A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Quang Le
A Vietnamese naval soldier stands quard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Quang Le

While a visiting senior politician from Vietnam and her Chinese hosts talked in Beijing about the friendship and comradeship between the two communist neighbors, it was reported that their coast-guard vessels had been involved in a confrontation over a reef in the South China Sea.

Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairwoman of the National Assembly, Vietnam’s parliament, made an official visit to the People’s Republic from July 8-12. According to Vietnamese state media, the purpose of Ngan’s trip was to consolidate “the Vietnam-China traditional friendship and comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership in a stable, healthy and sustainable manner.”

China’s official news agency Xinhua reported that, in a meeting with Vietnam’s top legislator, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on the two sides, which will mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties next year, “to stay true to their original aspirations, look at the big picture, carry forward their friendship and enhance their cooperation so as to lift their ties to a new high from a new starting point.”

According to Xinhua, Xi also referred to the two countries as “comrades and brothers” and said that “they form a community of shared future with strategic significance.”

Judging by this, the relationship between the neighbors sounds very amiable and the comradery between the two ruling Communist parties seems strong. But in reality, all this isn’t as friendly as it sounds.

A South China Morning Post report on July 12 said the presence of a Chinese survey ship near Vanguard Bank, a South China Sea territory claimed by Vietnam, led to a standoff between the countries’ heavily armed coast-guard vessels.

The Hong Kong-based paper cited Ryan Martinson, an assistant professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who said in a tweet on July 9 that since July 3, “Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 has been conducting a seismic survey of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, in waters just west of Vietnam-occupied Spratly Island.”

In subsequent tweets, Martinson published photos of the operations or tracks of the Chinese survey ship and at least three escort ships, including China Coast Guard cutter 3901, in the area. On July 13, he confirmed that Chinese maritime militia indeed escorted the Haiyang Dizhi, which was in the area for 10 days. The SCMP report is more precisely saying that its escorts included the 12,000-ton armed coast guard vessel 3901, complete with helicopter and the 2,200-ton coast guard ship 37111.

As of July 16, neither China nor Vietnam has confirmed the standoff, with state-run media outlets in the two tightly censored countries completely silent on it.

Yet it is unsurprising that such a confrontation occurred and that officials and media on both sides have been quiet about it.

In recent years, maritime incidents between the two neighbors have happened on a regular basis. For instance, China has frequently harassed and attacked Vietnamese fishermen. In March, Vietnam accused a Chinese coast guard vessel of sinking a fishing boat near the Paracel Islands

In recent years, maritime incidents between the two neighbors have happened on a regular basis. For instance, China has frequently harassed and attacked Vietnamese fishermen. In March, Vietnam accused a Chinese coast guard vessel of sinking a fishing boat near the Paracel Islands.

In 2017 and 2018, China pressured its southern neighbor to cease oil and gas exploration operations in the areas that lie within Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) because those offshore fields are also near Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line,” a controversial line that was invalidated by a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral tribunal in 2016.

In fact, the Asian behemoth has adopted a coercive posture toward not just Vietnam but also other smaller claimant states, such as the Philippines. Last month, a Philippine fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese vessel while anchored near Reed Bank – about 100 nautical miles off the Philippine island of Palawan and nearly 600 nautical miles from China’s Hainan island – leaving 22 Filipino fishermen floating at sea before they were rescued by a Vietnamese boat. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, described “such an act of desertion [by the Chinese] as inhuman as it is barbaric.”

Leaders in Hanoi and Beijing have reasons not to confirm reports or give any information about the recently reported standoff. Had Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its armed coast-guard escort vessels truly entered the EEZ and Vietnamese officials or media reported it, it would certainly have sparked another strong wave of anti-China sentiment in the Southeast Asian nation. China’s placement of its HYSY 981, a huge oil drilling platform, within Vietnamese waters in May 2014 led to anti-China riots across the country.

In June last year, protests erupted throughout the 95-million-people nation in response to the Vietnamese government’s plans to offer long-term foreign leases in three special economic zones that many feared would be dominated by Chinese investors.

In Vietnam, anti-Chinese attitudes, which are generally strong, often go in hand with grievances against the government. Actually, during the last few days, on social media, some people have already criticized Vietnamese leaders, accusing them of being submissive to China.

China also has its own reasons to avoid any publication of its behavior in the disputed South China Sea. The country, or more precisely its paramount leader, Xi Jinping, is faced with many challenges.

In late 2017 and early 2018, Xi made extraordinary moves – such as enshrining his ideology in the Communist Party of China’s charter and China’s constitution, abolishing the presidential term limit to stay in power indefinitely, and declaring a new era for China to become a rich, strong and powerful nation. To justify such decisions, he and his apologists often painted himself as the right, if not indispensable, man who will lead China into such an era. A top Chinese journal even claimed that many people in international society hail his “super-strong leadership strength.”

But now, his country is faced with a damaging trade war with the US and, consequently, a slowing economy. Mass and unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations have taken place on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks, posing a real challenge to Xi’s autocratic rule. Other policies and actions, such as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a colossal global infrastructure project, have been criticized. At such a difficult time, perhaps, Beijing doesn’t want any more negative publication about China and its leadership.

Still, while the Xi regime may not want any external criticism, those internal and external challenges could be a reason behind China’s recent aggressive actions, including reported anti-ship missile tests in late June and early July, in the South China Sea.

At a time when he is challenged on many fronts, Xi, also chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, which supervises the People’s Liberation Army, probably feels great pressure (from hardliners within the party and army) to do something. Asserting China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea could be such a thing.

After all, consolidating China’s foothold in this strategically vital and resources-rich area ranks as one of his biggest achievements. In his address to the CPC’s 19th Congress in 2017, Xi himself hailed the “steady progress” of China’s island-building in the South China Sea. As noted, an official Chinese magazine also acknowledged that Xi “personally made decisions on building islands and consolidating the reefs.” Such acts, the CPC’s Study Times rejoiced, “fundamentally changed the strategic situation of the South China Sea” and “created a solid strategic foundation for the winning final victory in the struggle for upholding rights in the South China Sea.”

If many of Xi’s nationalist addresses, such as this, and China’s actions under his watch, are any guide, it isn’t surprising at all that Beijing sends, from time to time, its oil rigs, survey ships or coastguard vessels to the EEZs of Vietnam or other countries. The immediate aim of such moves is to test its neighbors’ resolve and their long-term aim is to realize China’s ultimate ambition of controlling the entire 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea.

That could be a key factor in why Beijing sent the Haiyang Dizhi and its escort vessels to an area in Vietnam’s EEZ just days before Ngan’s China trip – her first to the country since taking office in 2016 and the first by a senior Vietnamese leader since the CPC’s 2017 congress. All this also indicates that, when it comes to the South China Sea issue, Xi’s nice talk about China’s friendship, comradeship and partnership with its southern neighbor is largely rhetoric.

In fact, the accounts by the two countries’ media about Ngan’s meeting with Xi reveal fundamental differences between the two sides over the maritime disputes.

A Vietnam News Agency account said that in her talks with the Chinese leader, Ngan said that “Vietnam is ready to join hands with China in the settlement of the East Sea issue” and that “the two sides should continue to strictly observe the agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related issues reached by high-ranking leaders of the two countries while persistently addressing the East Sea issue through peaceful measures based on mutual respect and in line with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Other versions by Vietnam’s state-run outlets, such as this, mentioned her emphasis on solving the maritime disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. Xinhua’s accounts of her meeting with Xi Jinping, however, didn’t mention international law or UNCLOS at all when talking about the issues.

Actually, in their previous talks with China’s leaders as well as their own statements and joint declarations with leaders of Vietnam’s main partners – such as the United States,  IndiaJapanAustraliaSouth KoreaIndonesia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and France – Vietnamese leaders have always maintained an international-law-based approach to the disputes.

Yet China has not agreed – and probably will never accept – such an international-law-based approach because by doing so China would have to abandon its controversial, and already declared illegal, “nine-dash line.”

As long as Beijing refuses an international-law-based solution, tensions between the Asian giant and its smaller neighbors, as well as other interested nations in the South China Sea, will continue to flare.

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