The navies of China and Vietnam instituted a joint patrol in the Beibu Gulf (known as Beibu Wan in Chinese and Gulf of Tonkin to the Vietnamese and the West) in the South China Sea on Thursday 27 April 2006.
A squadron of People’s Republic of China Navy (PLAN) vessels was dispatched to pair up with its Vietnamese naval counterparts. This is a follow-up from the agreement between Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan and his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Van Tra dating back to Oct. 26, 2005. The joint patrol has made history in China because it is also the first time for the Chinese navy to patrol jointly with a foreign counterpart.
The Chinese foreign ministry released the statement that the joint patrols aimed to “maintain the stability of the fishing industry and oil exploration in Beibu Wan”.Beibu Gulf that lies between China and Vietnam is shallow, less than 60 meters deep. It may be considered as the northwestern arm of the South China Sea or a branch of the Pacific Ocean. Such designations are sensitive because there have been accusations in the past that China has treated the South China Sea in a literal manner, as a Chinese lake, apparently quoting former Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons.
The joint patrols cannot be more ironic because Vietnam is the only country to have fought naval warfare with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) way back in 1974 over the Paracel Islands. Vietnam has also one of the toughest stance against China over the multi-nation Spratlys dispute. Even as late as 8 January 2006, Chinese naval patrol police fired upon, injured and captured many Vietnamese fishermen and called them "pirates". This interpretation was rejected by the Vietnamese foreign ministry. The ministry asserted that the “Vietnamese attacked, killed, injured and captured by the Chinese naval patrol police are honest fishermen, who were fishing in the western side of the Tonkin Gulf delimitation line in the common fishing area”. The Ministry also considered the use of weapons by Chinese naval patrol police to kill innocent Vietnamese as “a serious violation of international laws”.
Such maritime conflicts between neighbours are rather common. It is especially so in the Beibu Gulf since it has abundant natural resources including oil, natural gas and various minerals on top of being a fertile fishing ground both nations. And it was precisely for the avoidance of such skirmishes that both countries signed the Agreement on the Delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf, the Vietnam-China Fishery Cooperation Agreement and agreements by high-level leaders of the two countries to promote friendship between the two states which were once brothers-in-arms during the Vietnam War to repel the American-supported South Vietnamese government.
Going beyond mere agreements, the joint patrol gives China and Vietnam a chance to avoid a repeat of an escalated naval clash like the 1974 Paracel incident. And, given the good headstart of the joint patrol in promoting greater understanding between the two countries, the Chinese foreign ministry declared that it will further the friendly cooperation between the military forces of the two countries and maintain the order and stability in the Beibu Gulf. If this is sustainable, it could signal the heralding of an upturn in good maritime relations between the two countries.
China, Vietnam hold joint navy patrolling (People’s Daily, 28 April 2006)
State launches joint naval patrol with Vietnam (Shanghai Daily, 28 April 2006)
China, Vietnam hold joint navy patrolling (Xinhua, 27 April 2006)