East Asia Forum has kindly published a piece from me on recent developments in Sino-Vietnamese relations. To supplement it, i’m posting here a table comparing the South China Sea-related elements of the last 7 joint statements between the two.
The comparative table was the basis for the article’s argument that General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to Beijing last month did not involve any softening of Vietnam’s position on the issue.
According to a knowledgeable Vietnamese source, there are three types of Sino-Vietnamese bilateral joint statements issued after high-level meetings. In ascending order of importance these are:
- Joint press release (联合新闻公报, thông cáo báo chí)
- Joint communique (联合公报, thông cáo chung)
- Joint statement (联合声明, tuyên bố chung)
These documents are often not released in English, and some of the translations that have appeared have been incomplete or unreliable, so the table above compares the Chinese full text as published by state media (links are in the caption area above).
The table also includes an item, not discussed in the EAF article for space reasons, on cooperation in public opinion work. In the 2011 joint statement, the two sides pledged cooperation on “strengthening public opinion guidance and management” – which, in the context of several weeks of anti-China protests through the middle of that year, was tantamount to a Vietnamese undertaking to dampen anti-China sentiments.
Interestingly, however, there has been no analogous item in the recent joint documents — even after another, even more intense, wave of anti-China sentiments burst forth in 2014 during the HYSY-981 oil rig standoff. Its omission from subsequent documents might indicate an acceptance on China’s behalf of the strength Vietnamese nationalist sentiments that flow in its direction at times of heightened tensions. Perhaps also an acknowledgement that Hanoi is already doing what it can to promote Sino-Vietnamese friendship? Any other readings?
The EAF piece is reposted below. Based on some early feedback, i should have been clearer that in suggesting . . .
China may have pulled back from its pursuit of particular claims that have no basis in international law
. . . i do not mean the PRC has seen the light and is abandoning all claims deemed unlawful in the UNCLOS arbitration. Just that there are some unlawful aspects of China’s claims that it is no longer pushing, and this has removed some of the major drivers of Sino-Vietnamese tensions.
As always, further comments, arguments, additions and corrections are much appreciated.
On June 25, China’s Maritime Safety Administration announced the gargantuan drilling rig HYSY-981 had returned to the South China Sea for more drilling operations, raising concerns of a return of the serious on-water clashes last year.
Here we go again was a widespread sentiment on Twitter. The apparent expectations of impending repeat showdown appear to result in part from the headline of a widely-shared Reuters story, ‘China moves controversial oil rig back towards Vietnam coast‘. This might be technically correct (i’m not sure exactly where the rig was before) but this year’s situation is quite different to last year’s.
Serious on-water confrontation is unlikely this time around because the rig is positioned in a much less controversial area. It is a similar distance from the Vietnamese coast (~110nm) but much further from the disputed Paracel Islands (~85nm), and much closer to the undisputed Chinese territory of Hainan (~70nm, compared to more than 185nm in 2014).
As explained below, the parallels between this area and others where China has objected — sometimes by coercive means — to Vietnamese oil and gas activities, make the latest move a good opportunity to grasp an important aspect of the PRC’s position in these disputes, and pin down some of its inconsistencies.
China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet EraPosted: June 9, 2014
Jamestown China Brief piece published last week:
China’s Information Management in the Sino-Vietnamese Confrontation: Caution and Sophistication in the Internet Era
China Brief, Volume 14 Issue 11 (June 4, 2014)
After the worst anti-China violence for 15 years took place in Vietnam this month, it took China’s propaganda authorities nearly two days to work out how the story should be handled publicly. However, this was not a simple information blackout. The 48-hour gap between the start of the riots and their eventual presentation to the country’s mass audiences exemplified some of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) sophisticated techniques for managing information during fast-breaking foreign affairs incidents in the Internet era. Far from seizing on incidents at sea to demonstrate China’s strength to a domestic audience, the official line played down China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea and emphasized Vietnamese efforts to stop the riots, effectively de-coupling the violence from the issue that sparked them. This indicated that, rather than trying to appease popular nationalism, China’s leaders were in fact reluctant to appear aggressive in front of their own people.
By framing the issue in this way, China’s media authorities cultivated a measured “rational patriotism” in support of the country’s territorial claims. In contrast to the 2012 Sino-Japanese confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, when Beijing appears to have encouraged nationalist outrage to increase its leverage in the dispute, during the recent incident the Party-state was determined to limit popular participation in the issue, thus maximizing its ability to control the escalation of the situation, a cornerstone of the high-level policy of “unifying” the defense of its maritime claims with the maintenance of regional stability (Shijie Zhishi [World Affairs], 2011).
East Asia Forum was yesterday kind enough to publish a piece called ‘Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?’. I was asked to write about how the region should respond to crises like the Sino-Vietnamese standoff in the South China Sea, and the following is just my attempt at contributing something vaguely original to the discussion. I’m ready to be told it’s naive, silly or completely nuts; my only request is that if you think so, please say so!
As Bill Bishop suggested in the Sinocism Newsletter a couple of weeks back, the region at this point appears unable to impose costs on Beijing for the kind of escalatory conduct exemplified by its unilateral placement of the oil drilling rig HYSY-981 in disputed waters this month. This is definitely worth thinking long and hard about. We also need to consider the incentives that the international situation may be creating for this kind of assertiveness, and work to reduce these.
The following article’s bold proclamation about “what is needed” isn’t meant literally; although that wording suggests otherwise, i really am not claiming to know what is needed or tell the real experts that they don’t. It’s just a suggestion, a case to be made, which is based on:
- My reading of how China sees these issues and its strategic interests (relatively sensitive to the possibility of ASEANization of the issue, relatively insensitive to US grandstanding);
- What hasn’t worked to deter Beijing from assertive behaviour thus far (the US leading the criticism of China’s provocative actions and strengthening ties with China’s rival claimants); and
- Discussions with some friends and experts, whose feedback was vital to refining the idea (i’d name them but i’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer to remain nameless).
EAF allowed me a generous 1200-odd words, and i ought to thank the editors for their excellent job of compressing it. Nonetheless, a few other clarifications had to be left out for space reasons, so i’m adding them after the end of this post, mainly for my own benefit i imagine.
Anyway, here’s my crackpot idea, which which i put out there to be critiqued, so please don’t hold back . . .
Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.
His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.
Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute
Just in case the Yuzheng 310‘s scaring-away of three “warships” from an unnamed country wasn’t enough to convince the Chinese reading public of the heroism of the Fisheries Administration, we now have a juicy follow-up: ‘Guangxi fishing boats surrounded by foreign gunboats, rescued by Fisheries Administration vessel, one-versus-five‘.
Cheng appears to be travelling with the Fisheries Administration, as Zhang Fan did when he “re-planted” the Chinese flag on Scarborough Shoal, and has done some more extended pieces purportedly giving expression to the fisherfolks’ voices. One recent feature piece was framed to be critical of the government’s current position, specifically the idea of China not firing the first shot, being titled, ‘Fisherfolk’s grief: we don’t fire the first shot, countries occupying the islands have fired countless shots‘.
In his new scoop, after briefly recapping the previous incident involving China’s Most Advanced Fisheries Law Enforcement Vessel Yuzheng 310, Cheng Gang describes:
In this latest incident, it was Yuzheng 302‘s turn for conscientious bravery. A Guangxi fishing boat with nine crew on board had been encircled and brought under the control of five gunboats from another country 另一国. It was being towed behind one of the gunboats towards a port in that country. After nine hours of pursuit, and a one-versus-five battle of wits and courage, Yuzheng 302 actually saved the fishing boat.
It was the Fisheries Administration boats’ actions to protect fisherfolk that prevented the two incidents from becoming bigger diplomatic problems, avoiding adding new chaos to the already-tense South Sea situation.
That last line suggests that the recent props for the Fishing Administration’s South Sea forces may be aimed more at the ruling party than the public. Even if the Ministry of Agriculture and FLEC are jumping up and down, and using media like the Huanqiu Shibao to say, “Hey, look what we’re doing in the South China Sea,” they’re more likely saying this to the allocators of funding than the actual reading public at large.
The story appeared in the print edition of the Huanqiu Shibao on June 1, which is behind a paywall, but other newspapers such as the Hanyang Evening News (Wuhan) picked it up on June 2, running it complete with a photo of the heroic ship.
It’s the second-most commented story of the week in Sina’s news forum, #1 for the week at Phoenix, and #2 for the week at Tencent (QQ). The top comments on all five threads can be summed up as asking:
- Where the Chinese Navy was, given that the unnamed other country had sent in naval vessels.
- Why the offending country wasn’t named.
In a further illustration of why the Fishing Administration’s recent publicity campaign is more likely to be aimed at the party rather than the public, the top comment on the 123,000-strong QQ thread took direct issue with Cheng Gang’s singing the praises of the Fishing Administration boats for preventing “bigger diplomatic problems”. After all, the people, at least the online commenting public, were never going to appreciate that message, that great achievement:
The South Sea is already in chaos, producing a great number of vested interests. This kind of tranquility has already caused great loss for China. Therefore, we should not fear chaos in the South Sea, the fishermen’s bold behaviour is excellent. If there is some chaos added as a result of the courage of fishermen, that’s an entirely good thing for China, looking at the big picture. Great rule comes from great chaos, and without new chaos there will be no new order. Only by butting up against the vested interests can we we start to get some bits of our rights back. I strongly suggest enacting some policies to encourage fishermen to go to the disputed areas and fish, and let the clowns [other countries] perform to their hearts’ content, for if the emperor is to eliminate them, then he must first make them crazy! [25,392 supports]
At Netease 103,000 participants produced the following as their top comments:
Which country is it? How can you not even dare to say its name? Do you think if you don’t say the name the other country will save your face? If they really did take you as a good neighbour, good friend, good comrade, would they send in warships against defenceless fishing boats? Less wishful thinking! [20,611 dings]
I’m laughing to death…lamentable, pitiful, hateful!!! I feel ashamed to be Chinese!!! [14,939]
Your own people fishing in your own waters get chased, and you still have the nerve to take credit [12,431]
No-one seemed to notice Cheng Gang’s specification that the two incidents had been committed by different country. The first comment above clearly assumes the perpetrator to have been Vietnam.
Which country could it be this time? Malaysia?
Neither of the confrontations appear to have been picked up by the foreign press, and nor have any of the English-language Chinese media (e.g. Global Times, China Dailyand the People’s Daily online) have published it. The Foreign Ministry doesn’t seem to have answered any questions on the topic.
South Sea Special Correspondent Cheng Gang himself has talked here on the professionalization of journalism in China. But i can’t help but wonder: being embedded with the the Fisheries Department, is he under some kind of spell — like Western journalists embedded with troops in Iraq? Are these tales even true?
It was as though they were playing tag-team† in a WWF wrestling show. Just as the China-Philippines tensions started to diminish, who should pop up to disturb China’s peaceful claims? Why, “a certain neighbouring country”, of course.
On May 24 the Vietnamese held another press conference at which spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said that China had detained two Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands on May 16 (for some reason this VietnamNet report says the incident occurred in the Spratlys), and held the 14 crew until May 21. As soon as China officially advised Vietnam about the incident on May 21, according to spokesman Luong, the Vietnamese side lodged a strong diplomatic protest against the “severe violation of the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions of Viet Nam”.
There are plenty of details in this English-language Vietnamese media report…
Vo Minh Quan, 42, the captain of QNg 50003TS boat, said the fishermen went to sea on May 2. Fourteen days later, at 9 am on May 16, a Chinese ship coded 306 suddenly appeared and seized the boat and the crew.
The foreign ship later captured the QNg 55003TS boat piloted by captain Tran The Anh and then escorted the two boats with all their crewmembers to Phu Lam [永兴, Woody] island for detention.
The Chinese authorities confiscated all fishing tools, maritime equipment, 2,000 liters of oil, five diving cylinders, and a large amount of sea products.
Total value of the seized items of both fishing boats is estimated at VND900 million (US$43,200). Quan said.
At 12 am on May 21, the Chinese captors released all fishermen and the QNg 50003TS but kept the other boat in detention.
….but i have failed to find anything at all in the Chinese media about the incident.
Just two days later, precisely the opposite was the case. The May 19 edition of the Huanqiu Shibao ran an exclusive story headlined ‘Three foreign gunboats pursue and harass Chinese fishing boats, rescued by Yuzheng 310‘, which doesn’t appear to have been reported in the international media. It’s dramatic enough (and strange enough) to translate in full:
From Huanqiu Shibao‘s specially-dispatched journalist in the South China Sea: On May 18, China’s Yuzheng 310 vessel successfully deterred three gunboats from a certain country from pursuing and harassing 追袭 five Chinese fishing boats, protecting more than 100 Chinese fisherfolk from financial loss and personal harm.