Hanoi and Beijing at loggerheads over the South China Sea
by Thanh Thuy

In a statement, Chinese General Fan Changlong said that all the islands in the South China Sea have been Chinese since ancient times. This caused the cancellation of a planned Sino-Vietnamese Border Defence Friendship Exchange. Beijing is unhappy about Vietnam’s plans to carry out oil and gas exploitation in disputed waters. Hanoi seeks closer economic and military relations with Japan and the United States.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) - General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, reportedly cut short his visit to Vietnam scheduled for 18-22 June where he was supposed to meet with high-ranking Vietnamese government officials.

According to Vietnamese media, on the first two days, his agenda included meetings with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng, President Trần Đại Quang, Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, and Defence Minister Ngô Xuân Lịch.

On the other two days, General Fan was set to join General Ngô Xuân Lịch for the fourth Border Defence Friendship Exchange with the participation of troops from both countries.

A local independent newspaper said that the general’s visit included discussions over the dispute between the two countries in the South China Sea.

In a statement, the general said that all the South China Sea islands, including the coral reefs, have been Chinese since ancient times.

When the Government of Vietnam did not agree with the general’s views and suggestions, the general cancelled all of his engagements, and, on the evening of 18 June, left for home without any explanation.

Vietnam has always stated that it is committed to building "good relations" with China. However, according to analysts, Fan Changlong's sudden decision is a sign of China’ dissatisfaction with Vietnam's plans to exploit oil and gas in the South China Sea.

In fact, in the recent past, Hanoi has been trying to develop closer economic, military, and relations with Japan and the United States of America.

In January 2017, the US oil company ExxonMobil signed an agreement to build a plant to process gas from the Ca Voi Xanh (Blue Whale) gas field, which is located off the coast of Vietnam.

On 13 June, the crew of a Japanese Coast Guard ship, the Echigo, visited in Đà Nẵng (central Vietnam), after a joint drill with the Vietnamese coast guard.

Washington and Tokyo have also provided Hanoi with patrol boats to boost Vietnam’s maritime capabilities.

For their part, Chinese authorities have announced that the exploratory oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981) would be deployed in the Lăng Thủy oil field from 16 June to 15 September 2017.

At present, the rig is located at 74 nautical miles from Hainan, a Chinese island off the coast of southern China, east of Vietnam’s coastline, a stretch of sea that is at the centre of Sino-Vietnamese negotiations.

This it is not the first time that China deploys the HD-981 rig in Vietnamese waters, or in waters at the centre of disputes, in retaliation against Hanoi for trying to get away from Chinese influence.

Analysts now expect more tensions between the two countries, which are likely to undermine the peace and economy of the South Chinese Sea.

Taking advantage of ambiguities in international maritime law, Beijing claims most (85 per cent) of South China Sea. This includes the Spratly and the Paracels Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as the Senkaku/Diayou Islands in the East China Sea (claimed by both China and Japan).

In order to ensure its control over the major maritime routes in the South China Sea, the Chinese government has begun to build a series of artificial islands with military installations and lighthouses.

According to recent estimates, more than US$ 5 trillion in trade passes through the sea.

In all this, the United States has backed the nations of South-East Asia against what Washington considers China’s “illegal” and “irrational” claims, the so-called cow tongue, which covers about four fifths of the sea’s 3.5 million square kilometres.