Vanguard Bay, a new battlefront in the South China Sea for Hanoi and Beijing
by Tran Hung

Exploitation rights for oil and natural gas in the maritime subsoil at heart of dispute.  Tension triggered by exploration operations.  Vietnam claims territorial sovereignty but wants to resolve the dispute "peacefully", Beijing does not hesitate to deploy warships.


Hanoi (AsiaNews) - A new confrontation front has recently opened up in the South China Sea between Hanoi and Beijing over control of resources - oil and natural gas - enclosed underground.  The area is known as Vanguard Bay, an agglomeration submerged by the waters that hosts three Vietnamese outposts and which the Land of the Dragon claims - like most of the surrounding seas - for exclusive use.

The level of tension rose in July, when a Chinese navy ship (the Haiyang Dizhi 8) entered the area from 3 to 11 for exploration operations in search of hydrocarbons.  Along with the boat there were also two Chinese warships, for escort operations and logistic support.

Unlike the Spratly and the Paracels, other small islands disputed for years making international news headlines, the Vanguard Bay are little known by the Vietnamese themselves.  A tweet published in recent days by Ryan Martinson, a professor at the US Naval War School, who spoke of the entry of the Chinese ship in the area controlled by the Vietnamese navy was the first indication to raise hackles.

"The [apparent] purpose of the HD8 is to conduct a seismic investigation" against which the Vietnamese counterpart opposed.  "The situation - warns the scholar - is a source of tension".  In response to the Chinese move, Hanoi sent four coastguard ships to the area to claim the 200 nautical miles of Vietnamese territorial sovereignty.  This triggered a confrontation that lasted over 10 days, marked by blank shots and water cannon jets.

According to Hanoi, and international maritime conventions, the waters surrounding Vanguard Bay belong to Vietnam, as an extension of its southern plaque.  However, lately Beijing has started exploration operations in search of oil and gas, turning a peaceful area into a new disputed territory.

Since 2009, China has been trying to gain control of the area, exerting pressure on British companies (British Oil Company, BP) and Spanish (Repsol) to abandon the sector on the mandate of the Vietnamese government.  The latest round in the battle (for the moment) took place on 12 July when two Chinese boats and four Vietnamese patrol ships engaged in a fierce confrontation.  Hanoi, for fear of losing control of the area and its sovereignty, launched the alert and concentrated most of its naval forces in the area.

The maritime tensions took place while the official visit of the president of the Vietnamese Parliament Nguyễn Thị Kim Ngân to China was underway.  For the entire period of the visit, the state newspapers and the official media did not talk about the matter, perhaps to avoid tensions with the bulky neighbor. 

The issue was raised by the spokesperson of the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Lê Thị Thu Hằng, who spoke of the "entry" of HD8 Chinese into Vietnamese waters.  A note issued stated that "whoever enters the waters or invades the islands and the continental plate of Vietnam, violates the international law and the UN Convention of 1982 on the seas".  The spokeswoman concludes by emphasizing that Hanoi intends to settle disputes "peacefully", in contrast to the aggressive attitude of China that does not hesitate to deploy warships.