South China Sea: Vietnam wants ASEAN as forum for negotiations
by Thanh Thuy
Beijing continues to go after Vietnamese fishing boats as it prepares to explore the seabed for oil and gas. ASEAN security summit set to open in a few days. Vietnam and other regional powers want to discuss maritime borders despite Chinese opposition.
Hanoi (AsiaNews) – As it prepares to survey the Spratly Islands for oil and gas, China continues to chase Vietnamese fishing boats. In a few days, the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN) will meet for its annual summit on security. The territorial disputes between China and other nations over the islands in the South China Sea will be on its agenda.
Fishermen from the Vietnamese province of Quang Ngai reported on Saturday that a Chinese naval ship, bearing the number 44861, “threatened a Vietnamese fishing boat, numbered QNG- 98868TS, with machine guns. About ten Chinese sailors boarded the vessel and beat Vietnamese fishermen and seized about a tonne of fish”.
In China, media have reported the arrival of Ocean 981, a deepwater drilling platform. It is 650 metres long, 136 metres high, and has a load of 30,000 tonnes. It can drill at depths of 1,500-3,000 metres, and ha operational costs of about a US$ 1 million a day.
By engaging in such a survey, China is staking its claim to the area. Experts believe the South China Sea has an estimated equivalent of around 35-50 billion tonnes in oil and gas, second only to the Persian Gulf.
Beijing has been aggressive in claiming sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which Vietnam has been exploiting for more than a thousand years for its fishing and other resources. China sent its ships into the area for the first time in 1974.
At that time, the islands were controlled by the Saigon-based Republic of Vietnam, whilst China had good relations with Communist-controlled North Vietnam, whose capital was in Hanoi.
Vietnam now wants the issue of sovereignty to be debated in an international forum and has called on the United States and ASEAN to play a role in finding a peaceful solution through negotiations that would also guarantee free shipping in the sea.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and the United States are involved in joint naval exercises (15-21 July) that do not include actual arms exercises but involve sports and civilian exchanges.
China has always rejected third parties in its bilateral relations. However, Beijing has never engaged Vietnam directly, except by sending its own ships into disputed areas. It has called on Washington to reconsider planned joint activities with Hanoi. Conversely, Vietnam wants to strengthen trade and other ties with the United States.
Under the circumstances, Hanoi hopes that ASEAN, which meets in a few days time in Bali, will provide a forum for a diplomatic solution. In addition to ASEAN members (Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Laos and Myanmar), China, the United States, Japan, Australia and other nations will participate.
Experts believe China will reject any international approach to a matter that involves its maritime space, which it views crucial for national security.
Tokyo is also involved in maritime disputes with Beijing. Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Satoru Satoh recently said that his government hoped for constructive discussion in Bali on the South China Sea issue.
"We recognise that the issue of the South China Sea is a matter of common interest for the international community," he said.