Recent China’s drastic moves in the East Sea (South China Sea) at a time when the whole world is focusing on the fight against Covid-19 pandemic are adversely affecting the strategic relationship that still has “very little faith” between Vietnam and China, a researcher has told VOA, predicting that the “no-peaceful” actions may occur in the next few weeks if Beijing continues to provoke aggression.
On April 3, after announcing information about the Chinese handover of 8 Vietnamese fishermen after sinking their fishing boats in the area near the Hoang Sa (Paracels), Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said handed over a protest note to China’s Embassy and asked the Chinese side to clarify and strictly deal with civil servants and China Coast Guards ships “that caused the incident, and” not to repeat the same actions, and at the same time compensate the damages to Vietnamese fishermen.”
A day earlier, Vietnamese media reported that the fishing boat of fisherman Tran Hong Tho from Quang Ngai province was sunk by Chinese ships which captured all 8 fishermen.
The Chinese ship then continued to chase and tow two fishing boats which came to rescue the attacked fishermen to Phu Lam island of the Hoang Sa, where Vietnam claims sovereignty but in fact under the control of Beijing from 1974.
“The above action of a Chinese official ship violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa, caused damage to property, threatened the safety of life and legitimate interests of Vietnamese fishermen, went contrary to the common perception of senior leaders of the two countries on the humane treatment of fishermen and the Agreement on the basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues in Vietnam-China,” said Spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the press conference on April 3.
In response, when asked about the incident, China’s Foreign Ministry at the same day press conference, issued a completely opposite version of the information.
Chinese Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Chinese maritime vessels had encountered Vietnamese fishing vessels which were illegally fishing in China’s Xisha Islands (Hoang Sa) in the morning of March 2, so they called for this ship leaves. But Vietnamese fishing vessels refused to leave and “suddenly turned toward the Chinese ship,” causing the coast guard to crash into the fishing vessel “despite all efforts to avoid it.”
The Chinese spokesman added that the Chinese side immediately rescued eight Vietnamese fishermen and allowed them to return after conducting investigative and evidence-gathering procedures.
On the same day, April 2, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to talk about Covid-19 prevention cooperation.
PM Phuc praised the “great achievement” that the Chinese Communist Party had in directing the fight against Covid-19, thanked Beijing for its support and discussed “prevention cooperation” in dealing with the pandemic with neighboring countries.
None of the information said the head of the government mentioned the Chinese ship has recently sunk, attacked and arrested Vietnamese fishermen who were legally fishing on their waters.
A week earlier, on March 24, China announced the inauguration of two “research stations,” which the international press called new military facilities, on Cross Rock and Subi Rock in the Truong Sa (Spratlys), which Vietnam also claims sovereignty. Hanoi also raised its voice to ask Beijing to “respect its sovereignty.”
These incidents happened just a few months after a series of clashes in the summer of last year that made Vietnam-China relations become extremely tense, stemming from the Chinese coast guard ship going into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zones near Vanguard Bank not too far from the Truong Sa, and blatantly operated there for months under the pretext of “geological survey.”
The International Business Times reported on April 4 that it provided a “template” for such events, saying that “Vietnamese fishermen will report the story to the local authorities to submit to the higher authorities.” And the Chinese side often keeps quiet. And because Vietnam cannot compete with China militarily, the case will gradually subside as the whole world has to deal with Covid-19 pandemic.”
According to Dr. Ha Hoang Hop, a regional security and political researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asia, based in Singapore, the current situation in the East Sea is “very difficult” for Vietnam, especially in the context of the spreading Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the researcher ‘s disclosure, China not only publicly opened a research station or sunk a Vietnamese fisherman’s vessel, but also caused “some more problems” that would “gradually be told.”
Dr. Tran Cong Truc, former head of the Vietnam National Border Division, said that China’s sinking of Vietnamese fishing boats is a “not new story,” and Beijing often uses the tactics of spreading news. “Slander” or “blame” on the Vietnamese side before conducting an aggressive or invasive activity in the sea.
According to both Vietnamese researchers, recent drastic moves by China show that Beijing has “a very big attempt” not only in the East Sea but also in the region, such as Taiwan.
“In the context of the whole world is struggling with Covid-19 pandemic, which comes from China, I think they are calculating new adventure steps,” Truc told VOA.
However, the two researchers said that Vietnam had “anticipates” and “carefully prepares” for possible bad situations to come.
“Vietnam will respond by acting but they do not say much anymore,” Hop said. Meanwhile, said that “Vietnam will have strong measures to fight, both legally and politically and in reality.”
In this case, it can be seen that Vietnam reacted almost immediately, differently from other times in the past. In the most recent case in the Vanguard Bank, Vietnam responed after one wek, while in older cases, the responses took longer time.
Coincidentally, China returned 8 fishermen was reported by Vietnamese media on the same day (April 3) with the event of PM Phuc talking with the Chinese Premier Li to “discuss how to cooperate against the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The official website of the Vietnamese government said during the phone call, Mr. Phuc also praised the “great achievement” that China has achieved in combating the pandemic under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, Premier Li and the Chinese State Council. Phuc also thanked the support of Beijing through sharing experience and some localities have supported medical supplies for Vietnam.
Although in terms of information, the two events are completely separate, but according to Hop, they are essentially “related.”
He explained: “In terms of cooperation, since the two countries have a ‘strategic partnership cooperation’, on the basis that both countries are members of the United Nations, there must be cooperation to help each other fight pandemics and natural disasters. On that basis, Premier Li called PM Phuc and there was probably some agreement that China would send some medical supplies to help Vietnam fight the pandemic. Up to now, no. I haven’t seen anything since the outbreak, but now. As far as I know, the Vietnamese PM mentioned the East Sea story but the press did not report it.”
According to Hop, the praises of the Vietnamese PM for China’s achievements in the prevention of the pandemic were “completely diplomatic.”
Hop made a comment. “Because nobody in Vietnam now believes in Chinese“
“That’s no matter what, China should not take the pandemic to cause big problems in the East Sea. That is the message that I am sure that the Vietnamese PM told the Chinese primier.”
The ISEAS researcher asserts that the relationship between Vietnam and China is now “changed,” and the “diplomatic” language exchanged between the two sides sometimes does not tell the nature of the relationship.
“Vietnam-China relations have changed a lot now, so we have to work out. During this pandemic, people see each other better,” Hop said.
This researcher asserted that Vietnam now only sees China as a “partner” country, and because this partner is always ready to “cause trouble” at any time, “cannot trust each other” and “strategic beliefs now very few.”
“Meanwhile, faith in the United States is increasing, but not to the point of becoming allies with each other,” said Hop.
According to his prediction, if China continues to encroach upon its activities to assert sovereignty claims in the East Sea, then “non-peaceful” moves will likely take place in reality in the coming weeks.
Thu Thuy from Hochiminh city – Thoibao.de (Translated)