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Despite Diplomacy China And Vietnam Are On Regular Crash Over Sea

Anti-China sentiment runs high among regular Vietnamese citizens too, and the government can tap into that when it needs a shot of public support.

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A fishing boat is seen during the low tide at the beach in Thanh Hoa province, Vietnam June 4, 2018. VOA

A capsized Vietnamese fishing boat that Hanoi says was hit by a Chinese vessel in contested waters is the latest in what scholars call a string of often unreported maritime mishaps between the two sides despite official efforts to get along.

The fishing boat carrying a crew of five capsized on March 6 near the Paracel Islands, a group of South China Sea islets claimed by both countries but controlled by China.

The National Committee for Incident-Natural Disaster Response and Search and Rescue in Hanoi says a Chinese vessel rammed the boat near Discovery Reef due east of Vietnam and southwest of Hong Kong, according to the news website VnExpress International. Another Vietnamese fishing boat rescued the crew, the report says. China rejects blame for the mishap.

Although the capsized boat is the biggest publicized incident at sea since a May 2014 mass boat ramming incident, Asian maritime scholars call it one in a series.

“This matter is not a special matter,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Each side stands ready to repel the other, he said, meaning ultimately boat crews get hurt.

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China and Vietnam are the two most outspoken rival claimants to parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that stretches as far south as the island of Borneo. VOA

“More or less, these things have happened before. Normally you’ll see when relations are good, these things are covered up but when they’re not, the incidents are made bigger,” Huang said.

Maritime clashes, diplomatic repair work

China and Vietnam are the two most outspoken rival claimants to parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that stretches as far south as the island of Borneo. The two communist neighbors also fought a land border war in the 1970s, causing long-term distrust between governments.

China and Vietnam got into two landmark, deadly naval clashes, in 1974 and 1988, over control of the sea that’s prized for fisheries as well as fossil fuel reserves. The 2014 boat-ramming incident followed the placement of a Chinese oil drilling rig in the South China Sea.

Smaller clashes take place without causing much uproar, said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines.

In 2011, for example, a Chinese patrol vessel “reportedly cut the exploration cables” of a Vietnamese seismic survey ship in Vietnam’s exclusive maritime economic zone, according to a 2018 study by the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Repair work

Communist party envoys often meet after incidents at sea to foster a period of calm. Each side depends on the other economically. China looks to Vietnam as a place to sell raw materials for manufacturing, while Vietnam counts China as its biggest export market.

But to prove their maritime sovereignty claim, Vietnamese authorities sometimes encourage fishing vessels to violate China’s unilateral moratorium on fishing in disputed waters, said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Anti-China sentiment runs high among regular Vietnamese citizens too, and the government can tap into that when it needs a shot of public support.

Vietnamese news media initially did not identify China as a player in the March 6 mishap, Nguyen said. He suspects the Communist Party eventually gave the media a “green light.”

“I think that the party-to-party relations have to figure out a way to solve the problem, otherwise similar incidents can happen in the future,” Nguyen said.

Two-way relations are “not bad” at the moment, Huang said, noting Vietnam’s recent inclusion under China’s pan-Asian Belt-and-Road infrastructure development plan. The two sides also still live by a 2011 agreement to solve their maritime disputes through negotiations.

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Anti-China sentiment runs high among regular Vietnamese citizens too, and the government can tap into that when it needs a shot of public support. VOA

Code of Conduct

The March 6 incident may become a talking point between China and the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations as they negotiate a maritime code of conduct by 2021, analysts believe. Association members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines vie with China over claims to the same sea. Vietnam is also a member.

A code would spell out how naval and coast guard vessels, including drones, can avoid accidents, Huang said, but it’s unclear whether it would apply to private vessels. China and the Southeast Asian bloc have talked about a code since 2002, with China delaying it part of that time. Beijing has the strongest military position among claimants to the disputed sea.

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Other countries would consider backing code proposals to stop incidents like the one March 8, Batongbacal said.

“I’m sure that this incident will be considered by other countries in discussing the code of conduct, so Vietnam’s proposals I’m sure will have some bearing on that,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

After Failed Hanoi Summit, U.S. Imposes First North Korea-Linked Sanctions

Trump and Kim have held two summits — the first in Singapore last June and the second in Hanoi this February. Trump has not ruled out a third such meeting.

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Protesters march toward the U.S. Embassy during a rally supporting the U.S. policy to put steady pressure on North Korea, in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 3, 2018. VOA

With negotiations at an impasse, Washington has imposed additional sanctions on those assisting Pyongyang — the first such action since February’s failed summit in Hanoi between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“This is not really about intensification of pressure,” a senior U.S. administration official said. “This is about maintaining pressure as defined by the international community.”

FILE - In this Feb. 28, 2019, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaks at a news conference in Hanoi, following talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump said he walked away from his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because Kim demanded the U.S. lift all of its sanctions.
In this Feb. 28, 2019, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaks at a news conference in Hanoi, following talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump said he walked away from his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because Kim demanded the U.S. lift all of its sanctions. VOA

Thursday’s sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department on two China-based shipping companies were the latest evidence of some “leakage” in the enforcement of sanctions by Beijing, but U.S. officials said that overall, China was abiding by the U.N. resolutions slapped on North Korea for its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

Washington wants Pyongyang to surrender its entire nuclear arsenal and other mass-destruction weapons before being granted any relief from sanctions. The North Koreans insist on sanctions relief before halting production of fissile materials.

“Insisting on unilateral North Korean disarmament upfront is pushing on the wrong door. We should be pushing to first slow the program, then cap it, and ultimately keep rollback and disarmament the long-term goal,” said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But every month that passes without a grand deal is one in which North Korea’s nuclear program continues to grow larger — increasing the risk of its own use and proliferation to other countries — and the chances of a deal grow smaller.”

 

FILE - In this undated image from video distributed Jan. 1, 2019, by North Korean broadcaster KRT, leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech in North Korea.
In this undated image from video distributed Jan. 1, 2019, by North Korean broadcaster KRT, leader Kim Jong Un delivers a speech in North Korea. VOA

Analysts also worry Kim could grow impatient, turn away from diplomacy with Trump and look to China to provide sanctions relief that North Korea desperately needs.

“I’m not sure we can be confident that Beijing will uphold enforcement after Trump so abruptly walked away from negotiations with North Korea,” said Jean Lee, who directs the center for Korean history and public policy at the Wilson Center, a global policy research group in Washington. “I do hope North Korea sticks to negotiation and does not resort to provocation. If Pyongyang doesn’t get the response it craves and needs from Washington, North Korea may turn back to a tried and tested strategy: to get Trump, and the world’s attention, with another illicit missile launch or test.”

U.S. officials on Thursday, speaking to reporters on condition of not being named, expressed patience and confidence with their stance toward North Korea.

Patience

“What they’re facing now is unprecedented,” said one U.S. official of the sanctions on North Korea. “We’ll give it some time.”

Lee, currently in Seoul, told VOA she found it “interesting that we’re back to a form of strategic patience. There was high hope, especially here in Seoul, that Trump’s impatience and unpredictability would lead to fast movement on North Korea. But the Trump administration is finding that it’s much tougher than the president may have thought of simply bullying Kim into acquiescence.”

A prolonged lull in talks “could become risky, and maintaining maximalist positions will not be sustainable,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a national security research group in Washington.

FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2018, photo, a North Korean woman walks outside Bugsae Shop, also known as the "Singapore Shop," in Pyongyang. Business is booming at such shops, which sell everything from Ukrainian vodka to brand-name knock-offs from China. The stores stock many of the very things U.N. sanctions banning trade in luxury goods are intended to block.
In this Dec. 21, 2018, photo, a North Korean woman walks outside Bugsae Shop, also known as the “Singapore Shop,” in Pyongyang. Business is booming at such shops, which sell everything from Ukrainian vodka to brand-name knock-offs from China. The stores stock many of the very things U.N. sanctions banning trade in luxury goods are intended to block. VOA

“They need to negotiate a denuclearization-peace road map soon and preferably an interim agreement on fissile materials. Rapid and complete denuclearization is not realistic. Denuclearization will have to occur in stages but in accordance with an agreed road map on how this all ends,” Kim told VOA.

The current primary point of pressure on Pyongyang by the international community is on entities, including their ships, involved with illicitly exporting North Korean goods, such as coal, and taking products — especially petroleum — into the impoverished country in violation of U.N. sanctions.

Unless North Korea denuclearizes, “we’re going to maintain that pressure,” a senior U.S official said.

Daily monitoring

A coalition of countries — using their vessels, aircraft and classified intelligence means — are daily watching the movement of ships involved in the illegal trade.

North Korea and those helping it are trying to obscure identities of ships and cargo by disabling or manipulating systems that identify the vessels for safety and navigation, physically altering vessel identifications and making ship-to-ship transfers to avoid ports, according to a sanctions advisory jointly issued Thursday by the U.S. Treasury and State departments and the Coast Guard.

Neither the United States nor any other country has moved to interdict the offending ships.

FILE - This photo released by Japan's Ministry of Defense shows what it says is the North Korean-flagged tanker Yu Jong 2, left, and the Min Ning De You 078 lying alongside in the East China Sea, Feb. 16, 2018.
This photo released by Japan’s Ministry of Defense shows what it says is the North Korean-flagged tanker Yu Jong 2, left, and the Min Ning De You 078 lying alongside in the East China Sea, Feb. 16, 2018. VOA

“I don’t want to talk about potential steps we may or may not take,” replied a senior administration official when asked by VOA whether there was discussion here about using the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard in international waters to take such action.

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Trump and Kim have held two summits — the first in Singapore last June and the second in Hanoi this February. Trump has not ruled out a third such meeting.

“The door is wide open to continuing the dialogue with North Korea. The president wants to see progress at the working level, and he’s engaged as well,” a senior administration official said. (VOA)