Tensions in the South China Sea mount over an oil rig in disputed waters. Recent enforcement of territorial claims are likely to disturb peace and stability in the region, cause domestic trouble in Vietnam, and sour China’s relations with ASEAN members and the US.

On 14 May 2014, Vietnamese protesters vented their anger at China’s claims to contended territorial waters and its recent enforcement of those claims by defending the construction of a Chinese oil rig (the Haiyang Shiyou 981), destined to drill a mere 120 km off Vietnam’s shore. Over 20,000 rioters vandalised factories in Binh Duong province, Vietnam’s industrial heartland just outside Ho Chi Minh City. The mob attacked anything with Chinese script on it, but ended up also damaging many Taiwanese and Korean properties. Several Chinese workers were killed in the tumult, up to 21 according to some sources. Chinese citizens react outraged.

All anti-Vietnamese protesters in Kunming
All of the anti-Vietnamese protesters in Kunming on 18 May

In the Yunnanese capital of Kunming, a group of 79 veterans from the last Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979 announced they would hold a demonstration against Vietnam. At 9 am, all was peaceful at at Nanping Square, a popular pedestrian zone in downtown Kunming. Only the presence of military patrols, SWAT teams, regular police, and clumsily hidden plain-clothes police indicated that something is going on. Although the demonstration had been officially sanctioned, there is no sign of any war vets. At 9.30am, six beefier looking guys with red flags pinned to their shirts showed up and stand around in a circle, talking and chain-smoking cigarettes. The group dispersed about half an hour later, never to return. A bored-looking press crew held out for another hour but then chose an early lunch over the possibility of news.

Whether to blame the failure of the war vets to show up or orders from local government to keep it cool, it is fairly safe to say that Kunming residents have other fish to fry. While evidence of the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands can be seen in buses, on storefronts and on cars, the Yunnanese seem less hot-headed about the Paracel and Spratly islands. Most opinions about Vietnam in Yunnan range from an objective “they’re very poor” to a disdainful “it’s so messy and they all wear sandals there” but are rarely belligerent. In Hekou, a county town on the border with Vietnam, a retired military officer and veteran from the 1979 border war holds his neighbours in high esteem. He attributes the conflict to a game of politics and admits that China lost the war. Back in Kunming, Vietnamese students alerted by their universities and through WeChat groups, continue to lay low but report not to be too worried.

Vietnamese unhappy at Chinas's business in Vietnamese waters. Source: Chinasmack.
Vietnamese unhappy at China’s business in Vietnamese waters. Source: Chinasmack.

Not so on the other side of the country. Miss Dao, a Vietnamese national working as a translator for a Vietnamese furniture merchant at an exhibition in Shenzhen, reports a tremendous drop in sales in the days after the riots. Where her Vietnamese stand was selling out at earlier exhibitions and doing really well in the first days of this edition, visitors now choose to leg it to the Thai and Malaysian stands instead. The few that do venture towards her shop usually only do so to shout racial abuse or announce that “we will beat you all to death”. The hatred scared Miss Dao into spending half her 2000 Yuan (€ 235) salary on a plane ticket rather than taking the bus back to Hanoi. Only the bus fare would’ve been paid for by her employer.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is advising against travelling to Vietnam and has dispatched several passenger ships to Vietnam to repatriate nationals residing in the country. At the same time, YunnanNet is reporting that all Yunnanese travel agencies have cancelled tours to Vietnam, right at a time when travelling to Vietnam was beginning to blossom. Thailand was always the more popular destination for Chinese and it seems that current  events will persevere that status quo.

Nine-dash line

China continues to assert its claims to most of the South China Sea, an area that has become known as the nine-dash or U-shaped line and which was claimed as early as 1947 by the nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek. The claims are rather extravagant: the southernmost point of the area is about 1900 km south of China’s mainland and 1700 km south of Hainan, an island off the Guangdong coast. This leaves adjacent shoreline nations, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, a mere 100 km for fishing, navigation and seabed exploitation.

Inside these claimed waters are the hotly contended Paracel and Spratly islands, archipelagos that have changed ownership between Vietnam and China throughout history, and to which both countries lay claim. In the case of the Spratlys, the contenders also include Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan. Vietnam has rather deceitfully given up its claims to the territories during the Vietnam War in return for aid from China, only to re-claim them after the war finished.

China's claims in the South China Sea. Source. Reuters
China’s claims in the South China Sea. Source: Reuters.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), sovereign nations have rights to the surrounding seabed (up to 648 km from the coastal baseline, barring overlaps) and can claim sovereignty over the waters (22 km). In the South China Sea case, China is claiming a lot more. The location of the oil rig is also disputable because it is closer to Vietnam’s continental shelf than to China’s, and on the Vietnamese side of any median line generated from the coastlines of both countries.

Disturbing the Peace

The peace and stability in the South China Sea were upheld by all shoreline nations by not enforcing any of these claims. This meant that the waters were considered effectively international and a zone through which goods – including 1/3rd of the world’s crude oil – could be shipped freely. The US and the neighbouring shoreline nations now blame China for breaching this peace by commencing drilling operations in waters claimed by Vietnam and defending the rig with a flotilla of 40 ships (including navy vessels), despite calling its actions fully legitimate and ‘normal’ behaviour.

Chinese coast guard attacking Vietnamese vessels with water cannon. Source: nguoiduatin.vn.
Chinese coast guard attacking Vietnamese vessels with water cannon. Source: nguoiduatin.vn.

It has also introduced fishing permits into its claimed territorial waters, bullied Philippine fishing ships and confronted Vietnamese vessels with water cannons and ramming manoeuvres. China’s General Fang Fenghui uttered the veiled threat that China “doesn’t make trouble, but isn’t afraid of trouble either”. He further stated that China cannot afford to lose an inch of its ancestral territory, an area it established through convenient selective reading of history. Per some of China’s logic it should abandon Xinjiang province to the East Turkestan Independence Movement. An opinion piece by Philip Bowring at Hong-Kong based South China Morning Post accuses China for its Han chauvinism and superiority complex and condemns its arrogance in the area. He also remarks that China is no longer rising peacefully and simply seizes by force what it cannot obtain through negotiation.

The peace in the region is further disturbed because Vietnam will be hard pressed not to respond to this sea-grab. Its pro-Chinese government is becoming increasingly unpopular because it fails to stand its ground in the light of increasing Chinese aggression and greed.

Regional Instability

In the meantime, trouble in Vietnam continues to brew. 20,000 protesters isn’t a small number and police had trouble controlling the mob. A Western diplomat in Hanoi, quoted in the Economist, voiced his concern that “while Vietnam has plenty of police, they aren’t necessarily riot-ready”. There is genuine worry that the government of Vietnam may not be able to contain the anger and that anti-China protests may lead to a backlash against the Vietnamese government. The government seems to understand this: Whereas the first anti-China protests were government-sanctioned, the protests on 18 May were not.

DPA Vietnam bureau chief Marianne Brown: "as I was talking to this guy, thugs pushed him and dragged him away". Source: Twitter.
DPA Vietnam bureau chief Marianne Brown: “as I was talking to this guy, thugs pushed him and dragged him away”. Source: Twitter.

Marianne Brown, Vietnam bureau chief for DPA in Hanoi tweeted that people she was interviewing at new, non-sanctioned anti-China protests on 18 May were being pushed around and dragged off by thugs aided by the police. The thugs asked whether she was Viet Tan, a group with members over the entire world advocating democracy and reform in Vietnam. Although Viet Tan insists it merely promotes non-violent political reform, the Vietnamese government is adamant that Viet Tan is a terrorist group. It becomes apparent that the government fears that its domestic stability is at stake. Viet Tan denies any involvement in the riots or demonstrations.

A toothless Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) can only stand by and watch. While both Vietnam and the Philippines called on the Association to take a firm stance in the matter, its members lack leadership, are too divided and too worried about severing trade ties with China to take action. Newer and poorer members also depend too much on Chinese aid and investment to speak up. The Economist’s Banyan blog mockingly concludes that China does not need to divide and rule South-East Asia, it can leave that task up to the ASEAN way.

Still, with China’s actions, it has done much to annoy and anger its neighbours, to feed distrust among its allies and enemies and to further alienate the country from the rest of the world. The rig, while costing tons of cash to remain operational, may not even strike oil. Perhaps China is just testing the waters.

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