned ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil corporation, that its business in China would be imperilled if it failed to withdraw from joint exploration deals with Vietnam.
Soon after that, what purported to be Chinese invasion plans for Vietnam were posted on major websites in China, including the market leader, sina.com.
The South China Morning Post reported that the Vietnamese Government had issued a formal protest to China in response — aware that Beijing has the capacity, if it wishes, to block access to the internet for such material.
The purported invasion plans refer to five days of missile strikes from land, sea and air, followed by the downward thrust of 310,000 troops. They rehearse the blocking of routes through the South China Sea — which would be disastrous for Australia, because most of its lucrative commodity exports to China, Japan and South Korea traverse those waters.
The plans claim that Vietnam “is a major threat to the safety of Chinese territories, and the biggest obstacle to the peaceful emergence of China”, as well as “the strategic hub of the whole of Southeast Asia”.
They say that “Vietnam has to be conquered first if Southeast Asia is to be under China’s control again.” One version of the plan is headlined: “One battle to set the region in order.”
No analyst is taking these internet postings seriously, however — except that they indicate the intensity of Beijing’s desire to put pressure on Hanoi to co-operate on oil exploration, even off its own coast.
China last attempted to invade Vietnam in 1979 — a move that ended disastrously for Beijing, defeated in a war that today is quietly forgotten.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung told the South China Morning Post that Beijing officials had been asked “to act so that such negative articles will not appear again since these may be harmful to … bilateral relations.
“This is irrelevant information, which goes against the trend of peace, friendship and co-operation for development in the region and the world and is not in the interests of the fine relationship existing between Vietnam and China.”