By B. Raman
Through articles in the Chinese Communist Party controlled media that appeared on June 20 and 21, 2011, the Chinese authorities have clearly warned of the likely consequences of what they see as the increasingly assertive policy of the Government of Vietnam in the South China Sea.
A confrontational mood has been developing in the wake of a live-ammunition exercise held by the Vietnamese Navy in the disputed area. The exercise took place on June 13, 2011, for six hours around the Hon Ong Island about 40 kilometres off Quang Nam province in central Vietnam. The island is about 250 kilometres away from the Xisha (Paracel) Islands and 1,000 kilometres away from the Nansha (Spratly) Islands. Vietnam announced the exercise after accusing China of hindering the operation of a Vietnamese oil and gas exploration boat for the second time in two weeks.
On June 14, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued a decree about a potential military call-up. The decree explained who would be exempt from military draft if a war broke out. The decree was signed by the Prime Minister at the request of the Ministry of Defence.
The same day, the Chinese Foreign Ministry clarified that China would not resort to the use of force in the South China Sea. Hong Lei, its spokesperson, said: “We will not resort to the use of force or the threat of force. We hope relevant countries will do more for peace and stability in the region.”
But, on June 15, China sent one of its largest maritime surveillance ships, the Haixun 31, to Singapore through the South China Sea. The Chinese media reported that Haixun-31 intended to monitor shipping and “protect maritime security” on its way to Singapore.
Haixun 31, from the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration, under the Ministry of Transport, sailed from Zhuhai in the Guangdong province. The 3,000-ton, helicopter-equipped ship will monitor shipping, carry out surveying duties, inspect oil wells and “protect maritime security”, Xinhua said. It also said that the ship will inspect foreign vessels anchored or operating in Chinese waters.
On June 17, the Government-controlled “China Daily” published details of the Chinese Government’s plans to strengthen its maritime surveillance capability. According to these details, by 2020, a total of 15,000 personnel, compared with 9,000 now, will serve in the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) Force under the State Oceanic Administration. The CMS air arm will be increased to 16 planes and the patrol fleet will have 350 vessels by 2015 and 520 by 2020. Currently, it has nine aircraft, more than 260 surveillance vessels and 280 law enforcement vehicles.
The same day, the “People’s Daily” said that maritime defense forces recently staged three days and nights of exercises in the South China Sea, without specifying exactly when or where. The drills involved a total of 14 patrol boats, landing craft and submarine hunting boats, along with two military aircraft. The aim was to refine antisubmarine, resupply and island defense capabilities.
On June 20, the “People’s Daily” carried the first warning to Vietnam in an article titled “Vietnam should wake up to Danger!” by its columnist Li Hongmei. It said:“China proposes to settle disputes through peaceful negotiations, but never fears challenges from outside. Moreover, China will never move an inch on its core interest of sovereignty and territorial integrity and will always stand up for that at any cost. Therefore, it is highly advisable for Vietnam to rein in its overreaching ambition over the South China Sea, and dim its hope pinned on the U.S., for the simple reason that once the U.S. feels its own interests threatened, it will readily sacrifice the interests of the Asian countries on the periphery of South China Sea.”
On June 21, the Party-owned “Global Times” carried the second warning to Vietnam in the following words: “Depending on how the situation develops, China has to be ready for two plans: negotiate with Vietnam for a peaceful solution, or answer the provocation with political, economic or even military counterstrikes. We have to be clear about the possibility of the second option, so as to let Vietnam remain sober about the South China Sea issue….Vietnam has been trapped in an unrealistic belief that as long as the US balances out the South China Sea issue, it can openly challenge China’s sovereignty, and walk away with huge gains….Since a limited military conflict with China over the South China Sea in 1988, Vietnam has been increasingly aggressive in grabbing islands as its own, ignoring China’s traditional policy of “shelving disputes and developing jointly.” It is pushing the limits of China’s national interest and dignity. China has to send a clear message that it will take whatever measures necessary to protect its interests in the South China Sea. If Vietnam continues to provoke China in this region, China will first deal with it with maritime police forces, and if necessary, strike back with naval forces….If Vietnam wants to start a war, China has the confidence to destroy invading Vietnam battleships, despite possible objections from the international community. The US may add some uncertainty in the South China Sea. China will handle this carefully, and is not likely to engage in a direct confrontation with the US.”
Despite the escalating war of words, there is no evidence so far that the two countries are actually preparing themselves for a military confrontation. Further developments need to be closely monitored.