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.


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

VietWill Plans Protest at San Francisco’s Olympic Torch Relay

Berkeley, CA
14 March 2008

A protest against China’s military aggression in the South China Sea, characterized by its violent harassment of Vietnamese fishermen making a living on their own waters, is being planned by an internet based activist group Viet Will, for when the Olympic Torch passes through San Francisco on April 9th.

The group’s decision to hold a protest at the upcoming event is in direct response to host China’s politicization of the Olympic Games by capitalizing on the Olympic torch relay to make illegal claims on Vietnamese territories which it had seized by force and continues to control.

While the issue over China’s illegal seizure of Vietnam’s Paracel Islands in the South China Sea since 1974 has not been resolved, China aspires to utilize the Olympic Games as a front in order to publicize to the world its dominion over the Paracel Islands by including an enlarged and boxed off map of the archipelago in all of its torch route maps.

China has further tried to emphasize its contempt for Vietnam by forcing the Olympic torch to pass through the Paracel Islands on its way to Ho Chi Minh City on April 29th. Normal international protocol stipulates when the Olympic Games torch passes through a specific location in any particular country, permission needs to be granted from that country in order for this to occur.

In the case of the Paracel Islands, by taking advantage of the upper hand in its relationships with Vietnam, China has decided unilaterally to have the Olympic torch pass through the archipelago as a matter of national issue, despite the fact that Vietnam has never given up on its claim of rightful ownership of the islands. Historical and judicial evidence demonstrate that Vietnam’s claims are well-founded.

In reality, the Paracel Islands are very small. If the islands were depicted proportionally to the rest of the relay route map, they would not be visible at all. Still, the fact that China has magnified the islands and boxed them off on all its maps indicates its intent to make territorial claims and using the high profile Olympic Games as its built-in publicity vehicle, which smacks of politicizing the sports festival.

The organizers of the protest aims to demonstrate the theme of the Olympic torch relay “Journey of Harmony” is contrary to the reality of China’s actions in the South China Sea, where in the past several decades, China has been increasingly aggressive in making claims on Vietnamese territories via diplomatic coercion and outright military force.

In the process of trying to control the region, China has made the life of poor Vietnamese fishermen a nightmare by continually ordering its navy to hunt down, capture, extort money, shoot to injure and murder Vietnamese fishermen and sink Vietnamese fishing boats on the sea surrounding both the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, which China also partially controls as a result of military invasion in the 1980s and 1990s.

Countless families have lost loved ones their boats, their livelihoods and have gone bankrupt as a result of being attacked by the Chinese navy while trying to catch fish for a living on their own waters. Captured fishermen on the sea are forced to pay a monumental sum of $15,000 USD before being let go or they may face torture and execution.

The purpose of Viet Will’s protest is, firstly, to highlight China’s hypocrisy in taking advantage of the Olympic Games to make claims on Vietnam’s Paracel Islands, and of the sea waters around the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Secondly, protestors seek to demand that China stop hunting down and murdering Vietnamese fishermen who are in their own waters as well as disputed waters, thereby preventing poor people from making an honest living.

Thirdly, protestors seek to demand that China respect the territorial integrity of its Southeast Asian neighbors (both land and sea) by giving up its unjustified claims on the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.

This is a political issue which could mushroom into a larger conflict in Southeast Asia. No neighboring nation is going to feel safe if China can bully its way into their territorial boundaries and take over at will. This has already happened in Tibet and Taiwan, and it is happening again. Attention must be brought to China’s dangerous and damaging legacy of arrogance, greed and murder. This rally held by Viet Will will amplify this matter at hand.

Spratly Islands Will be Quiet in 2008

Chinese oil companies are unlikely to pursue any significant hydrocarbon exploration in the disputed region around the Spratly Islands in 2008, as Chinese national oil companies have slowed activities there to ensure the success of the Beijing Olympics.

The central government doesn’t want the intensifying Spratly sovereignty dispute to heat up, especially with Vietnam, and it has asked the Chinese NOCs to avoid any conflict in the contested waters. As a result, PetroChina has canceled a plan to drill its first wildcat well in the Spratlys.

Last year, Vietnam announced it would explore oil fields off the Spratlys with BP to set up natural gas supply pipelines. Vietnam has also decided to hold elections for parliament members representing 24 of the total 48 islands, which it occupies. In response, China established the city of Sansha, which is part of Hainan Province and encompasses all of the islands on waters spanning 2.6 million square kilometers. In early December, a Vietnamese group protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi.

South China Seizure

When China created a new administrative unit covering three archipelagos in the South China Sea in December 2007 — including two claimed by Vietnam — Beijing re-ignited a vexing dilemma for Hanoi. Should Vietnam assert its national interest by pressing the nation’s historical claim to the disputed territory, or defend the narrow interests of Vietnam’s Communist Party by kowtowing to a Chinese leadership that has lent political support to Hanoi?

This dilemma is the latest development in a long-standing dispute. The Spratly and Paracel archipelagos in the South China Sea consist of tiny islands and reefs with rich fishing and, possibly, petroleum reserves, and are strategically located in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. For countries that have an interest in freedom of navigation and a peaceful resolution to maritime disputes, the issue of the South China Sea has strategic implications. Oil from the Persian Gulf to Japan and South Korea passes through these waters. And the American navy does not want China to treat the South China Sea as its personal lake.

Vietnamese imperial dynasties going back several centuries had claimed what are now known as the Paracels and Spratlys. And the Vietnamese aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the islands. China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim all or part of either or both of the chains. Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian even personally inaugurated an airplane runway on one of the Spratlys earlier this month.

In the 20th century, Vietnam’s claim became a bargaining chip in the broader struggle for control of the country. In 1958, four years after the partition of Vietnam into North and South at the 17th parallel, North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong sent a cable to Zhou Enlai acknowledging Beijing’s sweeping claims over the entire South China Sea. Vietnam’s communists hoped that by doing so they’d secure China’s backing for the war against the South.

Never mind that the islands weren’t Hanoi’s to give away at that time — South Vietnam had de jure and de facto possession of the archipelagos because they lay below the 17th parallel. In 1974, taking advantage of the war in Vietnam, Beijing sought to cement its claim by invading the Paracels. In a three-day naval battle, China seized control of the archipelago from South Vietnam. The reaction in the communist North was muted, with Hanoi’s propagandists claiming it was better to have the islands in the hands of a fellow socialist state than those of the Saigon regime.

Following the war, Hanoi officially maintained that the Paracels and Spratlys are Vietnam’s, but often accommodated China’s efforts to cement control over the chains. In recent years, Chinese naval vessels have occasionally fired on Vietnamese fishing boats and killed scores of people in waters off Vietnam, which China treats as its exclusive economic zone. China has called the Vietnamese fishermen pirates. But Vietnamese state media have largely ignored the attacks and in a few tepid articles mentioned the shooting of fishermen by “foreign” ships.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s claims to the islands strike a nationalist chord domestically. Despite the regime’s best efforts to keep the dispute out of people’s minds to avoid stoking tensions with Beijing, it’s still an issue that inflames passions on the street. There have recently been calls from the blogger movement inside Vietnam for the government to bring the issue of the Paracels and Spratlys before the United Nations Security Council. News that China had tightened its administrative grip on the islands unleashed unprecedented student protests outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnamese authorities took steps to deter and subsequently ban street demonstrations. Police went as far as detaining bloggers who publicized the protests. But even so, the pressure may have become a little too great. The official media gave wide coverage to an article in the South China Morning Post several weeks later which quoted a local Chinese official who said he was unaware of the incorporation, in an attempt to downplay the seriousness of China’s recent action.

Complicating matters is Vietnam’s hard-won seat on the Security Council. The regime hoped the seat would be an opportunity to burnish its image at home and abroad. Now Hanoi has to answer to public calls for it to use its lofty position on the world stage to pursue a nationalist territorial claim that runs counter to the best interests of the ruling party.

Without a doubt there are many in the Hanoi regime — and especially the People’s Army of Viet Nam — who are concerned about China’s expansionist moves. But there are an even greater number within the regime who are scared about “peaceful evolution,” the Communist Party’s codeword for democratic change, which could result from tilting relations away from China and toward the West. It would be hard for Hanoi to continue following the Chinese model — open economy, closed politics — while confronting its patron at the same time, given Hanoi’s ideological reliance on China. Yet the greatest fear for the regime is not China. It’s that a new generation of Vietnamese are becoming engaged in a debate that pits the national interest against the party interest; that this generation is coming down on the side of the nation; and that they’re less willing to tolerate government censorship of that debate.

Taiwan leader visits disputed Spratly islands: ministry

TAIPEI (AFP) — Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian on Saturday visited the Spratly islands, the defence ministry said, in a move aimed at underscoring Taipei’s claim to the disputed group but which will likely spark tensions in the region.

Soon after his arrival at Taiping islet, the president oversaw the opening ceremony of a newly-built runway, the ministry’s news agency said on its website.

It added that Chen, the first Taiwanese leader to visit the Spratlys, was “warmly welcomed” by troops stationed there after arriving at 10:32am (0232 GMT).

Speaking at the ceremony, Chen proposed a “Spratly Initiative” calling for a peaceful solution to the disputed claims of the group and promoting marine conservation in the region, a presidential statement said.

“Facing the complicated and sensitive territorial and sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan urges the countries involved to peacefully resolve the issues” according to international regulations, the statement quoted Chen as saying.

Chen left Taipei early Saturday on his presidential jet to a base in Taiwan’s south where he took an air force C-130 transport plane to the Spratlys.

He spent several hours in Taiping, the biggest island in group, to inspect troops before the Lunar New Year on February 7. Defence Minister Lee Tien-yu and Interior Minister Lee Yi-yang accompanied the president.

Vietnam has strongly criticised Chen’s visit to the Spratly Islands, in a statement reported by state media Sunday.

“Taiwan has to take full responsibility for any consequence caused by this action,” said foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung in reaction to Chen’s visit to Taiping, the largest island in the group.

“Vietnam considers the action a serious escalation that violated Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty in regard to the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago and increased tension as well as complication in the region.”

Dung reiterated that Vietnam possesses strong historic evidence and legal grounds to confirm its sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.

“Vietnam demands Taiwan put an immediate end to such violations in the region,” Dung said in a statement carried by the Vietnam News Agency.

The visit is sure to also irk China, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines who claim all or part of the potentially oil-rich islets in the South China Sea.

The Philippines on Saturday expressed “serious concern” over Chen’s trip and warned it could affect relative peace in the area.

“The Philippines, therefore, urges all parties concerned to exercise prudence, self-restraint and use diplomacy as the toll to settle disputes,” Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo said.

Taiwanese media have said the visit was aimed at drumming up support for Frank Hsieh, the candidate for Chen’s independence-leaning ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the March 22 presidential election.

Hsieh is locked in a heated race with the opposition Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou to succeed Chen, who is to retire in May after eight years in office.

Taiwan’s defence ministry completed construction of the 1,150-metre-long (3,800-feet) runway on fortified Taiping in December, despite opposition from Vietnam.

China should return islands to Vietnam

China has created a colossal new city called Sansha in the Hainan province. This city would encompass the archipelagoes of Paracels (Hoang Sa in Vietnamese) and Spratly (Truong Sa) in the South China Sea. These islands have long been considered part of Vietnam by the former regime in South Vietnam as well as its predecessors.

This action is the culmination of a chain of brazen manoeuvres taken by the People’s Republic of China to gradually take away Vietnamese territory. Specifically, the People’s Republic of China sent its navy on Jan. 19, 1974, to take over Hoang Sa; took over Truong Sa on March 14, 1988, annexed Truong Sa and Hoang Sa to the Province of Hainan on April 14, 1988; and annexed the historical Nam Quan Pass and the Ban Gioc Falls in North Vietnam in 2000.

The Vietnamese Communist regime itself is responsible for the losses of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty:

– Vietnamese Communist prime minister Pham Van Dong, in an official correspondence dated Sept. 14, 1958 with the People’s Republic of China’s government, “recognized and agreed with the government of the People’s Republic of China’s announcement on Sept. 4, 1958, defining the territorial waters of China” (to include the Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes);

– The Vietnamese Communist government remained silent when China took over Hoang Sa after a fierce battle with the navy of the former Republic of Vietnam on Jan. 19, 1974;

– The Vietnamese Communist Party secretly signed in 1999 an agreement with the Chinese government to cede Vietnam’s sovereignty over the historical Nam Quan Pass, the Ban Gioc Falls in North Vietnam, and a substantial portion of the Vietnamese territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin.

The Vietnamese Canadian Federation condemns the People’s Republic of China’s world hegemony strategy and denounces the collusion of the Vietnamese Communist regime. We call upon all peace-loving and justice-upholding countries in the world to press the People’s Republic of China to return these islands to Vietnam.

Vietnam is in danger of becoming China’s next Tibet. Unfortunately, with Chinese authorities as its key mentor, the current Vietnamese Communist regime is in no position to fight back China’s gradual encroachment upon Vietnam’s territory.

Danh T. Nguyen, Ottawa

Vietnamese Canadian Federation

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.