August 03, 2017

China Vietnam relations fall to a one year low over new Maritime dispute

An anti-China activist holds a poster saying '74 (Vietnamese) martyrs live forever' during a rally marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1974 naval battle between China and then-South Vietnamese troops over the Paracel Islands, in Hanoi on January 19, 2017. (HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)

After a world court tribunal ruled last year in July that Beijing lacked legal rights to claim most of the South China Sea, it stepped up talks with the chief maritime disputant Vietnam. Vietnam and China contest sovereignty over the sea’s two major island chains and a lot more. Both remember deadly naval clashes in 1974 and 1988 for control over some of those islets. Three years ago, anti-China riots broke out in Vietnam after Beijing let a Chinese offshore oil driller park a rig 240 kilometers east of the Vietnamese coast.


Now they’re at it again despite all the talking. This dispute has pushed Sino-Vietnamese ties to a one-year low that will probably last a while yet not lead to any use of force.

The latest problem began when Vietnam and a Spanish contractor set out in June to explore for oil or natural gas beneath the seabed near Vanguard Bank, which is under Vietnamese control, say analysts who follow Southeast Asia. Beijing says that feature in the Spratly chain rightfully belongs under its flag. It may separately resent the influence of India, a not-so-pro-China country without a claim of its own to the disputed 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Vietnam this year extended a deal with the overseas subsidiary of India’s state-run firm ONGC to explore for fossil fuels in a tract that China contests.

China says about 90% of the sea is its own, including tracts that overlap the exclusive economic zones of Brunei and Malaysia. It has landfilled disputed islets for military installations to bolt down its claims. Five other governments claim parts of the sea. Vietnam, which has also fought China over a land border, historically has been the most outspoken.

In June a Chinese Central Military Commission vice chairman cut short his visit to Vietnam, the official Xinhua News Agency in Beijing reported. It didn’t say Vietnamese oil exploration prompted the official to leave early, but experts call that the chief reason. In late July China strongly pressured Vietnam to withdraw from the tract near Vanguard Bank, analysts believe.


“China’s reported threat to Vietnam forms part of a pattern of increased bellicosity from China,” Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia, says in a July 25 research note. “At the extreme end of the spectrum, China could fire warning shots at the exploration vessel or, as threatened, take some form of limited military action against one of the features that Vietnam occupies.”

Neither government wants another clash by force, so analysts expect them to keep talking, possibly at the Communist Party-to-Communist Party level at first. But that dialogue would only dampen the dispute, not solve it. The core disagreement just runs too deep.

Vietnamese officials say the world court ruling gives it rights to Vanguard Bank, while China rejects the whole ruling. Vanguard Bank had loomed as a sticking point in 2011 too, when a Chinese fishing vessel cut a Vietnamese boat’s cable there. “Vietnam may withdraw its rig this time because it has completed operation, or to defuse tension, but it will not give up its claim there,” says Le Hong Hiep, research fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Future waves of tensions over this area should be expected

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