By Gary Sands

Were they playing politics or was it just business? When the Vietnamese media announced the seizure of a Chinese oil vessel in Vietnamese waters over the weekend, no clues were on offer in two prominent English newspapers, Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre, both of which decided to place the story in their Society pages, foregoing the more logical Politics or Business categories.

Vietnam Coast Guard vessel
Vietnam Coast Guard vessel

According to their reports, the Chinese oil vessel was chased and seized last Thursday by the Vietnamese coastguard, after it entered the island district of Bach Long Vi, in the Gulf of Tonkin near the northern port city of Hai Phong. The Vietnamese coast guard had previously chased 110 Chinese fishing boats out of Vietnamese waters over the last two weeks of March.

Hai Phong Border Defense officials reported the Chinese vessel, disguised as a fishing boat, was operating at a location 12 nautical miles to the southwest of the Gulf of Tonkin’s maritime delimitation (the delimitation agreement, signed by Hanoi and Beijing in 2000, is China’s first and thus far only agreement). According to local news reports, the captain and crew admitted they intended to provide fuel for several Chinese boats illegally fishing in Vietnam territory. Three Chinese crew members were arrested and more than 100,000 liters of diesel oil confiscated.

New Vietnam state leader

Was it political? The seizure of the Chinese vessel took place just days before the newly elected Vietnamese State President Tran Dai Quang was officially sworn in on Saturday — promising, “I swear to resolutely and persistently fight to protect Vietnam’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the national interest and security.” Quang, as the former Minister of Public Security, has been intimately involved with matters of this kind in recent years, and may have wanted to make a strong start — especially after criticism aired over Vietnam’s tepid response to other encroachments on its territory by China.

One such vocal critic has been Le Van Lai, who represents voters of the central province of Quang Nam. Lai addressed the lawmaking National Assembly on Friday, questioning the assessment that Vietnam’s sovereignty is ensured. In his speech, Lai outlined a number of instances in which China has violated Vietnam’s sovereignty:

Lai then went on to question past reactions while arguing for stronger responses in the future, “Despite all of these violations, we just sit here and say ‘national sovereignty is ensured. It is right to do so? How would such [inaccurate] situation assessments lead to adequate policies, strategies, protests or objections?” Lai concluded, “We should be even-handed. Now that they are violating our national sovereignty, we have to object to such actions and have an accurate assessment.”  “The people will not agree if we assess the situation wrongly.”

Or was it economic?  Vietnam’s coast guard has seen increased activity by foreign oil smugglers over the last year, especially in its southwestern waters. Last month, Vietnamese coast guards caught three Thai vessels illegally transferring diesel fuel to three Vietnamese fishing boats in the southern waters off Khoai Island. One of the Thai boats was carrying around 500,000 liters of diesel and the two others were caught with a total of 190,000 liters of diesel.

More aggressive stance toward China?

Whatever the cause — and in these disputed waters the answer is often both economic and political — the seizure of the Chinese oil vessel may signal a more aggressive stance toward future territorial incursions by the Chinese. While the latest incursion took place in waters clearly delineated by both China and Vietnam, Vietnam’s coast guard typically chases Chinese fishing boats out of its waters – rarely seizing boats as does neighboring Indonesia.

For the new Vietnamese leadership to permit an airing of grievances against its foreign policy toward China, and to allow its coast guard to seize a Chinese vessel (all the while allowing the Vietnamese media to feature the news prominently in both English and Vietnamese) may mark a sea change in dealing with its intractable Communist neighbor.

If so, Hanoi will need to proceed cautiously, striking a balance between placating its angry nationalists and angering the nation which it borders. Despite China’s economic downturn, it still wields significant economic power in the region and commands a strong military, so Hanoi will need to manage the expectations of its citizens, increase cooperation both diplomatically and militarily with the U.S. and regional neighbors, and court international opinion in its favor.

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for the South China Morning Post, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, International Policy Digest, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review and China Digital Times.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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