Vietnam has called on the US and other nations to help resolve the escalating territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea, in a move likely to anger Beijing, which opposes what it sees as outside interference.
Tensions between China and Vietnam continued to rise over the weekend, ahead of live-fire drills planned by Vietnam’s navy on Monday on an islet around 20 miles from the coast of central Vietnam, which Hanoi described as “routine”.
Stirred by a number of maritime confrontations with China over recent weeks, hundreds of Vietnamese took part in rare anti-China protests on Sunday for the second straight weekend, with the usually draconian police allowing the demonstrations to take place.
“China is running an information campaign to blind people,” said Pham Gia Minh, a 55-year-old investment consultant who attended a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. “We have to let people understand that we want peace but when the aggressor comes we will stand up to them.”
In addition to China and Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan claim some or all of the territory in the contested area of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves and incorporates key trade routes and abundant fish stocks.
The Vietnamese government has ratcheted up its rhetoric in recent weeks amid growing public disquiet over perceived maritime bullying by China, which dominated Vietnam for 1000 years and fought a brief but bloody border war against it in 1979. At the weekend Vietnam’s foreign ministry said that it would “welcome” efforts by the US and other nations to help resolve the South China Sea dispute and maintain peace and stability.
Such sentiments are unlikely to go down well in Beijing, which insists that the long-running row over the South China Sea must be resolved on a purely bilateral basis.
China reacted angrily last July when Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, insisted that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the US and offered to act as a mediator.
The US said on Friday that is was “troubled” by the latest developments in the South China Sea, with Mark Toner, a state department spokesman, warning that “shows of force” only increase tensions, which have been on the rise in recent weeks.
Hanoi and Beijing have traded accusations of infringement of sovereignty and harassment of their fishing and oil exploration vessels and China has also clashed with the Philippines in a similar fashion.
“China’s behaviour has gone from assertive to aggressive,” said Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and an expert on maritime security in the South China Sea.
In the latest incident, last Thursday, Vietnam claimed that, for the second time in recent weeks, Chinese boats had trespassed onto its territory and deliberately tried to cut undersea cables deployed by a ship hired by PetroVietnam, the state oil and gas monopoly. China dismissed the allegations, claiming that the boats were fishing in its sovereign waters when they were “illegally chased away by armed Vietnamese ships,” endangering the fishermen’s lives.
The Chinese government remained silent on Sunday, but Hanoi’s latest move is likely to infuriate Beijing as China insists its territorial disputes in the South China Sea must be dealt with bilaterally.
A year ago, Beijing decisively rejected remarks by Hillary Clinton in which the US secretary of state called peace in the region a US national interest and called for a multilateral approach in resolving the disputes.
A regional security expert at National Defense University in Beijing called Hanoi’s latest move a provocation. “This is calculated to provoke a reaction in China which they can then dismiss as aggressive,” said the expert who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to foreign media.
The growing tension in the South China Sea also triggered angry reactions among nationalist Chinese on the internet.
”If a single shell falls into Chinese waters, including disputed waters, we should shoot to kill. Can’t we do what North Korea can?” wrote one user on Tiexue, an online bulletin board popular with military enthusiasts and nationalist web users, in reaction to Vietnam’s plans for naval exercises in the area on Monday.