A Chinese marine surveillance ship blasts a Vietnamese Fisheries Resources Survellance vessel with a water cannon while guarding a Chinese oil rig operating in Vietnamese waters
Southeast Asian foreign ministers said they were concerned about a rise in territorial tensions in the South China Sea, calling on all parties including China to show “self-restraint” after Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided near disputed islands.
Countries claiming parts of the resource-rich waters should “avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area,” and “resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force,” ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations said today in a statement issued after a meeting in Naypyidaw in Myanmar.
The meeting comes as Vietnam and the Philippines escalate complaints about China’s actions in disputed areas of the South China Sea, a region through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. Earlier this week Vietnam said Chinese ships had deliberately rammed its vessels near a giant oil rig China placed in waters in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. Meanwhile, Philippine police detained 11 Chinese fishermen near a shoal close to the contested Spratly Islands.
Asean is seeking a code of conduct for the waters, with talks making little progress since China agreed in July to start discussions, and China introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast. Foreign ministers in their statement today called for a code of conduct to be agreed on soon.
Asean foreign ministers view the tensions as a matter of “grave concern,” Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told reporters today in Naypyidaw. “Asean needs to be neutral, but Asean cannot stay silent,” he said. “For the benefit of the entire region there has to be peace. There should be no mishaps. Mishaps can easily get out of hand. And tensions, mishaps, incidents, if they result in the disputes becoming larger, it’s bad for all of us.”
China and Vietnam both claim the Paracel Islands, and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have claims to other territory in the South China Sea.
While Asean is not taking sides in the disputes, ministers saw the need for a statement to show how seriously they view the tensions and to maintain the grouping’s credibility, Shanmugam said. “China will have one version of the events, Vietnam will have one version of the events. We don’t need to get into that.”
Tensions are escalating as Asian neighbors push back against Chinese moves to assert control over the resources of disputed maritime areas, seeking closer ties with the U.S. and looking to craft a code of conduct to avoid conflicts over seas.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino flagged his intention to raise the South China Sea tensions when Asean leaders meet this weekend in Myanmar.
Rule of law
“Rule of law should be upheld and followed when resolving territorial issues” so each nation’s rights are recognized and respected,’’ Aquino said before departing for the summit. “Issues affecting many parties in the region cannot be settled through dialogue between two countries alone.”
President Xi Jinping is expanding China’s naval reach to back its claims to huge swaths of the South China Sea that is based on the “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That claim extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo. China's justification of its claims has been ambiguous.
A senior Chinese official said in Beijing May 8 confirmed that Chinese ships had used water cannons against Vietnamese vessels which he claimed were disrupting drilling operation in the South China Sea.
Vietnam on May 7 said Chinese boats rammed its ships, fired water cannon and used low-flying aircraft in a confrontation over China’s rig, which is stationed
just 120 nautical miles off Vietnam’s central coast and well within the country's exclusive economic zone.
Yi Xianliang, China’s deputy director general of boundary and ocean affairs, claimed May 8 that China had to increase its security forces at the scene "in the face of Vietnamese disruption."
Statements made by the U.S. emboldened certain parties to take provocative actions in the South China Sea, Yi said. President Barack Obama visited the Philippines and Japan last month in a tour aimed at reassuring Asian allies of USsupport in the face of China’s rising military power.
The US has criticized China for taking “provocative” and “unilateral” action to advance its territorial claims.
“The dangerous conduct and intimidation by the vessels is concerning,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington May 8. Asked which side was at fault, she said “the comments we’ve given make clear we think it’s the Chinese side that is exhibiting provocative actions here.”
Yi claimed the drilling by China Oilfield Services Ltd. was legitimate and inside China’s sovereign territory. Vietnam has said the area where the rig is located is within its own waters. Yi wouldn’t give the number of Chinese vessels in the area. He said Chinese companies had been operating in the area for a decade and recent drilling was a “routine continuation” of that.
Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam’s Coast Guard, said on May 7 that China had sent 80 boats, including naval vessels, and that the situation was tense.
“The risk of escalation is real, given the role of oil and proximity to both countries,” said Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s ties with its neighbors, referring to the incident between China and Vietnam.
The confrontation off Vietnam’s coast is the most serious between the two countries since 2007 when Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the Spratlys, which Vietnam also lays claims to, killed 64 Vietnamese border guards as China seized seven atolls.
In 1974, as US troops withdrew from Vietnam, China invaded the Paracel Islands, known in Vietnam as the Hoang Sa Islands. The islands had been held by the US-backed South Vietnamese regime. More than 70 Vietnamese soldiers died during the invasion. China has controlled the island chain ever since.
Eleven Chinese fishermen detained by the Philippines this week were caught in Philippine territory and are under investigation, police Director General Alan Purisima told reporters in Manila.
Philippine police didn’t fire at the Chinese vessel, which was caught with about 400 sea turtles 106 kilometers (66 miles) west of Rizal town in Palawan province, said Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas of the police maritime group. China has demanded the release of the crew.