Tug of war churns South China Sea | Inquirer Opinion
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Tug of war churns South China Sea

(Concluded from Monday)

As the backlash to China’s deployment of a giant oil rig to waters close to Vietnam’s coast in the Paracels Islands intensified in Hanoi, government-controlled newspapers fueled nationalist sentiment by running a series of reports detailing how China had taken the Paracels by force.

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The reports highlighted the battle on Jan. 19, 1974, between the then South Vietnamese navy and Chinese forces. Prior to the battle, Vietnam had controlled some islands in the Paracel archipelago and China controlled others, according to BBC News. Both sides claimed the islands in full, as did Taiwan.

In the clash, three of four Vietnamese warships had to retreat and the fourth sank with its captain on board. As a result, China gained control of the entire group of islands which it now considers part of its newly established Sansha prefecture.

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According to BBC, Vietnam’s current communist government renewed the claim to the Paracels after the Vietnam War ended. Up to 1975, the Paracel archipelago was claimed by the US-backed Saigon government. At the time Hanoi neither protested China’s occupation of the islands nor recognized the South Vietnamese soldiers’ loss of life—because they were considered an enemy by the communist North. But things have now changed, the historian Nguyen Nha points out: “We have to realize that there are no more North and South, we’re all Vietnamese. Politics come and go, but historical facts remain.”

That change of heart is clearly visible in the Vietnamese media, reports BBC. The historian warns: “Vietnamese people are facing a danger of aggression and humiliation (by China) like never before in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam finds it galling to swallow China’s new fishing rules, which took effect on Jan. 1 and which require foreign fishing ships to obtain approval to enter the waters China has put under the jurisdiction of the Hainan provincial government, including those surrounding the Paracels. Experts say the rules are likely to lead to incidents with Vietnamese fishermen who consider the waters their traditional fishing grounds and who regularly accuse Chinese authorities of harassment.

The Vietnamese media are reported to have raised the tone of their reports on China’s new fishing rules, calling these “illegal and invalid.” Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has warned: “It is the reported instigation of Vietnamese authorities encouraging Vietnamese fishermen to fish in the waters around the Paracels that could lead to conflict.”

Filipino fishermen have encountered similar harassment in their fishing grounds in Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China. In that area, Filipino fishermen have been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese coast guard. According to the New York Times News Service, for the past years the shoal has been controlled by the Chinese coast guard, and Filipino fishermen who had made their living there for decades now find themselves shut out. “The fishermen have no choice,” a fisheries officer was quoted by the NYT as saying. “They fish there until the Chinese chase them away.”

The shoal, according to the NYT, is just one of a number of places in the South China Sea and East China Sea caught in a tug-of-war between China that claims vast swaths of the resource-rich waters and other Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam, that claim parts of the same waters.

The report said the conflict came to a head in April 2012 when the Philippines accused Chinese fishermen of poaching protected coral and giant clams from an area claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A Philippine Coast Guard ship and several Chinese government ships were locked in a tense standoff for two months before the Filipinos withdrew to comply with a US-brokered resolution. But the Chinese ships never left, subsequently setting up regular patrols to block the Filipinos’ entry and to protect Chinese vessels in the area.

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Tension flared again two weeks ago, when Philippine maritime police seized nine Chinese fishermen caught poaching protected marine turtles at Hasa-Hasa Shoal (Half Moon Shoal) in the Spratly Islands in another part of the South China Sea. The incident occurred at about the same time dozens of Vietnamese and Chinese boats clashed in the Paracels.

China angrily demanded the release of the boat and its crew. Although there had been frequent flare-ups between fishermen from the region’s littoral nations, Reuters reported, what made Beijing furious was that “the actual detention of Chinese fishermen or the seizure of a boat is rare.”

The boat was carrying 350 turtles, which were protected under Philippine law. The crew members were taken to Palawan province, where charges were filed against them for breaking Philippine law and violating Philippine sovereignty.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded that the Philippines “immediately release” the detained fishermen and “take no more provocative action.” Philippine authorities stood their ground, filed the case, and refused to release the Chinese.

Both the confrontation at the rig and the arrest of the fishermen underscored what experts call “the fragility of the peace in the region as China asserts claims to wide swaths of the South China Sea, while its smaller neighbors, who also claim islands on the same waters, push back.”

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TAGS: Carlyle Thayer, Chinese fishermen, East China Sea, Hanoi, Nguyen Nha, Paracel archipelago, Paracels Islands, South China Sea, territorial disputes, West Philippine Sea
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