Beijing starts military exercise in disputed South China Sea as tensions with Vietnam rise

Three-day training drill near Paracels starts on Tuesday as Hanoi faces pressure at home over Vanguard Bank stand-off

Chinese vessels during a previous military exercise near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP
Chinese vessels during a previous military exercise near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

China started a series of military training exercises near the Paracel chain of islands in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, amid growing tensions with Vietnam over the vital maritime trade route.

Ships were prohibited from entering three locations in and near the Paracels from Tuesday morning until Thursday afternoon, according to three brief notices published on the Maritime Safety Administration website on Monday. No details were given of the purpose of the training, nor which military units would be involved.

Tensions in the South China Sea re-emerged last month, with a week-long confrontation between Chinese and Vietnamese coastguard vessels around the energy-rich Vanguard Bank, after Chinese survey ship the Haiyang Dizhi 8 entered the area, which Hanoi has declared part of its exclusive economic zone.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry has also complained about the presence of Chinese coastguard ships near its oil rig operation off the Vanguard Bank.

Vietnam refuses to back down in South China Sea stand-off

On Tuesday, Vietnamese police said they had dispersed a brief protest outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, in which about 10 people demanded the departure of the Chinese ships from Vanguard Bank. The protest came just days after a Vietnamese fishermen’s association publicly urged the government to take stronger action to remove the ships, which it said had disrupted fishing in the area.

While observers said this week’s training could be part of China’s regular military exercises as Beijing seeks to consolidate its control of the Paracels – also known as Xisha in Chinese and Hoang Sa in Vietnamese – many believed it also could be a message to Hanoi.

Song Zhongping, a military analyst based in Hong Kong, said the Paracel chain was an important foothold for Beijing in the South China Sea.

“China can be expected to want to improve its defence capability in the waters near the Paracels, in response to challenges from countries like Vietnam, as well as the US with its freedom of navigation operations,” he said.

Song said China regarded the regular US operations sending surveillance ships and planes close to the 12 nautical mile limit of its claimed territory in the area as reconnaissance activity near its territorial waters, which also posed a threat to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

Song said the military exercises also could be part of Beijing’s efforts to improve its search and rescue system in the Paracels, which are claimed by Beijing, Hanoi and Taipei.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Sydney’s Macquarie University, said that, with no sign of Beijing or Hanoi stepping back from their dispute at Vanguard Bank, the Chinese drills would be interpreted as “a clear message” that China was willing to use force, if necessary, to defend its territory in the South China Sea.

“This is a clear message to Vietnam that a continuous stand-off with China, and a hard-line confrontation with Beijing in the South China Sea, would not be in Hanoi’s interest,” Ni said.

But, he added, Vietnam was unlikely to be deterred, especially when the ongoing dispute also involved a Russian oil company and a Japanese rig operator – as well as expressions of support for Hanoi from the US.

“To Hanoi, by backing down you are really condoning Chinese coercion so if it takes a soft line then Beijing would become more emboldened to coerce Hanoi in the future,” Ni said.

Anti-China protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters

Vietnamese protesters ‘show anger’ about Beijing’s presence in South China Sea

Read more

South China Sea: Vietnam extends operation of oil rig on Vanguard Bank as stand-off with Beijing continues

Vietnam refuses to back down in South China Sea stand-off

Vietnam renews demand for ‘immediate withdrawal’ of Chinese ship in disputed South China Sea

Vietnam renews demand for Chinese ship to leave South China Sea

Vietnamese protesters ‘show their anger’ about Beijing’s presence in South China Sea at embassy in Hanoi

  • China’s maritime survey of an offshore block in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone remains a source of tension
  • Protests in the authoritarian and Communist-ruled Southeast Asian country are rare, and police dispersed the short-lived demonstration
Anti-China protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Photo: ReutersAnti-China protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters
Anti-China protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters

Vietnamese police on Tuesday broke up a brief protest outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi against Beijing’s maritime survey of an offshore block in the southeast Asian nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Vietnamese and Chinese ships have been in a

weeks-long stand-off

near the oil block, the latest confrontation in waters that are a potential global flashpoint as the United States challenges China’s sweeping maritime claims.

Protests in the authoritarian and Communist-ruled Southeast Asian country are rare, and police dispersed the short-lived demonstration of about 10 activists of the “No-U” group within minutes.

“We are doing this in front of the Chinese embassy to show our anger to the world,” said Le Hoang, one of the protesters.

Vietnam

accuses Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts of illegal activities in the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and has demanded that China withdraw all its ships.

Last week, a Vietnamese fishermen’s group urged the government to take stronger measures to remove the ships, saying they were disrupting fishing activities.

The “No-U” group takes its name from the U-shaped “nine-dash line” marking China’s claims in a vast expanse of the South China Sea, including large swathes of Vietnam’s continental shelf, where it has awarded oil concessions.
Anti-China protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters
Anti-China protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters

The Haiyang Dizhi 8, operated by the China Geological Survey, and several Chinese Coast Guard ships were still in Vietnam’s EEZ as recently as Monday, the Washington-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) said, using data from maritime analytics company Winward.

Last week, Vice-President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh warned about an increasingly complicated situation at sea, during a visit to Vietnam’s main strategic naval base in the central port city of Cam Ranh, state media said.

Beijing’s South China Sea stance is driving Vietnam into America’s arms

Meeting China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in Bangkok last week, Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said the two sides needed to maintain peace and stability and better manage maritime disputes, Vietnam said in a statement.

On Thursday, UN Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised Chinese “coercion” in the disputed South China Sea, while Wang Yi said maritime problems involving Vietnam should not interfere with two-way ties.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Authorities disperse anti-China protesters
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