China-Vietnam clash in the Paracels: history still rhyming in the Internet era?Posted: May 7, 2014
Vietnamese diplomats are saying Chinese and Vietnamese ships collided today in the disputed Paracel Islands, where China has stationed the massive oil and gas drilling platform HYSY-981. The incident may be in some ways unprecedented as the first time China has attempted to drill for hydrocarbons in a disputed area of the South China Sea. But it also resonates with the past in some surprising ways, from the PRC’s initiation of the incident, to Vietnam’s response, and even the information environment facing the two sides.
All the reports so far have stated that there has been no shooting, but the Vietnamese side says several ships have been damaged, with several personnel injured by broken glass, after being rammed by Chinese ships escorting the rig. The original Associated Press story quoted foreign diplomats saying that Vietnam had sent up to 29 ships to the area to try to disrupt the drilling operation, but encountered a Chinese escort fleet that was apparently even more numerous:
A Vietnamese official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity said Vietnam’s ships were outnumbered by the Chinese flotilla escorting the rig.
He said the ships were trying to stop the rig from “establishing a fixed position” at the spot where it wanted to drill.
The latest version of the AP report quotes the vice-commander of the Vietnamese Maritime Police foreshadowing an in-kind Vietnamese response:
“Our maritime police and fishing protection forces have practiced extreme restraint, we will continue to hold on there,” Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam’s coast guard, told a specially arranged news conference in Hanoi. “But if (the Chinese ships) continue to ram into us, we will respond with similar self-defense.”
The BBC’s report on the story also quotes Rear Admiral Ngo saying that Chinese boats had collided with Vietnamese vessels three times since 3 May. That the confrontations began several days ago is also suggested, if not confirmed, by Xinhua’s report of PRC Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin lodging diplomatic protests over the “interference” on Friday (May 2) and Sunday (May 4).
Despite the obvious tensions, one thing that may be important to bear in mind when interpreting this incident is its resonance with other incidents over the past 15 years. Although it may be the first time China has tried to drill for oil in the area, as opposed to conduct seismic surveys, the PRC’s practice of positioning energy survey platforms in provocative locations west of the Paracels dates back well before even the 2007 incident discussed below. In March 1997 and November 2004, for example, CNOOC set up its Kantan-3 survey rig around 65nm from the Vietnamese mainland.
The most remarkable resonance is with the 2007 confrontation in the Paracels, made public for the first time in a CCTV documentary late last year (see Scott Bentley’s excellent writeup on The Diplomat). That time, Chinese law enforcement ships were likewise escorting an energy survey operation, in a similar area of sea (on the Vietnamese side of Triton Island), which about 30 Vietnamese ships were attempting to disrupt. In 2007, following a brief period of standoff, the China Marine Surveillance ship Haijian-84 was instructed to ram the Vietnamese ships. The whole CCTV doco can be seen here, and the relevant footage is right here with English subs:
The similarities between the two incidents’ initial causes (Chinese energy exploration activities), responses (Vietnam sending a fleet to try to interfere with the survey), locations (near Triton Island), and specific actions (Chinese ramming of Vietnamese boats) carry at least a couple of implications. First, to date at least, this incident at sea is probably not the “accident or miscalculation” that many Western government officials and think tankers are often warning about. Given the close following of past patterns, the Chinese side would surely have anticipated Vietnam would respond as they did, and Vietnam had every reason to expected the Chinese countermeasures that ensued.
Second, although this latest incident is almost certainly the most serious Sino-Vietnamese maritime confrontation since the cable-cuttings of 2011, it may be under tighter control than a first glance might suggest. To date, the Vietnamese side’s actions appear to be aimed at demonstrating the country’s opposition to China’s activities in the area. For its part, China’s use of rammings and water cannon — as opposed to warning shots, boardings, boat seizures or cannonfire — appears designed to limit the potential for escalation. Note Rear Admiral Ngo’s remark that “if (the Chinese ships) continue to ram into us, we will respond with similar self-defense”, implying that Vietnam’s response would be an in-kind one, rather than a further escalation.
This is not to deny that such confrontations are dangerous. Something could go wrong, a ship could be sunk or someone could be killed, which would present a challenge for the two leaderships. Yet there’s also reason to expect they may in fact be capable of handling such an occurrence. The Vietnamese Foreign Minister and China’s top foreign policy official, State Councillor Yang Jiechi have already spoken about the issue on the phone, there are unofficial channels of communication between the two ruling parties, and the two have a history of high-level leaders’ deals, or “consensuses”, regarding the management of their territorial disputes.
The future development of this confrontation will, at the risk of stating the obvious, depend largely on the PRC’s intentions. Maybe Beijing does intend to stay the course, weathering the Vietnamese storm and developing the resources in the area. But it’s far-fetched to think Beijing wouldn’t understand the extremely low likelihood of Vietnam acquiescing to such activities so close to its own coastline. Looking again at the location China chose: it’s southwest of Triton Island, the closest Paracel Island to the Vietnamese coast. If the main aim was to find and exploit hydrocarbons, China could have chosen anywhere else in the Paracels archipelago and stood a much greater chance of getting away with it. If the site was further away from the Vietnamese coast, it would be a.) less provocative to Hanoi, b.) harder for Vietnamese boats to reach to engage in disruption, and c.) easier for China to defend.
The location, then, suggests China’s actions may be serve political aims. One would be maintaining and affirming China’s maximal claim to maritime rights in the disputed area — that is, the nine-dash line. As each of the images below depicts, there are numerous likely examples of the PRC pursuing this goal in recent years, including the routes of CMS’s “regular rights protection patrols”, CNOOC’s release of energy exploration concessions in July 2012, and the locations of previous incidents in which China acted aggressively close to the outer limits of the nine-dash line claim.
Another aim of the action could have been incentivising Vietnam to agree to, or at least seriously consider, its proposals for “joint development” of energy resources in the disputed area, lest China drop that proposal and opt instead for unilateral exploitation.
Lastly, one Vietnamese diplomat i’ve spoken to believes many of China’s provocative actions are probes aimed at gaining insight into its adversary’s intentions and resolve. With the situation in the South China Sea constantly evolving through developments as diverse as arms deals, ASEAN meetings, statements from powerful extra-regional players like the US and India, defense agreements and a UN legal case, the PRC has plenty of reason to want to, as Bonnie Glaser puts it, “test the water constantly”.
There is also the Russian factor. I find the claims about the Western response to the situation in Ukraine “emboldening” China in its island disputes quite absurd; the US has almost no interest in Crimea, but it has everything at stake in maritime East Asia. But the events there are relevant to the South China Sea dispute because Vietnam’s closest security partner is Russia, which now has a new province to integrate, a lot of international disrepute to deal with, and a developing civil war on its borders many thousands of kilometres away. In such circumstances, re-testing Vietnam’s resolve to forcefully oppose unilateral Chinese energy activities might make a lot of sense.
With the possuble exception of the last, each of these explanations suggests China will back down, rather than continuing to escalate the situation. I might be completely wrong, and time will tell, but given the role that nationalist sentiments are expected to play in future incidents at sea, this looks like a good test case for the claim that the inevitable glare of public attention means they can’t back down. One of the key issues in this regard is whether the more open information environment of the internet era means major incidents cannot be handled away from public scrutiny anymore, or whether the two sides can adequately manage the information that reaches their publics in order to allow compromise. The mainland’s media coverage of this case so far strongly supports the latter proposition.
Missing: online discussion
Coverage of the incident in the PRC online media has been strikingly scarce. As of midnight Beijing time it’s absent from all the usual places that a story about an international confrontation like this would normally appear. The dearth of coverage was in stark contrast with the issue of the Philippines’ seizure of a Chinese fishing boat in the Spratlys on May 6. Almost all the PRC online news media had this in their top-tier headlines all day, led by Huanqiu which plastered its front page with a headline announcing, ‘CHINA DEMANDS PHILIPPINES EXPLAIN DETENTION OF FISHING BOAT, IMMEDIATELY RELEASE PERSONNEL AND VESSELS’. But the Sino-Vietnamese confrontation was, and still is as of the time of writing, nowhere to be found on the front pages of Huanqiu Wang (the Global Times’ website), Xinhua, People’s Daily Online, as well as all the major commercial news portals Tencent, Phoenix, Sina and Sohu (contact me for screenshots if you like).
The only site to carry the story on the front page so far has been NetEase, which is usually the boldest of China’s mainstream news portals. Notably, NetEase’s story was its own summary translation of the AP report, in the absence of anything from Xinhua or Huanqiu. This appeared as a small headline, ‘Vietnamese naval ship collides with Chinese vessels in disputed South China Sea waters’, in the second tier of the news page for a few hours, but the whole story has now been deleted (screenshots before and after). Around 7pm, Huanqiu finally put out a two-paragraph summary of an AFP report, but that has also now been deleted, although it remains accessible for now on Sohu.
All this strongly suggests the central authorities are paying close attention to managing the flow of information on this incident; they appear to be ordering online media to downplay it, perhaps even to avoid mentioning it at all. The Android mobile apps for Baidu News, NetEase and Phoenix all pushed the story out to users in system notifications, perhaps as an “edge-ball 擦边球” tactic utilising a channel that isn’t yet subject to the specific instructions of the information authorities. But on the whole, the events have been successfully kept out of public view.
This success can be seen over on Weibo. NetEase’s summary translation was posted by the Baidu News weibo feed, which has 310,000+ followers. The original weibo hasn’t been deleted, but it has somehow only been reposted 20 times over 9 hours, despite being the only report out there on the unfolding drama.† Whether this is due to some subtle censorship technique or a lack of interest on the part of users, it is a strong indication that the PRC does retain the ability to limit the spread of information about fast-breaking maritime incidents in disputed areas, even in the internet era.
† Interestingly, the report describes the incident as taking place in “disputed waters”, when the PRC position, like Japan’s on the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue, is that no dispute exists over the Paracels.