Archive | March, 2013



Official Commemoration For Martyrs Of Naval Battles In South China Sea – by Tuong Nguyen | Eurasia Review

13 March 2013

by Tuong Nguyen | Eurasia Review – For the second time since the Johnson South Reef – Gac Ma skirmish twenty-five years ago, the largest daily newspapers in Vietnam have written special columns commemorating sixty-four martyrs sacrificed to defend their homeland’s sovereignty at the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.


China's Claims in South China Sea

China’s Claims in South China Sea

Vietnam and China have been known as neighbors and brothers like “lips and teeth”. However, bearing the same pressure as other China’s “unhappy neighbors”, Vietnam had to fight against its big brother China to protect its sovereignty. The skirmish on March 14th, 1988 at Johnson South Reef – Gac Ma (Spratly Islands) is a recent Sino-Vietnamese naval confrontation. The site lies at 4 nautical miles (nm) to the northwest of Vietnamese-controlled Collins Reef. Chinese gunboats sank and damaged three Vietnamese vessels. Sixty-four Vietnamese soldiers were killed and many others injured, while one Chinese was wounded.

Despite many conflicts in the past, Hanoi and Peking always maintain their “16 golden words and four cardinal principles” for example regarding the bilateral consensus to actively guide public opinion on the South China Sea disputes, a ‘sensible’ subject to Vietnamese government-controlled media (aka. “right side” media, in comparison to the free “left side” one) for long time. But the anti-China sentiment in public has been on the rise since the cable-seized incident of Vietnamese ships on May 2011.

In the past two recent years, there have been remarkable improvements of media in Vietnam on the South China Sea issues, especially with the development of new media with blogs, forum or the social networks where everyone may express and share easily their opinions to the world.

However, the Johnson South Reef skirmish is a poorly titled subject in Vietnamese “right side” media. On May 7th, 2012, the Vietnamese government organized for the first time a commemoration day for sixty-four martyrs sacrificed in navel battle at Johnson South Reef. This year, Tuoi Tre, one of largest “right wing” newspapers, focuses on the topic with a series of touching stories about killed soldiers, live witness and remains of the battle that create actually a tacit movement that heats up the anti-China sentiment in the Vietnamese communities and social networks.

It’s also important to mention that the Sino-Vietnamese naval battle on January 19th, 1974 at Paracels Islands was officially commemorated for the first time last January 19th 2013 by Thanh Nien News, another government-controlled daily newspaper.

Both Vietnam and China have declared the historical sovereignty in the South China Sea (including Spratly Islands and Paracels Islands) where five other countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan) also claimed their territory or territory rights.

Tuong Nguyen is a computer science postdoctoral fellow in France and free commentator on maritime affairs.

The views expressed are the author’s own.

(Original version is available at Eurasia Review)

Comments (0)

Steady as she goes...

Who’s Bluffing Whom in the South China Sea? – by Khanh Vu Duc | Asia Sentinel

08 March 2013

The latitude for action on the part of all the parties is limited

The territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea continue to plague and jeopardize the peace and security of the region. These disputes are many, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Paracels, the Scarborough Shoal, and the Spratly Islands; and although these disputes have been long running since the end of the Second World War, the region’s history and its nations span centuries. There is and has been no shortage of conflict in the South China Sea.

Steady as she goes...

Steady as she goes…

Tensions have yet to dissipate from last year’s Scarborough Shoal standoffbetween China and the Philippines. Where Asean remains divided and incapable of bringing these disputes to an end, and a multilateral resolution is merely hypothetical, it appears increasingly likely that conflict, whether open war or, perhaps more probably, maritime skirmishes are on the horizon.

Yet, it may be that all of this talk of war is simply that: talk.

Opponents in Conflict
China is presently engaged in a series of disputes with several countries spanning the Western Pacific, among which include Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, however, may prove to be an unnecessary distraction for China’s aspirations in the Pacific. Japan is too close an ally of the US for Washington to ignore their request for assistance, never mind the very capable Japan Self-Defense Forces. As such, it is unlikely that the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute will amount to more than a diplomatic fuss, something to be used to stoke the flames of nationalism in both countries.

The Philippines, similar to Japan, holds a mutual defense treaty with the US. In addition to the Spratly dispute, the Philippines are in dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal, a collection of reefs, rocks, and small islands just off the coast of the country. Yet, unlike Japan, the Philippines do not have an equally sizeable and effective military to counter Chinese aggression, if necessary. As such, in the event of any conflict or war between the Philippines and China, Manila will be dependent on US assistance and support.

That said, it remains to be seen if the US would risk military confrontation with China, even given its treaty with the Philippines. Much will be dependent on the circumstances of the conflict and interpretation of the treaty by the White House. However, should Washington ignore the Philippine cry for help, it would jeopardize current and future US strategic partnerships, never mind the political fallout at home. The US has no desire to be lured into a conflict not of its making or choosing, but it also cannot risk violating its mutual defense treaty without harming the legitimacy of other defense agreements.

Unlike Japan and the Philippines, Vietnam does not hold a defense treaty with the US. Moreover, although Vietnam may share strategic partnerships with several nations, it is unlikely that they will go far in aiding Vietnam in the event of a conflict with China. In addition to the Spratlys dispute, Vietnam is also in dispute with China over the Paracels, seized by Chinese forces in 1974 from then-South Vietnam.

Vietnam remains isolated in the world, for its only “partner” has been China; however, should Hanoi cozy up too closely or compromise too much with Beijing, the government’s legitimacy would be called into question by its citizens, raising and/or confirming the suspicions of those who believe the government and Communist Party are puppets of China, and inflame nationalist sentiments.

In the event that China should seize one or several Vietnamese-occupied Spratly Islands, Hanoi cannot rely on foreign assistance. It cannot attack China, even if such an attack could be argued as self-defence; but it cannot also do nothing and allow the government to be seen as weak and ineffective by the Vietnamese people. The options are limited for Hanoi. To say they would be stuck between a rock and a hard place would be an understatement.

Nevertheless, it remains unlikely that any conflict between China and Japan, Philippines, or Vietnam will amount to more than saber rattling and harsh words. Even a “small” police action against the Philippines or Vietnam over the Spratly Islands, however successful for China, would have severe consequences. Any Chinese use of force would realize the fears of every state in the region. Moreover, Beijing’s hope for a peaceful rise would be immediately set back, if not ruined.

Presently, tensions are already running high; however, any clear displays of Chinese aggression would simply add fuel to the fire. Countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam would then be able to turn some of their neighbours—previously skeptical, if not cautious, about standing in opposition to China—and convince these states to protest openly. Any goodwill China possessed among some of these countries would evaporate as the Philippines and/or Vietnam make their case.

However, of all the scenarios of a conflict involving China, what can be certain is the potential for an immediate American intervention. While it is questionable that the US would directly intervene in any skirmish between nations, it is likely that Washington would use the conflict as an excuse for deploying a larger, if not more permanent, security force in Asia-Pacific. Although an increased American footprint would not be welcomed by all in the region, the US would prove to be an appropriate balance against China.

Conversely, China would find an increased American presence unacceptable and a nuisance. Of course, neither country is likely to find itself staring down the barrel of the other’s gun. China’s plans for the region would undoubtedly be under greater American scrutiny if Washington decides to allocate more assets to Asia-Pacific.

For the US, returning in force to Asia-Pacific would prove to be a costly endeavour, resources the country may or may not be able to muster. Yet, even if this is true, Washington’s calculations may determine that the security risk posed by China in the region outweighs whatever investment required by the US.

China’s dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island, however heated, will prove to be a peripheral issue with respect to China’s dispute with the several claimant states over the Spratlys. Ultimately, it is not improbable that China would seize one or several of the Spratlys under foreign control as a means to demonstrate its resolve in the disputes and the region; but to do so is to engage in unnecessary risk. The consequences stemming from such action are too great for Beijing to ignore.

Although it is unlikely that China’s neighbors would be able to mount more than a diplomatic protest, the fuss deriving from such an incident could prove more burdensome for China than it is willing to risk. The real consequence for China of any and all conflict in the region is and has always been an American intervention. As is, it would benefit Beijing to seek a peaceful, mutually agreed upon resolution, rather than brute force.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese-Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and BBC Vietnamese Service.)

(Original version is available at Asia Sentinel)

Comments (1)

Map: Scarborough Shoal

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Fishermen caught out by politics of South China Sea – by Tomas Etzler | CNN

02 March 2013


Luzon, Philippines (CNN) — A year ago, a fisherman Efren Forones came back from fishing trips with up to three and half tons of fish. In return he was able to buy 15 to 20 kilos of rice for his family every month and was planning to send at least one of his six children to college.

Not any more.

He now returns with just 400 kilos of catch at best, meaning he can only afford one to two kilos of rice a month, while school for his children is an expensive luxury and out of the question.

The reason? He says he can longer fish in the fertile waters around Scarborough Shoal.

A cluster of uninhabitable sand banks and small rocks set in a shallow azure water lagoon about 130 miles (200 km) west from the Philippine island of Luzon, Scarborough Shoal is one of a number of territories at the center of an international dispute in the South China Sea.

Both the Philippines and China lay claim to it.

Tense standoff

The long-term tensions between the two nations escalated last April during a one-month stand off between the two nations, after Manila accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally in the area. When a Philippines navy vessel inspected the boats it found “large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks” inside one of the boats, according to the Philippine government. Manila then reported that two Chinese surveillance ships had taken up position at the mouth of the lagoon, blocking the way to the fishing boats and “preventing the arrest” of the fishermen. The vessels stretched a cable across the mouth of the lagoon, which also prevented Filipino fishermen from going there, according to the Philippines coast guard.

Earlier this year, the Philippine government took its feud with China to a United Nations tribunal, a move that Beijing has rejected. In an article on state-run CCTV last month, China pointed to a code of conduct it signed in 2002, known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It said the declaration expected that relevant disputes be solved through friendly talks and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.

That brings little comfort to the struggling fishermen in communities in west Luzon, the nearest region to Scarborough Shoal — also known as Panatag Shoal here or Huangyan Island to the Chinese. One of them is Masinloc, a municipality of 40,000 people, which relies on the seas for almost 80% of its income, according to the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. It says thousands of fishermen have lost their regular jobs as catches decline.

Forones is one of them.

The 52 year old has been fishing in the waters off Masinloc for 22 years. He lives with his family in a traditional bamboo house mounted on pillars above the sea. His youngest daughter is four years old. Forones does not own a boat but used to be hired as a fisherman and paid a minimum of $85 dollars for a trip. Nobody is hiring now. He has tried to rent boats on his own and fish with his neighbors, but the little catch they bring back barely covers the rental fee and fuel.

Map: Scarborough Shoal

He says the Shoal is the most important fishing ground in this region. “They (the Chinese) shoo us away, will not allow Filipinos to come near the area,” he says. “They are the only ones that can fish there, not us. We lost Scarborough and it is hard. We earn nothing.”

Beijing is unwavering in its claims. As recently as last month, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported that Chinese surveillance vessels were carrying out regular missions in the South China Sea.

The Xinhua report cited Liu Cigui, director of the State Oceanic Administration, as saying that China would continue the patrols “to secure the nation’s maritime rights and interests” in areas it claims as its territorial waters.

China’s claim on the area dates back to 1279 during the Yuan Dynasty, when Chinese astronomer Guo Shoujing conducted a survey. Then in 1935, China declared sovereignty over 132 islands, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, with the Scarborough Shoal — or Huangyan — included as a part of the Zhongsha Islands, according to Xinhua.

However, Forones is in little doubt who the lagoon, which lies within what the Philippines declares as its Exclusive Economic Zone, belongs to.

“Of course it is ours. We own Scarborough,” he insists. “But China is trying to get it from us. Our government should fix that. We should seek help from the United States if the Philippine government cannot handle it alone.”

Nowhere else to go

Forones and his wife plan to stay in Masinloc, for now. He will try to start diving for shellfish. By selling clams, mussels and oysters, they can make around $5 a day. Enough to buy rice and other basic food to feed the family. “There is no other place where we can go. I will stay here, get shells from nearby and help my husband to make living,” Forones’ wife, Gemma, says.

The situation is similar in Subic, a town 55 miles (88 km) south of Masinloc. It used to host one of the biggest American naval bases outside the United States, before it closed in 1991.

Operators of the fishing market on the outskirts of the town of 90,000 say business is down 50% since the fishermen were blocked from fishing where they wanted to at Scarborough. Many fishermen here share a similar story to their counterparts further north.

“When we went there, a Chinese vessel, the Chinese Marine Surveillance blocked our path,” says Ronnie Drio, 46-year-old father of eight children. “As we managed to get past through it, it looked like they called another one because a different ship appeared and blocked our way again.

“That’s when we got trapped. Then a Chinese man stepped out. He looked like their highest officer. He flashed a sign that we had to leave immediately. We were kicked out like pigs.”

A number of fishermen have already left Subic and Masinloc and many more are considering it. One of them, 58-year-old Tolomeo “Lomi” Forones, is Efren’s cousin. He’s been a fisherman for 30 years but now makes a living as a motorbike taxi driver. He makes around $2 on a good day.

“Our income was higher when we used to fish at Scarborough. I even used to save money. But now we earn just enough for daily consumption and sometimes what we earn is not even enough to provide food.”

Dangerous waters

He still does occasional fishing trips but against his wife’s wish. Janet Forones wants to leave Masinloc and their low income is not the only reason: “Who would not get worried when they are out there? What if they get shot?” She was referring to the presence of the Chinese boats.

What puzzles the fishermen here most is the speed the whole situation has changed. Although the Philippine and Chinese governments have disputed each other’s claim to the lagoon for many years, they could fish at Scarborough alongside Chinese fishermen up until a few months ago.

“I do not know why they don’t like us or why they do not want us within that area. If Americans were still in the region, the Chinese would have never came to Scarborough because they would be scared. If our government allows the U.S. to come back over here, its OK with me,” she says, referring to Washington’s commitment to its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed last year.

But the solution to the dispute is as distant as ever. Litigation at the United Nations could last years. Most of the local fishermen do not have so much time. So while the governments squabble, many of these fishermen and their families will have to leave the only life they have known and start from scratch somewhere else.


Comments (0)