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    Greater China
     Dec 20, 2007
China, Vietnam churn diplomatic waters
By Andrew Symon

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 Chinaís territorial waters. Hanoi denied Beijingís 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 Indiaís state-owned ONGC and the offshore blocks 127 and 128, located off Vietnamís 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 Chinaís 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 Vietnamís 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 Chinaís CNOOC, Vietnamís 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 Vietnamís 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 Vietnamís efforts to open and integrate globally its economy, so its election to the Security Council underlined the countryís rising stature in the regional and international community.

Over the past year, Hanoi has pushed hard to raise and improve Vietnamís 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 Vietnamís several million Catholic adherents. Foreign leaders, ministers and business delegations have also been beating a path to Vietnamís door, attracted by the countryís 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 Vietnamís 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 UNís central decision-making forum.

It wasnít 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 Vietnamís relations with China were a point of global concern after a short but bloody border war between the two sides in 1979, Beijingís armed response to Hanoiís military move to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime.

Only after the UN-brokered 1991 Paris Peace Agreement ended Cambodiaís 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, itís not beyond the realm of possibility that its own bilateral tensions with China could during its term end up on the Security Councilís agenda.

Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based journalist and analyst who regularly visits and writes on Vietnam and the wider Mekong region. He may be reached at: Andrew.symon@yahoo.com.sg

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