Territorial Tensions Between China And Vietnam Spark Riots

Philippine President Benigno Aquino lobbed accusations at China that land reclamation work in a disputed shoal was performed in violation of an agreement signed in 2002. The informal agreement stated Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations and China would refrain from occupying uninhabited reefs and shoals in the South China Sea.

But it is a territorial dispute with Vietnam which is more worrisome. On Monday, China sent two ships to extract Chinese citizens from Vietnam after anti-China riots grew violent. The riots were sparked when the China National Overseas Oil Corporation (CNOOC) began drilling in the Vietnamese-claimed waters near the Paracel Islands and within Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

China, however, claims the islands based on historical usage and effective exercise of sovereignty, having occupied them since 1974. According to Chinese authorities, more than 3,000 Chinese had already been evacuated from Vietnam after protests in the last week.

As Vikram Singh of Reuters notes, China feels free to stoke territorial tensions among its neighbors – wisely or unwisely – without fear of retribution for its actions. While China does not seek military confrontation, it is willing to push the limits.

“Beyond the oil rig, Chinese actions in this vein include new construction on contested reefs and shoals occupied by China; patrols and ceremonies on islands claimed by other nations like Malaysia; unilateral fishing bans imposed on other nations while China tolerates illegal fishing and harvesting of coral by Chinese fishermen; and many more. At the same time, China continues to participate in negotiations on a Code of Conduct among the countries it bullies, intended to prevent conflict and prohibit exactly this kind of behavior,” he writes.

However, he adds, this strategy could bite China in the long-term.

“Even if it avoids war, China can overplay this hand to such a degree that Southeast Asian nations defy history and join together to resist domination by a resurgent Middle Kingdom,” he adds.

The US has attempted to remain agnostic on the issue, which some analysts believe is a mistake.

“The United States has said it won’t take a stand on the sovereignty dispute and has called on the two parties to resolve their differences peacefully. This is not enough: The United States ought to call China’s bluff and make clear the real stakes. The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should present a unified front in refusing to recognize unilateral assertions of claims in disputed territories,” argue Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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