China and the World

Trouble at sea

Factories on fire in Vietnam after oil rig riots

Workers hold banners during a protest in an industrial zone in Binh Duong province

Anti-China protesters in Vietnam

Adventurous Chinese tourists have been visiting the Paracel Islands for a year. But as tensions rise in waters not far south of the archipelago, the minor tourism boom that the ‘city’ of Nansha has just experienced could be at an end. In fact, the mood is so tense that the Chinese military has called a halt to cruise ship visits to the region.

The tourist embargo follows a series of confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels about 120 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coastline, where CNOOC, the Chinese oil giant, wants to locate a new rig. Ships from Vietnam have mustered to prevent it from establishing a fixed position and vessels from both countries are said to be trying to ram their opponents. The Chinese have also been firing water cannons (“the most gentle measure we can take in trying to keep the other side out,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman explained).

Hanoi says the Chinese rig is within a 200-nautical-mile sovereign zone established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China says it sits within reach of the Paracels (which it calls the Xisha Islands). “Which is the closer?” the Foreign Ministry official asked. “I think the international community can make its own judgement.”

Hanoi counters that it doesn’t recognise China’s claim to the Paracel Islands, which it calls Hoang Sa.

The row highlights the problem of overlapping claims to maritime rights in the region, including Beijing’s insistence on jurisdiction within the confines of the ‘nine-dash line’ stretching hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.

China says it derives its authority in the area from thousands of years of history in which outcrops like the Paracels and the Spratlys (the Nansha Islands for the Chinese) have always been regarded as its territory.

Hanoi counters that Beijing never demanded sovereignty over the Paracels before the 1940s and that Vietnam has a stronger claim.

In 1974 Chinese troops clashed with South Vietnam over the Paracels, establishing de facto control after a battle in which more than 100 soldiers were killed. In 1988 there was another confrontation, this time over the Spratlys. Vietnam again came off worst, losing about 60 sailors.

The tension surrounding the row extended to last weekend’s annual ASEAN summit, with China’s Foreign Ministry warning Vietnam against trying “to rope in other parties” in its support. About a thousand Vietnamese then joined one of the largest-ever anti-Chinese rallies in Hanoi last Sunday.

Andrew Chubb, an Australian specialist on territorial disputes in the region, says that Vietnamese boats have a history of confronting Chinese ships surveying for energy resources in the region. A documentary on Chinese television shows a similar clash seven years ago. Both sides steer their boats into their counterparts. As martial music beats in the background, one Chinese captain promises: “Be it hitting, ramming or crashing, we will perform our duty resolutely.”

But Chubb is unsure about China’s tactics in the current row, saying that CNOOC could have chosen sites closer to the Paracels that wouldn’t have been so provocative to Hanoi, as well as easier to defend against the Vietnamese flotillas. His conclusion is that the motivations are more political than economic, and that Beijing wants to mark out its claims to the outermost reaches of the disputed ‘nine-dash line’.

But in Vietnam the mood turned uglier on Tuesday as 20,000 rioters started targeting Chinese factories in the worst anti-Chinese unrest for almost 35 years.

Hundreds of Taiwanese and South Korean businesses were also damaged in the disturbances despite putting up signs declaring they were not Chinese. China’s Foreign Ministry responded by urging the Vietnamese “to take effective steps to resolutely stop and punish these crimes, and to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens and institutions”.

The Guardian reported yesterday that the riots have now turned deadly. A local hospital says 16 Chinese have been killed.

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