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In the heart of the Vietnam China standoff at sea – Eunice Yoon | CNBC

14 July 2014

 

Eunice Yoon | CNBC - It’s not often you get a chance to see one of the most dangerous flashpoints in Asia.

We went on a boat to the South China Sea to check out the latest standoff between Vietnam and China.

Hanoi believes that the waters near the Paracel Islands are part of Vietnam’s own economic zone. The Chinese, who control the Paracels, claim the waters. To make their point, in May, Chinese state oil companyCNOOC put an oil rig in the disputed waters, sparking a tense standoff.

The Vietnamese government, which is on a PR offensive against Beijing, organized the trip for a handful of other journalists. We were told it would take about one week and require that we transfer boats.

We cast off from the port city of Da Nang with the Vietnamese coast guard,traveled overnight, and by morning got a glimpse of the conflict. When we got up to the deck, we saw a Chinese warship.

As we drew nearer to the rig we switched boats. Our hosts said a bigger boat would better outrun the numerous Chinese vessels they expected we would face.

After jumping into a dingy, we sped across the open ocean to CSB-8003 – a 1,600 ton vessel – ordered by the Vietnamese authorities to patrol the area near the rig.

There, I met the crew of CSB-8003 led by Captain Hung Nguyen Van.

Every day, Captain Hung and his some 30 crewmen attempt to get their vessel close to the rig – and remind the Chinese that Vietnam still claims these waters. I was told that day the Chinese ships outmanned Vietnam’s 110 to 5 though the odds didn’t seem to deter Captain Hung.

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“The rig is clearly inside Vietnam’s waters, Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, and Vietnam’s continental shelf,” he said.

We headed towards the rig.

The HD-981 oil drilling platform is one football field long, 40 stories high and is said to be worth $1 billion according to CNOOC.

The lookout warned us that eight Chinese ships were headed towards CSB-8003.

We were eight nautical miles – 15 kilometers – from the rig when a Chinese coast guard vessel blocked our path. Another charged towards us.

The Vietnamese coast guard vessel blasted its recorded broadcast in English, Chinese and Vietnamese, warning the Chinese to cease drilling activities and leave the disputed waters. The broadcast had the opposite effect, making the Vietnamese a target.

On the horizon, Chinese reinforcements moved in. We soon found ourselves surrounded and were forced to fall back.

Close call

The next day, we watched a ceremony where the crew salutes Vietnam in front of local reporters who will broadcast the event across the country. Vietnam is facing its worst confrontation with China since the two countries went to war in 1979. Their government wants its people to know that Vietnam is prepared to stand up to China.

Many countries with coastlines along the South China Sea fear that as China gets wealthier and more powerful, the fight will become more unequal. They worry China wants to dominate the sea, its rich fishing, shipping lanes and potential energy resources. So they are all willing players in the endless cat and mouse game at sea.

Minutes later, duty calls and our vessel headed back to the rig.

A Chinese coast guard boat came hurtling towards us. The Vietnamese counted that it was one of nine Chinese ships suddenly on our tail. It was agile and moving fast – ready to collide at any moment. It got about 100 meters behind us before drifting back the further we sped away.

The smaller fishing surveillance ships are particularly vulnerable to ramming and water cannons, I was told.

One of the crew members, Colonel Tran Van Hau, told me that in early June, the Chinese attacked a ship he was on.

“At first, there was only one Chinese ship chasing after us, then there were two more ships on both sides of our boat. One Chinese ship accelerated with very high speed and hit the right side of the back of our boat directly. Then it sped up again and kept ramming our boat leaving four holes,” he explained.

But, to the Chinese, there is no question who the aggressor is at sea.

 

The view from China

Only a short flight from Vietnam, I find people in China have a completely different view of the standoff.

On Hainan Island, Chinese fishing communities thrive. The southern island is a launch pad for seafarers and naval forces heading into the South China Sea.

Veteran maritime scholar Dr. Wu Shicun of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies took me into the archives to show me numerous maps including a collection with U-shaped lines – often referred to as a “nine-dash line” – which Beijing believes outlines China’s territory in the South China Sea.

Dr. Wu said this is why China feels it has the right to place its oil rig close to the Paracels Islands and why they’re so angry Vietnam’s vessels have rammed their ships, they claim, more than one thousand times.

“What China is doing is to react to the ramming activities conducted by the Vietnamese,” he said. “What China is doing is to protect our oil rig.”

Currently the Paracels are in Chinese hands. China gained full control after defeating what was then South Vietnam in a battle in 1974. However, Vietnam, now unified, still claims the islands. And both countries have competing evidence to support their arguments.

Wu said Beijing believes the current standoff is Hanoi’s attempt at a land grab – by seeking sympathy from an international community adjusting to a rising China.

“The fact is that China now is becoming an influential power,” he said. “So China has [its] own interest to safeguard.”

Beijing sounds in

Over in Beijing, one of the government’s top maritime authorities said China feels it’s the victim. In a rare interview, a senior China diplomat on maritime affairs, Yi Xianliang, told us, China has been taken aback by Vietnam.

Beijing blames the U.S. for stirring up trouble at sea with its pivot to Asia – by emboldening neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam to stand up to China.

Yi says Washington isn’t playing by the rules of an honest broker.

“The U.S. would like to be coach for some countries. [On] the other side, the U.S. would like to be a referee or a judge and sometimes the U.S. [is] like a sportsman or a player. So this gives us some confusion,” Yi said.

The U.S. has called on China to remove the rig and for all countries to withdraw their drops and resolve the tensions diplomatically.

Yi insists China will keep the rig where it is but hopes to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

“Of course, we will not push our Vietnam friends in the corner because this is not China’s style,” Yi said.

(Original version is available at CNBC)

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Dangerous waters: Behind the islands dispute – by Kevin Voigt | CNN

24 September 2012

by Kevin Voigt | CNN - Hong Kong – When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping called Tokyo’s territorial claims on a group of East China Seas island “a farce,” he echoed national sentiment of protesters who took to the streets in anti-Japan protests in recent weeks.


Islands’ former owner comments on furor par CNN_International

“Japan should rein in its behavior, not utter any words and prevent any acts that undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Xi — who is expected to become China’s new president next month — at a Wednesday meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, state media reported.

As Beijing’s presumptive new leader wades into the Japan-China dispute, analysts say the stakes are being raised in a dispute that is largely being led by nationalist fervor rather than government policy or underlining economic interests. And the détente that usually follows these territorial disputes is muddied by the leadership change in Beijing expected next month.

“This is where it’s becoming dangerous,” said Alan DuPont, defense expert at the University of New South Wales. “No incoming Chinese leader can be perceived to be weak on territorial claims.”

On Monday, the Japan Coast Guard said two Chinese surveillance ships entered its territorial waters, while 10 other Chinese ships patrolled nearby. Meanwhile, China announced Sunday it was postponing planned celebrations later this month marking the 40th anniversary of normalization of relations between Beijing and Tokyo.

The bellicose rhetoric also charts the rise of an assertive China and a sea change in the forces shaping Pacific politics that are writ small in the battle over the uninhabited island chain, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

“China’s feeling more confident both in its position and in its right to the area both legally and politically,” Mark Valencia, a fellow at the National Asia Research Program and expert on the South China Sea dispute. “And nationalism in China has gained strength and influencing the government.”

Rising tensions in China waters

The East China Sea isn’t the only flashpoint for territorial tensions among China and its neighbors. The South China Sea is dotted with hundreds of largely uninhabited islands and coral atolls, many of which have competing claims from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Just like the friction with Japan, there have been increasing incidents of tension between China and its South China Sea neighbors over island claims.

In 2011, Vietnam claimed that Chinese patrol boats cut cables from PetroVietnam boats during oil and gas surveys in disputed waters. Beijing said that Vietnamese vessels have been illegally surveying in Chinese waters and harassing Chinese fishing boats. The same year Philippines also reported boats cutting cables of a survey ship and threatening to ram its boats.

“A lot of this wouldn’t be happening if China wasn’t becoming more assertive and being more confident, and that’s one important issue why all these issues are becoming more salient,” DuPont said.

The difference in the East China Sea is the collective might of China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world, respectively. “When you have two major nation states involved, it’s more dangerous than the (South China Sea),” DuPont said.

A nationalist wave

The often violent protests that broke out in dozens of Chinese cities — from Guangzhou in the south to Qingdao in the north — came to a head after the Japanese government bought the disputed islands from the Japanese family that have privately owned the islands on September 11 for 2.05 billion yen (US$26.2 million).

Dozens of Japanese factories and businesses temporarily shut their doors in the wake of the violence as angry crowds overturned Japanese brand cars and looted Japanese stores in some areas. The island dispute, which traces back centuries, have reached diplomatic boiling points in 1996, 2005 and most recently in 2010, when a Chinese boat allegedly rammed a Japanese patrol boat, resulting in the arrest of the Chinese sailors.

“I don’t think anyone thought the Chinese reaction would have been as strong as it was, and I don’t think anyone expected the level of violence that we saw, especially looking at past incidents,” said James Manicom, an expert on maritime disputes at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.

The “nationalization” of the islands infuriated Chinese, although analysts say Tokyo’s move was an effort to wrest the issue away from Japanese nationalists, led by Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who launched an online appeal to buy the islands. Donations poured in, prompting a sharp rebuke from China and forcing the Japanese government to wade into the dispute with its own offer for the contested land.

“If you’re interested in stability, the Japanese government is better than owning the islands than a group of nationalists, because who knows how they might raise tensions,” Manicom said. “(Prime Minister) Noda’s calculation is, this is going to explode in the short-run, in the long run it’s better.”

Economic interests

Although nationalistic ardor on both sides of the dispute have brought the current situation to a boil, national interest in the territory can be traced to a 1969 United Nations geological survey that contains this tantalizing line: “A high probability exists that the continental shelf between Taiwan and Japan may be one of the most prolific oil reserves in the world.”

Also under its South China Sea lie potentially huge reserves of natural gas and oil. A Chinese estimate suggests as much as 213 billion barrels of oil lie untapped in the South China Sea – which, if true, would make it the largest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At the heart of all these island disputes in China Seas is a term of international maritime law known as “;Exclusive Economic Zone,” where nations are allowed sole rights to fish and develop resources within 200 nautical miles of a country’s shores. That has created interest in nation’s grabbing uninhabited islands – often little more than rocky atolls – to thereby extend their zone.

“The area is starting to look a little bit like Alaska, at first looked worthless, now may not be worthless,” Valencia said. “The East China Sea is virtually all continental shelf, which means it’s all relatively easy digging except in typhoon season.”

But the likelihood the areas will be developed dwindles as the political storm brews between China and Japan. If this fracas follows past contretemps, the two sides will cool for a few months before rapprochement from high-level officials on both sides. But with the leadership change coming in China, and leadership elections imminent in Japan’s two major parties, the likelihood is tensions will remain high. “No one wants to be perceived as soft on China,” Manicom said.

Meanwhile, as historic enmities over Japan’s war past inflame tensions in China, public sentiment is changing in Japan toward China.

“The result is the average Japanese person views China with more suspicion than the past,” Manicom said. “You can now be anti-China in Japan and not be conservative, which is a development that I think took Beijing by surprise.”

(Orginal version is available at CNN)

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China Expands Its Maritime Territorial Claims

24 July 2012

Stratfor East Asia analyst John Minnich discusses China’s expansion of maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea and the security and energy implications for countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

For more analysis, visit: http://www.Stratfor.com 

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