One can see that the intensity of the ongoing competition between China and Vietnam in claiming sovereignty over two disputed South China Sea island chains, the Paracels (Xisha in Chinese, Hoangsa in Vietnamese) and Spratlys (Nansha in Chinese, Truongsa in Vietnamese) is growing day by day. Beijing claims a vast sea area stretching from Hainan, its southern most province as belonging to it historically, whereas Hanoi argues that the two chains are Vietnamese territory since 17th century. As per known data, China has presence now in 9 locations in Spratlys, while Vietnam has in 29. Other regional powers are also involved in the dispute – the Philippines says that the two chains are its territories on the basis of their geographical proximity to it; Malaysia and Brunei view that the territories fall under their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) as defined by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.
For all the claimants, the strategic importance of the South China Sea region has increased as current estimates confirm vast reserves of natural resources there – about 25 million metric tones of crude oil and approximately 25 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. The region is also home to important shipping lanes.
As Chinese analysts see, to defend its strategic interests in South China Sea, China may have to deal with, what they consider as, two ‘unfavourable’ factors – firstly, China has actual control over only a small number of disputed islands and lacks channels that give connection to the ocean and secondly, the country has ‘no formidable’ Navy to protect its maritime interests. For them, the remedy may lie in China’s ability to transform itself ‘from a continental power to maritime power’ (Gong Jianhua, China Daily, 8 June 2011). Given such assessment, China may think that more time is needed to turn its naval power conditions in its favour and prefer to wait before taking any assertive action on the islands issue; Finding a final solution to the issue may thus take a long time. In the meanwhile, South China Sea is expected to continue as a regional flash point.
China-Vietnam clashes over Paracels and Spratlys are not new. In 1974, the two fought in Paracels and China then captured territories there. Since China launched a war against Vietnam in 1979 to “teach Vietnam a lesson”, occasional conflicts between them have taken place, notable among them having been the fighting in 1988 over Johnson Reef in Spratlys, which resulted in loss of Vietnamese Navy personnel. The nineties saw no major confrontation between the two nations, with China in that period opting more for a political approach towards the islands issue; the then Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng proposed in 1990 that the territorial issue may be put aside, to enable the two sides to indulge in ‘common development’ and two years later, China passed its “Law on Territorial Waters and Adjacent Areas” which reiterated its claim over Paracels and Spratlys. Beijing’s signing of “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea” in 2002 was a major Chinese diplomatic move with respect to South China Sea issue. However minor clashes still occurred; in April and July 2007, Chinese patrol boats captured some Vietnamese fishermen and boats operating close to Spratlys.
The latest incident in Spratlys took place on 26 May 2011, when a Chinese fishing boat, escorted by two Chinese patrol vessels, rammed into and disabled the cables of a Vietnamese seismic survey ship owned by ‘Petro Vietnam’. Hanoi called the act constituting a ‘deliberate’ Chinese violation of Vietnam’s territorial sovereignty and diplomatically protested to Beijing. China, on its part, alleged that the Vietnamese ship was illegally exploring in the area of its jurisdiction and explained that the ship’s cable was cut in the ‘turmoil’ that resulted from the chasing of Chinese vessels by Vietnamese ships. Following the incident, anti-China demonstrations took place in Hanoi, albeit with the tacit permission by the Vietnamese authorities.
The holding of “Live Fire Drills” by both Vietnam and China involving their respective civilian coastal security units and also military forces, in the period immediately following the 26 May 2011 incident, was the most serious incident to happen since 1988. It raised the possibilities of escalation of the conflict into a war-like situation. The venue for Vietnam’s drills (13 June 2011), which took place with Hanoi’s prior-publicity for the first time, was Hon Ong Island, 40 kms off its central coast, 250 kms away from Paracels and 1000 kms away from Spratlys. Hanoi described the drills as ‘routine annual training activity”. The drills were close to land territory and no anti- ship missiles were fired. Thus, Vietnam appeared to have acted with some degree of cautiousness, possibly with intentions not to jeopardize the otherwise positive climate prevailing in its political ties with China.
China chose to respond quickly and rather aggressively. It sent the country’s maritime surveillance forces, responsible for ‘defending islands and meeting any crises’ to the vicinity of Spratlys for conducting a 3- day long “live fire drills.” Taking part in the excercise, which began on 17 June 2011, were 14 Chinese patrol boats, landing craft, submarine-hunting boats and two Chinese fighter aircraft, along with ‘naval forces’. (Chinese TV broadcast, 17 June 2011). Further demonstrating its resolve to protect the country’s maritime interests, China, through a statement of the Defence Ministry (Beijing, 9 June 2011), disclosed that the country’s Navy would hold ‘training drills’ in late June 2011 in the waters of West Pacific.
No doubt, both held drills, but China’s exercise, by its scale and timing, definitely appears a bigger show of strength against Vietnam. Beijing, at the same time, in an effort taken prior to its exercise with the apparent aim of preventing a loss of image internationally, made an official statement containing seemingly benign inputs (Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Beijing, 14 June 2011). It blamed Vietnam for provocation, but at the same time pledged that China “will not resort to use or threat of force” in South China Sea disputes. Stating that China was willing to hold direct negotiations with other nations making territorial claims within the framework of the Code of Conduct agreed in 2002, it indirectly warned the US by urging “nations not directly involved in the maritime disputes to respect all efforts towards solving the issue peacefully”. A Liberation Army Daily commentary (14 June 2011) was more forthright by opposing ‘internationalization’ of the issue and asking for China-Vietnam ‘direct negotiations’.
The following four compelling reasons can be traced with respect to China’s show of force against Vietnam this year – (i) 70% increase in Vietnam’s Defence Budget, presented in January 2011, reaching up to US$ 2.6 billion, (ii) signs of Hanoi’s preparedness for a war with China , as evidenced in its Decree issued on 13 June 2011 specifying the category of citizens that would be exempt from military service at times of war, (iii) challenge posed by Vietnam’s renewed activism in exploring oil and gas in the disputed area, as a follow up to Petro Vietnam’s signing last year of contracts with international oil firms like ExxonMobil and BP and (iv) increase in the level of attempts by Vietnam and the US to ‘internationalize’ the South China Sea issue. On the last mentioned, notable are the statements of US Secretary of State Clinton, made in July 2010, that Washington considers South China Sea as strategically important and supports ‘freedom of navigation’ there, and her offer of US mediation to resolve the issue through a ‘multilateral approach’. On its part, Vietnam (through foreign ministry statement of 14 June 2011) wanted ‘international involvement’ to keep peace in South China Sea, signaling its welcome to the US involvement. Also, the “US- Vietnam Political, Security and Defence Dialogue” (Washington, 17 June 2011) saw both nations coordinating their positions on South China Sea issue; they described the area as one of “common interest to international community”.
China-Vietnam political and economic ties witnessed a visible improvement in recent years. The two sides have been able to solve the boundary issue through signing a land border treaty in 2008 and increase the two-way trade to US$ 27 billion in 2010. During the visit to China of a special envoy of Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguen Phu Truong in February 2011, a decision was taken on exchanges of official visits by Truong and his Chinese Communist Party counterpart Hu Jintao. China’s Vice-Chairman of Central Military Commission, Guo Boxiung, has visited Vietnam and the defence ministers of China and Vietnam have vowed for speeding up military exchanges during their interaction at this year’s Shangrila Dialogue (Singapore, early June 2011). As late as 10 June 2011, senior political advisers of the two nations discussed matters on bilateral cooperation at Beijing.
Question arises – why then China clashed with Vietnam now? The answer is simple – Beijing utilized the clash to reassert its claims over Spratlys. In broader terms, the ‘reassertion’ at this juncture is very much linked to China’s current ‘core interests’ concept, which disallows compromise and even permits use of force while addressing all sovereignty related issues including the South China Sea. In fact, the concept has now come to override every other Chinese diplomatic principle governing territorial issues. (It does not matter whether or not Beijing has ever formally defined the South China Sea as an area of “core interest”; a debate still exists on this count).
What lesson India can learn from the latest China-Vietnam clash? Firstly, India should realize that the ‘core interests’ concept which China uses against Vietnam, can also influence Beijing’s policy behaviour with respect to the Sino-Indian border issue( though not so far included by China in the ‘core interests’ list). Next, India should take note of the contradiction between China’s “not to use force” declaration with respect to settlement of South China Sea disputes and its ground level actions of confronting Vietnamese boats and carrying out a Navy-involved exercise to warn Vietnam. The contradiction was also visible in the case of China’s approach towards Japan on Senkakus issue. Not long time back, Beijing bullied Tokyo on the issue. Can China, which in theory stands for a peaceful dialogue on the Sino-Indian boundary issue, indulge in limited, but offensive border actions against India in practice at any point of time from now? New Delhi should ponder over this question especially with reference to the “Chinese intrusions” into Indian border being frequently noticed.
Next, China is applying the ‘diplomatic’ formula of “shelving the disputes and seeking common development” to its stand on territorial issues with Vietnam. This line may turn into an aggressive one, as and when China becomes a ‘maritime’ power, leaving no necessity for ‘shelving.’ In the case of India also, Beijing is in favor of ‘shelving’ the ‘difficult’ border issue and improving ties in other areas. Will China gain assertiveness on territorial issues with India once its defence modernization programme is complete, say by the middle of the century as being projected? India should deeply examine this aspect too. As next point, the US factor has emerged as an irritant in China’s dealing with the islands issue with Vietnam. There is a parallel case with respect to India with Chinese opinions doubting Washington-New Delhi collusion to strategically ‘encircle’ China. New Delhi should therefore handle the US-China-India triangular relations with finesse. Last, but not least, New Delhi should look closely at the implications of China’s aim to become a “maritime power” for the situation in the Indian Ocean, a region of strategic importance to India.
(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India.Email:email@example.com)