SOUTH CHINA SEA — From here, the Chinese oil rig twelve nautical miles away is nothing more than a vertical line on the horizon, barely visible under the stormy sky of the South China Sea. It’s 8 o’clock in the morning on Saturday June 14.

The Vietnamese coast guard’s white-and-blue boat moves forward, ripping through the waves, its bow pointing toward the first Chinese ships. About 30 of them are positioned in an arc shape to protect the platform that China just installed, “illegally” according to Hanoi, in the disputed waters around the Paracel Islands, off the coast of Vietnam.

A warning suddenly bursts out of the loud speaker, in Vietnamese, Chinese and in English: “To all foreign boats, these are Vietnamese waters and you are violating the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea and Vietnamese sovereignty. Immediately cease all your activities and retreat!”

The decision from the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), the third largest state-owned oil company in China, to install the rig in this area on May 2 provoked a dangerous escalation of the tensions between the two Asian countries.

Not since the two Communist Asian “brothers” engaged in a short and bloody border war in 1979, followed by a naval battle south of this area in 1988, has the Sino-Vietnamese relationship ever been so strained.

The Chinese have controlled the Paracel Islands since they established themselves there in 1974, after having driven out the Vietnamese. Before that, almost until the end of the Vietnam War, they were under the control of the Pro-Western regime of South Vietnam.

Poking the tiger

Hanoi claims that they have legal proof showing that Vietnam has owned the islands for a very long time. China however does not want to hear about international law. Instead, Beijing simply claims the whole sea, which bears its name, and denies any dispute over the waters.

The Vietnamese vessel is now so close to the two Chinese coast guards that we can clearly see their structures, their white and red colors, their registration numbers: 2101 and 32 101. The Vietnamese captain then initiates a graceful turn port side and, immediately, a boat chase begins.

When you poke, the tiger replies: The two Chinese ships are after us at full speed, menacing.

At some point, during a tighter turn, we end up sailing alongside them, just in the opposite direction, and close enough to see the people on their decks. What are they thinking? Surely they must see foreign journalists standing on the Vietnamese ship’s upper deck, their cameras pointing towards the “opponent.” They were invited by Hanoi to witness first-hand the situation as part of a well tied up propaganda operation, the goal of which was to show the international press that this daily protest campaign from Vietnam is peaceful and to prove that China’s reactions are violent.

Several days later, in Hanoi, former Member of Parliament and former Vietnamese ambassador to the European Union Ton Nu Thi Ninh offered her analysis. “What we are witnessing at the moment is an attempt from China to impose a pax sinica that completely disregards international law and the main feature of which is an arrogance that can only lead to trouble.”

A platform of China Oilfield Services in South China Sea. Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

She concludes with this warning: “China wants to state its hegemony, to be a policeman and to become East Asia’s sheriff. Its actions are a problem for all countries in the region as well as for the principle of free circulation for sea transport.”

China and Vietnam have had their differences over the centuries, although the two countries have in common an ancient history, as what is now Vietnam was part of imperial China from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D.

As far as their current claims in the South China Sea are concerned, Chinese and Vietnamese declarations, based on ancient nautical charts and history records, contradict each other.

For Vietnamese historian Tran Duc Anh Son, the Paracel Islands have belonged to Vietnam since the reign of emperor Gia Long, who, as early as 1816, “demanded that fishermen pay taxes.”

“The fleet of the Nguyen dynasty often rescued lost boats,” he explains. This archipelago, which the Vietnamese call Hoang Sa — “golden sand beaches” — is made of some 30 islets and rocks, and only 15 of them are actual islands.

Interests and pride

In the 1920s, France’s colonial power in Vietnam developed the Paracel Islands and installed a lighthouse and a radio transmitter on Pattle Island, as well as a weather station on another called Tree Island.

On May 2, according to the “factsheet” recently published by Vietnam, the Chinese authority “unilaterally deployed the oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981 at the location which is 130 nautical miles off Vietnam’s coast and over 80 nautical miles deep inside Vietnam’s continental shelf and exclusive economic zone.”

China, on the other hand, simply says that the platform is located “in Chinese waters.”

As a matter of fact, Beijing does not only claim sovereignty over the Paracel Island, but also over the Spratly Islands farther to the south. These are partly occupied by Vietnam, but the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims there. This helps illustrate the conflict over an area that might indeed hold hydrocarbon reserves, but which importance is most of all strategic. And of course, there is national pride.

China recently accused Vietnamese boats of having rammed Chinese vessels 1,547 times since May 2. The Vietnamese authorities rejected the accusations and replied by releasing a video showing the Chinese firing a water cannon on the Vietnamese coast guard. Another video showed how, on May 26, a large Chinese fishing boat chased and rammed a Vietnamese boat that eventually sank. The people on board nearly drowned.

Today’s chase will not last long. There will be no ramming and no firing of water cannons. This time, at 8:30, it ends without harm. The Chinese have given up trying to catch up with the Vietnamese boat and are returning to their positions.

The Vietnamese, who are also quick to point the finger at the threatening nature of China’s response to their loud-speaker warnings, insist that the Chinese are the real attackers: Their coast guards patrol with 12.7 mm machine guns and 20 mm cannons with the safety removed, unlike their Vietnamese counterparts. 

The next day, the captain of our vessel, Lê Trung Thanh, shows the outline of another ship from the Chinese navy on his screen. “It’s a minesweeper,” he says. Then he sits back. The boat is cruising once again. Another ordinary day in the South China Sea.