Tensions with Vietnam soar as China invites oil bids in South China Sea
When Vietnam’s National Assembly adopted a law on June 21 that placed some of the Spratly and Paracel islands under Hanoi’s sovereignty, China quickly voiced its disapproval.
China’s National People’s Congress immediately issued a statement saying Vietnam’s move is a “serious violation of Chinese territorial sovereignty … illegal and invalid.”
Additionally at the same time, its Foreign Ministry announced a plan to set up a city-ranked municipal administration covering the Spratly and Paracel island chains in a bid to underline its control over the South China Sea.
Then a week later, the China National Offshore Oil Co. [CNOOC] opened nine new blocks in the South China Sea, believed to carry large deposits of oil and gas, for oil companies to bid for exploration, sparking a wave of anti-China protests in Vietnam.
Tensions between the two countries continue to grow as the CNOOC opened bidding for blocks that cover 160 square kilometers in the center of the South China Sea, with the western edges of some of the blocks well within Vietnam’s 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone [EEZ].
Vietnam’s government-run oil and gas group, Petrovietnam, said one of the nine blocks offered for bidding is 37 nautical miles from the country’s southern island province of Binh Thuan.
As Vietnamese protestors took to the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City shouting anti-China slogans, Vietnam’s government warned China: “We will not allow any implementation of these exploration activities.”
Even though Vietnamese authorities rarely allow public demonstrations, the police, protesters say, made no attempt to disperse the crowd.
In a second anti-China rally on July 8, more than 200 protesters took to the streets in Hanoi waving banners and chanting, “Paracel - Vietnam! Spratly - Vietnam!”
Security forces stopped the demonstrators 100 meters from the Chinese embassy in the city, but made no arrests.
Chinese claims date to 1930s
China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea stretching back to the 1930s when official maps from Beijing contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.
China and South Vietnam once controlled different parts of the Paracels, but after a brief conflict in 1974, Beijing snatched control of the entire group of islands. The last confrontation between the two nations in March 14, 1988, resulted in a bloody skirmish over Johnson South Reef.
Besides mainland China and Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei claim total or partial sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Until the latest row, China mostly used unarmed or lightly armed vessels during confrontations with its neighbors.
But a Chinese defense ministry spokesman said China had begun “combat-ready patrols” in seas around the Paracel and Spratly group of islands.
“In order to protect national sovereignty and our security and development interests, the Chinese military has already set up a normal, combat-ready patrol system in seas under our control,” the spokesman said.
China to Vietnam: Do not escalate situation
Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, urged Vietnam to abide by the consensus reached between the two countries on the settlement of disputes and drop the idea of any action that might further complicate or escalate the situation.
He warned Vietnam against continuing its oil and gas exploration activities that infringe upon China’s sovereignty.
Hong added that China is committed to settling disputes through negotiations and is open to joint exploration projects with Vietnam.
Sun Xiaoying, a researcher on Southeast Asia studies at China’s Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences, said China has taken a breakthrough step by designating cities as administration centers to watch over disputed waters and inviting foreign bids.
“This is not a time for China to be too nice,” he was quoted as saying in China’s Global Times newspaper.
Vietnam Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh responded that his country will have to protect itself in the region.
“We have to rely on our own resources – political, diplomatic, economic, and defense – to protect our independence and sovereignty. No depending on other countries,” Vinh said on the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La dialogue, an Asia-Pacific security forum.
He added that the “power of national unification and the international community’s support are the political edge” Vietnam needs for victory.
Vinh said it was important to distinguish between the international support and dependence on other nations to solve disputes.
“If we are dependent or let the misunderstanding arise that we are relying on other countries’ power to solve issues, it will be very dangerous,” he told Vietnam’s Thanh Nien newspaper, adding, “When your backer withdraws or strikes a compromise with the other side, you will be the first victim of making such a wrong choice.”
The deputy defense minister strongly urged disputing countries to abide by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], which gives coastal countries sovereign rights and jurisdiction over their continental shelf and EEZ that extend 200 nautical miles from shore.
Vinh is hopeful that tension between Vietnam and China will ease with continuous efforts.
“Over the past year we have, step by step, built a trustworthy base for the two countries’ relationship [to grow]. But we can’t be too optimistic and have to continue taking practical and detailed actions,” he said.
Vietnam official’s visit seen as turning point
Vinh sees Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to China last October as a major turning point in Sino-Vietnamese ties as both sides signed an agreement on basic principles to settle sea-related issues.
Both countries committed to solving sea issues peacefully and according to international laws under the agreement.
“It happened right at a time when there were deep concerns about disputes, differences and conflicts between Vietnam and China. So it quickly cooled down things,” Vinh said.
“In terms of defense, both countries have enhanced cooperation in Navy, border defense and military areas. Economic establishments have also tried to improve cooperation and exchanges. Fishermen’s violations in the sea were handled softly, especially on Vietnam’s side.”
Vinh said that Vietnam had become more open and transparent about its issues with China and its plans to improve bilateral ties. “Our policy is to be open about the commitments between Vietnam and China, and to clearly state that we respect the sovereignty and benefits of other regional countries as well as reasonable economic benefits of non-regional countries in the East Sea [South China Sea].”
On July 20, ASEAN issued a six-point statement regarding South China Sea, but omitted contentious issues that caused dispute among its members. The statement came with a call for restraint and dialogue regarding China’s actions in the region.