What has triggered the spat?
On May 26, Vietnam claimed that a Chinese vessel had cut the cable of an oil exploration vessel 220km from the Vietnamese shoreline. The waters around the Spratly Islands are claimed by both China and Vietnam. “Vietnam’s argument is not true,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. He claimed armed Vietnamese ships had illegally driven away Chinese fishing boats and in the ensuing chase, fishing lines had got caught up in the cable.
Fishing rights are clearly not the main bone of contention. The exploration boat was owned by Hanoi’s state-owned PetroVietnam. “Vietnam, having struck a series of deals with foreign oil giants, is pushing ahead with extensive exploration and survey work on its southern continental shelf,” notes the South China Morning Post. Like many sources of conflict in the world, this is really about oil. In this case China fears Vietnam is at a more advanced stage of exploration, and is trying to slow it down.
A question of sovereignty…
The Foreign Ministry’s Hong said that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands (the Chinese name for the Spratlys) and adjacent waters, reports Xinhua. He added that Vietnam is “seriously violating” China’s sovereignty and maritime rights by exploring for oil in the area. “Sino-Vietnam relations have fallen to a serious state of tension as result of the territorial dispute” claims Xinhua. According to the Global Times, Vietnam was “a small country” trying to “blackmail” China.
Vietnam also claims sovereignty over the area. Hundreds of Vietnamese took part in protests outside China’s embassy in Hanoi on Sunday. “China is running an information campaign to blind people,” a protester told the Financial Times. “We have to let people understand that we want peace but when the aggressor comes we stand up to them.”
Could it get more serious?
Definitely. Reference News reports “Chinese experts believe that Vietnam is not prepared to retreat, signalling the South China Sea crisis will continue to escalate.” In 1979 China sent its army across the border “to teach little brother a lesson” (to use Deng Xiaoping’s phrase). And Zu Feng, deputy director for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies at Peking University said because of the “stalemate” he doesn’t rule out a “formal military conflict” with Vietnam.
Phoenix TV commentator Tang Ben said China’s military power is five times greater than Vietnam’s and winning a conflict would be “a piece of cake”. And he thinks the sooner China goes to war with Vietnam the better. On ifeng.com a survey of nearly 30,000 internet users asked whether economic or military means should be used to resolve the dispute in the South China Sea: 92.9% preferred force.
The FT reports that Vietnam has called on the US to help “resolve” the dispute, in a move “likely to anger Beijing”. Hanoi also upped the ante with a live-fire naval drill on an islet 20 miles from its coast.
And it won’t be the last. “Vietnam will hold joint naval drills with the US next month – a move which could further stoke tensions over the South China Seas,” reports the SCMP. “It’s fairly clear that Vietnam is signalling its resolve to China that they’re not going to back down on disputed claims in the South China Sea,” Abraham Denmark, a senior adviser at the Centre for Naval Analysis in Washington, told research site, Trend Lines.
Meanwhile the Canberra Times says China is laying down its own “Monroe Doctrine” over the South China Seas.
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