“The Vietnamese navy will do everything necessary to firmly protect peace and the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam.” The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released the above comment four days before the dialogue (The Shangri-La Dialogue) started. At that time, its spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nguyen Phuong Nga, used strong language such as “resolutely opposed,” “immediately cease,” and so on to protest the so-called event that “a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel cut the exploration cables of the Binh Minh 02 seismic vessel of the Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group (PVN) while it was conducting a seismic survey on the continental shelf of Vietnam.”
These harsh comments have had an obvious instigative effect. On the morning of June 5, the last day of The Shangri-La Dialogue (the 10th Asia Security Summit), Vietnamese gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in Vietnam and the Chinese Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City to protest, saying that China is “provoking Vietnam” in the South China Sea and “violating Vietnam’s right to sovereignty.”
Since last July, on different occasions and by various means, Vietnam has frequently declared its “sovereignty” over the Nansha Island reefs under its occupation. Observers pointed out that, of the countries that have conflicts with China regarding its sovereignty over the South China Sea, Vietnam has illegally held the highest number of Nansha Island reefs, as many as 29.
Vietnam and the Philippines: “Mutual Support”
The Philippines has closely followed Vietnam’s lead, also launching attacks against China on the South China Sea issue.
On June 2 during his trip to Brunei, Philippine President Aquino told Philippine media that the Philippines will submit documents to the United Nations protesting China’s multiple invasions of Philippine territory. He indicated that, since February 25 of this year, China has “intruded” into Philippine territory six to seven times.
According to the report provided by the Philippine military, China’s survey ship and its warship unloaded building materials and built a gate house on the Iroquois reefs (or “Houteng Jiao” in Chinese) and Amy Douglas Bank (or “Antang Tan” in Chinese), 125 nautical miles away from the Philippine’s southwest Palawan Province, violating the Philippines “sovereignty.”
As early as May 24, a Philippine newspaper took a similar incident as reason to reprimand China. The article said that the Chinese army had already constructed barracks, a gate house, an aircraft parking area, and a satellite transmission facility on one of the islands that was close to the Nansha Islands over which the Philippines claims sovereignty.
In despair, Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin even said, “This is an invasion, but what can we do?”
Regarding this, Hong Lei, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, gravely indicated on June 7 that the Chinese ships were carrying out a routine cruise and scientific expedition and survey in sea areas under Chinese jurisdiction, which was completely proper and legitimate, and that China does not acknowledge the Philippines’ unfounded accusations concerning the South China Sea.
“Among the countries in the South China Sea, Vietnam and the Philippines are on the front lines in conflicts with China and face the greatest threat,” the Philippines’ Manila Times said on June 8. “Despite the differences between the two countries, the benefit of cooperation is greater than their differences. Vietnam and the Philippines should support each other in this diplomatic conflict. They should discuss in detail the scope of the conflict over the Nansha Islands with other countries, such as Malaysia and Brunei. They should decide when to resist China alone and when to resist jointly.”
Meanwhile, the Philippines shows no let up in its armament buildup. On May 15, the Philippine military announced that the Hamilton-class Patrol Craft, an ex-U.S. Coast Guard vessel, was officially transferred to the Philippine navy. The ship will be used to protect the Philippine marine petroleum oil drilling platform and the oil and gas development project.
Western Corporations’ Involvement Has Complicated the South China Sea Situation
“These countries (that have sovereignty conflicts with China in the South China Sea) have always felt that if they negotiated with China alone, they would be in a disadvantageous position,” explained Professor Li Jinming of Xiamen University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. According to Professor Li’s observations, over the past year, Vietnam and the Philippines accelerated oil and gas exploration jointly with foreign companies in the South China Sea.
According to Agence France Press, in March, the U.K. based Forum Energy Plc declared in a statement that the company had already completed a seismographic survey of the Sampaguita natural gas field close to Reed Tablemount. “The Company will immediately begin processing the data with the aim of further evaluating the commercial potential of the block, and to help identify the best location for possible appraisal wells to be drilled.” CEO Robin Nikson further indicated, “We have now met our contractual commitments with the Philippine Department of Energy under Service Contract 72 and look forward to making further investments in the project.”
From “Reed Tablemount” it is about 150 km east to the Nansha Islands. On March 2, 2011, two Chinese law enforcement ships forced a Philippine petroleum survey ship to leave “Reed Tablemount.” The Philippines lodged a protest with China.
Vietnam has also paid attention to the strategic role that the ocean plays in its socioeconomic development. In January 2007, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)’s Central committee adopted the “Ocean Strategy to 2020” at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 10th CPV Congress, proposing to build up Vietnam as a powerful ocean nation. According to an estimate by the U.S. Energy Information Agency, in Nansha and its surrounding sea area there are eight oil and gas bearing basins, with potential oil production of over 50 billion tons. Statistics indicate that Vietnam so far has extracted over 100 million tons of petroleum and large amounts of natural gas, making a profit of billions of U.S. dollars. At present, Vietnam’s annual yield of marine petroleum is approximately 30 million tons, 8 million tons of which are from the disputed South China Sea.
In recent years, Vietnam has entered disputed waters in the South China Sea to conduct “studies” using exploration ships leased from Russia. It unilaterally launched natural gas field and gas pipeline construction projects with British Petroleum in disputed waters, and reached an oil and gas survey agreement with U.S. Exxon – Mobil in the disputed waters.
In fact, crude oil has now become Vietnam’s largest export; its leading role in the economy is obvious. Therefore, in recent years, Vietnam has actively cooperated with European and U.S. companies in exploring oil resources in the South China Sea. It has divided the relevant waters, including the disputed areas, into over a hundred oil and gas exploration zones and invited bidding on them globally. More than 200 oil companies in the U.S., Russia, France, the U.K., and Germany have signed a number of oil and gas exploration and extraction contracts with Vietnam. “With the involvement of the interests of foreign companies, the complexity of the South China Sea problem has escalated,” says Li Jinming.
International Discussion Forum to Lay the Groundwork
A complex South China Sea issue is exactly what Vietnam wants. For a long period of time, because it saw itself as having “very limited power,” Vietnam has been intent on ganging up with other involved countries to act on the South China Sea issue. It has tried to get multiple countries–even the entire ASEAN–on one side, to compete against China.
At the end of May this year in Indonesia’s capital city of Jakarta, representatives from India, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and other countries held an international seminar, “Prospects for Cooperation and Convergence on the Issues and Dynamics in the East Sea.” The declaration issued by the seminar said: “Participants agreed that the East Sea (South China Sea) is a multilateral issue, from maintaining regional peace and stability, to ensuring free travel and the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC). Not only regional countries, but also powerful nations outside the area, such as Australia, India, Japan, Russia, the Republic of Korea, and the United States, which play a useful role in maintaining the current situation, need to support the DOC.” The declaration added, “ASEAN must adhere to the principle of unity, solidarity and unanimity in coordinating and developing the bloc’s position in dialogues with its partners on issues related to East Sea.”
Since 2009, Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs University has held an “International Symposium on the East Sea (South China Sea)” four times, inviting experts and scholars from the countries directly involved as well as the U.S., Russia, and Australia. After the symposium, Vietnam summarized the policy recommendations: “The East Sea (South China Sea) should be part of the whole of Vietnam’s foreign policy, national security, and development, as well a means by which to elevate Vietnam’s international status. It must prepare legal documents and information to support political struggles, advocacy, and negotiation. The government should formulate and coordinate a comprehensive national maritime strategy, including modernization of its navy, so as to become a stronger deterrence militarily, as well as to improve education and propaganda about East Sea sovereignty for its young people.”
“At present, the ASEAN countries cannot work together in a united effort to surround China as Vietnam hoped,” said Li Jinming. Evidence indicates that the disputed waters claimed by the Philippines and those claimed by Vietnam overlap. On May 30, the Philippine police and navy detained 122 Vietnamese fishermen in Palawan waters, casting a shadow on the Philippine-Vietnam relationship, which features “a shared hatred against the common enemy (China).” Li added, “At the same time, countries such as Brunei and Malaysia have more areas of agreement than differences with China, so it is even less likely for them to hold together (against China).”
“Both Civil and Military Means” to Strengthen Control of the Reefs
Vietnam also has its own “calculation.” In recent years, it has gradually stepped up construction on the illegally occupied Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) and strengthened its control over them.
After years of construction, the Truong Sa Islands (China’s Nansha Islands, aka the Spratly Islands) now boast a variety of infrastructure facilities, especially military facilities, not only beginning to take shape, but that were built for solid and permanent use. The Islands have an airport, a pier, water treatment stations, hospitals, substations, power stations, and a satellite communication station. Dikes, military bunkers, a shooting shelter, and various types of artillery positions are constantly reinforced. The islands’ (inhabitants) have also started vegetable gardens and are raising poultry and livestock to supply the resident troops and inhabitants. In addition to guarding the troops, Vietnam also moved part of its population there, where they hold regular Executive Council meetings, just like a regular county level administrative region. Vietnam’s telecommunication sector is preparing for the construction of broadband on the islands as soon as possible, so that soldiers and civilians can have faster and more convenient Internet access.
According to Vietnamese media, there is an unwritten rule for Vietnamese soldiers and civilians: anyone who travels from the mainland to the Truong Sa Islands, with or without luggage, must bring a bag of soil to grow trees, fruit, and vegetables.
Vietnam has also tried to turn the illegally occupied Nansha Islands into a tourist attraction, organizing domestic tourist groups to the Islands every year. In early June, Khanh Hoa Province, of which “Truong Sa County” is officially a part, held an unprecedented Island Tourist Festival, with one of the themes being “Truong Sa for the Motherland.”
Meanwhile, Vietnam continues archaeological excavation to identify more historical evidence to prove that these islands have always been Vietnamese territory. In addition, Vietnamese authorities gave the “Stones of Sovereignty over the Truong Sa Islands,” carved out of the coral stones from 21 of the Spratly Islands that it occupied, to domestic provinces and cities as a present, to strengthen the significance of its occupation of the Nansha Islands.
In addition, Vietnam substantially reorganized its naval strategy, making naval development the top priority in its military buildup, formulating short, medium, and long-term naval plans. Sources said that Vietnam would make “defending its oceanic territories and marine resources” the focus of its new military strategy. At present, Vietnam has made some headway in the buildup of its navy. For example, it invested hundreds of millions of dollars in building a large naval port in the northeastern coastal city of Hai Phong; in 2009, it signed a contract with Russia to buy six Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines at a cost of US$2 billion; in addition, it signed a contract with Russia for the purchase of 8 SU-30MK2 fighters, and then an additional 12.
Based on these improvements, the Vietnam military proudly claims that by 2015 it will finish its new-generation upgrade. By then, the Vietnamese navy’s ocean escort and combat capability will approach modern standards.
Chinese observers believe that China should consistently adhere to the principle of refusing third party interference in the affairs of the South China Sea. At the same time, it should continue to strengthen its authority over the South China Sea and continue to enhance its law enforcement efforts. Regarding illegalities in waters under its jurisdiction, China must enforce its authority without mercy.
 International Herald Leader, “‘Carrying the Flag’ in the South China Sea, Vietnam Is Embarrassing China,” June 13, 2011.