China, Vietnam to resolve disputes

Last week Mr Dung and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao oversaw the signing of a strategic cooperation pact between state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp and PetroVietnam. -- ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last week Mr Dung and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao oversaw the signing of a strategic cooperation pact between state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp and PetroVietnam. -- ASSOCIATED PRESS

HANOI – IN a step to resolving long-running disputes, China and Vietnam have pledged to turn contentious border areas into economic growth zones and jointly explore oil-rich offshore areas in the future.

The communist neighbours – who stress their comradely ties but also have a history of distrust and conflict – reached the agreement during a visit by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Beijing, state media said.

Both countries are among claimants to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves, and claim sovereignty over the Paracel islands, which are occupied by China.

During Mr Dung’s visit, which ended on Sunday, Beijing and Hanoi ‘agreed to start a joint survey in the waters outside the mouth of Beibu Bay (Gulf of Tonkin) at an early date,’ China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

They would ‘gradually advance the negotiations on demarcation of these maritime zones and will jointly exploit the zones’, Xinhua said.

The statement did not settle the hot-button issue of the Spratlys, a strategic string of rocky outcrops in the middle of the South China Sea that are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

But China and Vietnam pledged to ‘collaborate on oceanic research, environmental protection, meteorological and hydrological forecasts, oil exploration and information exchanges by the two armed forces’.

The agreement, although vague on details and timelines, signals a gradual shift in relations between East Asia’s economic giant and the southern neighbour which for many centuries was ruled by China.

The South China Sea dispute – in which Chinese naval vessels have in the past fired on Vietnamese fishing boats – has in particular stirred strong nationalistic sentiments and sparked anti-Beijing street protests in Vietnam.

‘The China-Vietnam joint declaration is a major confidence building measure between two potential protagonists,’ said veteran Vietnam-watcher Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

‘The agreement to begin work on demarcating waters outside the Tonkin Gulf will serve to reduce the area where clashes between fishermen and naval vessels are likely to occur,’ he told AFP.

Earlier this year Beijing angered Hanoi when it reportedly warned US oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp that it would be barred from operating in China unless it pulled out of a joint exploration deal with Vietnam.

Last week Mr Dung and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao oversaw the signing of a strategic cooperation pact between state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp and PetroVietnam, reports said without giving further details.

Both countries also reaffirmed they would complete demarcation of their 1,350-kilometre land border on schedule by the end of this year.

As recently as 1979 China and Vietnam fought a brief border war in the mountainous region when China, having backed Hanoi during the Vietnam war, sought to punish Vietnam for ousting Cambodia’s China-backed Khmer Rouge.

Under both countries’ plans, Vietnam’s north is set to be transformed with industrial projects and new road and rail links that would connect China’s Yunnan and Guangxi provinces with Vietnam’s Haiphong seaport.

The ‘economic corridors’ – part of a web of highways linking China with Southeast Asia – would help boost annual two-way trade to a targeted US$25 billion (S$37 billion) by 2010 from US$16 billion last year.

Mr Dung also visited China’s Hainan province and proposed closer shipping links with Vietnam. Other deals included a US$200-million joint industrial zone in Haiphong and a light-rail project in the capital Hanoi.

Mr Thayer said the agreement ‘to proceed positively in contentious areas is a positive contribution to peace and security in the region’,

‘Both Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung have demonstrated statesmanship in these troubled times by not letting the rancour of nationalism trump economic development,’ he said. — AFP
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Wave of Repression Blankets Vietnam

Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party)
With members inside Vietnam and around the world,
Viet Tan aims to establish democracy and reform the country through peaceful means.

September 10, 2008
Contact: Duy Hoang +1 (202) 470-1678

Communist authorities in Vietnam have arrested several democracy activists in the middle of the night and placed many others under house arrest. These actions come amidst the sentencing of a prominent blogger and appearances of large banners in urban areas calling for multi-party democracy and leaflets protesting the government’s territorial concessions to China.

· On September 10, shortly before midnight, about a dozen security police raided the home of Pham Van Troi in Hanoi. Troi, a member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, was arrested according to his wife. At the same time, police in Hai Phong surrounded the home of writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a leader of the Bloc 8406, and seized him. A third democracy activist, Pham Thanh Nghien, reported that her home in Hai Phong was surrounded overnight by police. Other confirmed arrests last evening include university student Ngo Quynh and poet Tran Duc Thach.

· Earlier in the day, in a closed-door trial in Saigon, authorities sentenced blogger Nguyen Van Hai (known by his pen name Dieu Cay) to 30 months in prison for tax evasion. However, everything about the case—how Dieu Cay was secretly arrested, his five months in prison without family visit, the government’s refusal to allow attorneys of his choice to represent him—indicates that the case was politically motivated. Dieu Cay wrote about Hanoi’s territorial concessions to Beijing. He had called for demonstrations against the Olympic torch relay in Saigon on April 29 when he was arrested.

· Friends of Dieu Cay were summoned to police stations this week or isolated at home to prevent them from trying to attend the trial. Currently, bloggers Uyen Vu, Ta Phong Tan, Trang Dem, Thien Sau and Song Chi and attorneys Le Tran Luat and Phan Thanh Hai remain under house arrest or tight police surveillance.

Hanoi authorities appear nervous before the 50th anniversary of a diplomatic note by former North Vietnamese prime minister Pham Van Dong recognizing China’s claims over islands historically belonging to Vietnam. Fifty Vietnamese citizens have initiated a petition campaign calling on the Hanoi government to nullify the September 14, 1958 diplomatic note. Recently, leaflets have been distributed at universities calling for protests outside the Chinese embassy on September 14th.

The government is also contending with the peaceful protest by thousands of Catholics for the return of confiscated church property. The protest of Thai Ha parish is entering its third week. Even though authorities have detained some protestors and used tear gas against crowds, the prayer vigils continue.

As American Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte visits Vietnam this week, the Hanoi leadership is trying to project a business as usual appearance while its security police is sweeping up dissidents throughout the country.


Uncomfortable anniversary in Vietnam

By Duy Hoang

Generations of French school children grew up learning never to forget Alsace-Lorraine, territory that France lost to Prussia in the war of 1871. Chinese students launched a protest movement in 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles gave the Shandong Peninsula – the birthplace of Confucius – to Japan.

To many Vietnamese today, the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos off the eastern coast of Vietnam evoke the same sort of homeland emotions. These island chains, whose ownership is contested by multiple countries but occupied mainly by China and Vietnam, have been claimed by Vietnamese imperial dynasties going back centuries.

They straddle strategic sea lanes in the South China Sea and are believed to contain significant oil and gas deposits. Recently, China’s renewed assertion of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea – waters between Vietnam and the Philippines and stretching down to Indonesia – have enflamed nationalist passions in Vietnam. At the same time, Hanoi’s muted reaction to Beijing’s stance stirred popular outrage at home and across the diaspora.

While all Vietnamese, including the ruling communists, are keenly aware of centuries of domination by their big northern neighbor, the Hanoi regime is conflicted in how to deal with Beijing. It relies on China for political support, photocopying Beijing’s model of open economics and closed politics. It is reluctant to openly criticize China, fearing that to criticize China is to condemn itself.

For a party that came to power in the name of national independence, the perceived legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party might evaporate if people realize how it has put the interest of the regime before that of the nation. In a culture where history matters, there are three important approaching anniversaries that worry Vietnam’s communist leaders.

Disgraceful concession
Fifty years ago, the People’s Republic of China issued a declaration essentially claiming the entire South China Sea as an inland lake. Within days, on September 14, 1958, prime minister Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to his counterpart Chou En-lai, acknowledging China’s claim. The motivation of the Hanoi communists was simple: they needed China’s military support in the war against the US-backed South Vietnam.

However, the Hanoi communists had given away what wasn’t theirs to give. The Geneva Accords of 1954 divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. Both the Paracels and Spratly are located below the 17th parallel and legally belonged to South Vietnam. To this day, Beijing uses the Pham Van Dong note to support its claims over the islands. This document, which never had any legal force, is listed on the website of China’s Foreign Ministry under a section titled “International recognition of China’s sovereignty over the Nansha [Spratly] Islands”.

As the 50-year anniversary of the Pham Van Dong concession approaches, activists in Vietnam are demanding that the Hanoi government officially recall the diplomatic note. This is a public discussion that authorities would rather not have and it remains to be seen what the official reaction will be. If the leadership ignores or, even worse, represses these demands, it will confirm a growing view that the Hanoi communists were complicit in ceding Vietnamese islands to China.

In November 2007, China formalized its annexation of the Paracels and Spratlys by incorporating the two archipelagoes into a newly formed administrative unit (known as “Tam Sa”) governed out of Hainan province. When this decision became known, Vietnamese students and bloggers organized unprecedented protests outside Chinese diplomatic offices in Hanoi and Saigon. These protests lasted two consecutive weekends until Vietnamese security police harassed and detained many of the organizers.

As the one-year anniversary of the Tam Sa incorporation arrives, Vietnamese youth may again take to the streets. This time, will the government shut down blogs and imprison people for asserting Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty? In the last year, Hanoi has become a member of the United Nations Security Council. Many are questioning whether Hanoi will use its lofty post to advocate for an international settlement of the South China Sea dispute.

Toward the end of the Vietnam War, China took advantage of South Vietnam’s weakening military position by attacking the Paracel Islands, which were garrisoned by Vietnamese troops. In the naval battle of January 19, 1974, and subsequent Chinese amphibious landings, 53 Vietnamese sailors and soldiers lost their lives defending the islands. The Saigon government protested the unprovoked invasion, while the Hanoi government expressed support for China’s moves against what it called “American puppets”.

Now, almost 35 years later, as the old propaganda fades away, a fair assessment of history reveals an inconvenient truth for the Hanoi communist leadership. During the most difficult days of the country’s civil war, the Southern side which the communists always vilified, valiantly fought to hold on to part of the fatherland. This is in contrast to the short-sighted Northern side which welcomed the Chinese occupation of the Paracels for its near-term war aims.

By Vietnamese custom, ancestors and national heroes are venerated. Some 35 years after the Battle of the Paracel Islands, bloggers and historians in Vietnam are beginning to revisit the history. This creates another dilemma for the regime: will it prevent citizens from publicly discussing the past? How will authorities react to remembrance ceremonies for the 53 Vietnamese sailors and soldiers who died in battle?

Two conflicts, one solution
There are really two brewing conflicts arising from the disputed islands in the South China Sea. The first conflict is between China, Vietnam and other countries with a stake in the outcome.

Beijing’s thirst for energy supplies and desire for global prominence has led to an increasingly aggressive stance, threatening freedom of navigation, fishing rights and contracts for energy exploration. The issue of the South China Sea needs to be elevated to regional and international fora where a peaceful resolution acceptable to all parties can be achieved.

The second conflict is between Vietnam’s rulers and its people. Because the interests of the two are not necessarily aligned, how Hanoi and many Vietnamese people want to address the issue differs. As on the international level, there needs to be a free and open discussion within Vietnam regarding the history of the Paracels and Spratlys and on ways to resolve Vietnam’s claims.

The matter of these islands can be explosive, and the Hanoi leadership knows it. During a meeting this summer, the Communist Party’s Central Committee discussed the growing dissatisfaction among students and intellectuals with how the government was responding to Chinese aggressiveness, and came up with no remedies.

The solution to the South China Sea problem is open, frank dialogue on the international level and within Vietnam. The Hanoi regime must be willing to raise the matter in international fora and the Vietnamese people must have the right to freely express their views on this issue of national importance.

The failure of the Communist Party to defend Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty and its insistence on repressing domestic expressions of patriotism call into question the very legitimacy of its rule.

Duy Hoang is a US-based leader of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy, unsanctioned political party active in Vietnam.

Source: Asia Times Online