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
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
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
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
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
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
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: