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Heightened tensions in the South China Sea?

Updated On: Aug 21, 2007

More trouble emerged from the South China Sea in the past fortnight.

Last week, China’s Hainan special economic zone approved a tourism development plan which includes the development of tourist facilities on the Paracel Islands, 260km south-east of China's Hainanprovince. These islands claimed by both China and Vietnam and known as Xisha by the Chinese and Hoang Sa by Vietnam, have been occupied by China since 1974.

In response to the Chinese announcement, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said on Wednesday (15 Aug), “Vietnam is gravely concerned over and strongly protests against China's approval of the tourism development plan at Vietnam's Hoang Sa archipelago.”

Some or all of these islands in the South China Sea are claimed by a number of states such as ChinaTaiwanMalaysiaBrunei, the Philippines and VietnamVietnam has the most bases, maintaining an estimated 25 sites, some little more than highly fortified rock outcrops, complete with helicopter pads and jetties. Taiwan has the biggest island and the biggest base. Its structure on Taiping (or Itu Aba) island which features a full runway, is within several kilometres of a major Vietnamese base on Sand Cay. Beijing and Manila also run bases.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is urging all the claimants to adopt a legally binding ‘code of conduct’ after a series of non-binding declarations.

China's plan to develop the Paracels is part of a series of actions indicating that China intends to substantively exploit its sovereignty claim over the offshore region. In April, Chinese forces seized Vietnamese fishing boats that they claimed were encroaching on its territory. Last month, Chinese and Indonesian gunboats opened fire on Vietnamese fishing fleets. One fisherman died after the Chinese attack and two at the hands of the Indonesians. Several were reportedly wounded.

The Chinese also criticised the British oil giant BP’s exploration off the southern Vietnamese coast despite the Vietnamese government’s approval to the exploration. Eventually, BP stopped its exploration efforts.  

An authority on Vietnamese security issues at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Carl Thayer said, “There is argy-bargy going on out there all the time but that doesn't mean it is planned or thought out….. Fishing fleets are getting bigger and more and more desperate and military presences are growing….. We can see that no claimant is wanting to create an international incident in the current environment but that doesn't mean that the potential is not there …”  He added that there is still not enough “communication” amongst the claimants and that “we are a long way from anything approaching a meaningful settlement to territorial claims.”  (20 August 2007)

Sources:

Vietnam blasts China's plans for Paracels (Straits Times, 18 August 2007)

Territorial claims far from plain sailing (South China Morning Post, 18 August 2007)

CNOOC to Explore Oilfields Jointly with US Company (SinoChina Business News, 17 August 2007)

Politics: Vietnam Reiterates Sovereignty over Paracel, Spratly (Vietnam News Brief Service, 16 August 2007)