Vietnam once again broke up anti-China peaceful protests in Hanoi and Saigon this morning (Sunday 9/12/2012), and reaffirms its incestuous close tie to Beijing, leaving the Philippines as the only ASEAN’s member to fight off China’s aggression in the South China sea. Cambodia and Laos are under Vietnam’s control, and unofficially became China’s newest province in 1990 when Nguyen Van Linh, General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, led a delegation of high-ranking politburo members to China to meet in secret with Li Peng and Jiang Zemin to turn Indochina over to China. In return China granted Indochina complete autonomy.
Filipino Albert del Rosario a lone ASEAN voice taking on China
Placing consensus above all, it is fair to say that Asean leaders are generally not known for their displays of emotion or passion.
Yet, in a crucial closed-door meeting in July, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario tried to tap those dormant qualities as he tried to rally his peers to stand up to China over the South China Sea.
Trying, in the words of one observer, “to bloody well wake them up,” Del Rosario quoted the famous lines from German theologian Martin Niemöller of the perils of doing nothing in the face of mounting tyranny. Describing how the Nazis, unopposed, first came for the communists and then the trade unionists, Niemöller said: “Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Rarely has Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) heard such language within its staterooms. “It was classic Del Rosario,” said one Asean envoy. “He’s not afraid to appeal to our better selves … and he’s not afraid to stand up and be counted when it comes to the South China Sea.”
That meeting ended in unprecedented rancor as the 10 Southeast Asian foreign ministers failed to produce an annual communique for the first time in the grouping’s 45-year history. Meeting host Cambodia stood accused of doing Beijing’s bidding in shutting down debate over how to capture in the document regional concern over the South China Sea.
When Asean leaders met in Phnom Penh last month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino continued his foreign secretary’s theme. While he contradicted Cambodia’s public claims of an Asean deal—hailed by Beijing—not to “internationalize” the South China Sea dispute, he told his peers to stand united, according to one meeting transcript.
“If you don’t stand up when your neighbor’s rights are violated, then you set the stage for the violation of your own rights,” Aquino said.
This time Manila was more successful. With discreet backing from some of the grouping’s bigger players, including Indonesia and Vietnam, the claimed Cambodian deal never made it to the official closing statement.
But the broader issue of Asean’s push to start formal negotiations with China on a binding code of conduct to govern intensifying tensions across the South China Sea until territorial disputes can be solved remains, at best, a work in progress.
Chinese officials have made increasingly clear in recent weeks that they are wary of the influence of “outside powers,” particularly the United States and Japan, and resent the portrayal of the code as somehow being a means to contain and/or control China. Hopes that negotiations could start early in 2013 now appear to be in vain.
Sitting in his office—part of a complex on Manila’s Roxas Boulevard that overlooks the South China Sea—the courtly 73-year-old Del Rosario sounds frustrated yet sanguine as he reviews a bruising year of diplomacy at the forefront of the strategic shifts now upsetting the region.
Ultimately, he stresses, he wants to return Sino-Philippine relations to a previously agreed status quo where territorial disputes were kept to the side of a relationship that flourished across trade, social and political fronts—something he believes would ultimately serve China’s broader desires for a stable region.
“If there is a message I want to get across, that’s it,” he says.
Returning to that point will be no easy task, he acknowledges. The dispute over Scarborough Shoal—known in China as Huangyan Island or as Panatag Shoal to the Philippines—is now the focus of the relationship.
With Beijing still deriding “provocations” after a Philippine naval ship challenged Chinese fishermen early this year, Fu Ying, the vice minister for foreign affairs, recently told him that Beijing intended to keep Coast Guard-type vessels at the shoal permanently.
China has also used ropes to block access to the interior of the shoal, which falls within its controversial nine-dash line claim to virtually all of the South China Sea.
In some 36 rounds of consultations—“I’ve been counting them,” Del Rosario says—Beijing has also detailed in no uncertain terms what it expects from Manila. No “internationalization” means bilateral talks only, and nothing conducted via Asean, the United Nations or “outside partners”—particularly the Philippines’ long-term security ally, the United States.
The Aquino administration is clearly rejecting Beijing’s prescription. It is also renewing its strategic relationships, seeking to buttress its tiny and overstretched armed forces. US ships, submarines and military aircraft are suddenly visiting Philippines’ ports and airfields once again while discreet talks are also under way with Japan to acquire a fleet of state-of-the-art Coast Guard cutters. It is also working more closely with Indonesia and fellow South China Sea claimant Vietnam.
As eloquent as he can be at times, Del Rosario does not mince words when he talks about Beijing’s demands. “No sovereign country wants to be dictated to,” he says. “China is endeavoring to dictate to us how we should be behaving and what we should be doing. We feel that we ought to be able to use all the tools in the peaceful pursuit of resolution to [disputes] that is in accordance with our national interests.”
Those “tools” include a three-track approach by Manila—talks with Asean and international partners, bilateral diplomacy with Beijing and research into taking unilateral legal action to formally dispute China’s claim under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The latter, some analysts believe, would risk Beijing’s wrath, and extensive economic and diplomatic retaliation would be expected.
Del Rosario insists, however, that the long-term goal must be a “durable” legal and political solution, rather than brittle case-by-case efforts that do not tackle the broader issues. “Ultimately, I’m trying to be constructive.”
He says an effective Asean serves Chinese and US interests long-term and insists the organization remains strong. He dismisses the Phnom Penh tensions as “like a family disagreement … eventually you come together and emerge stronger.”
The challenges, of course, mean he occupies one of the hottest seats in regional diplomacy. While the New York-educated businessman and former ambassador to Washington is highly respected in the United States, he cuts a more controversial figure at home and in Beijing.
Some Filipino businessmen have questioned his tactics toward dealing with China while Sen. Antonio Trillanes, who is running a back channel to Beijing, has said Del Rosario has mishandled formal negotiations over Scarborough.
Del Rosario has, however, denied reports he will resign, and he apparently has Aquino’s backing.
Reports in China’s state media this week show just how tough a road lies ahead. In news stories outlining last week’s appointment to Beijing of new Philippine Ambassador Erlinda Basilio, mainland analysts and scholars made it clear that Beijing was in no mood to see Manila “stirring up trouble.”
Through it all, Del Rosario says he remains “basically an optimist.” While he ponders whether Beijing’s new leaders will be able to resist the demands of an assertive and nationalistic public, he says: “I’m hoping that China will recognize that being a responsible member of the international community would be a preferable choice to muscle.”
Vietnam breaks up anti-China protest
HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnamese police broke up anti-China protests in two cities on Sunday and detained 20 people in the first such demonstrations since tensions between the communist neighbors flared anew over rival claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
Any sign of popular anger in tightly controlled Vietnam causes unease among the leadership, but anti-Chinese sentiment is especially sensitive. The country has long-standing ideological and economic ties with its giant neighbor, but many of those criticizing China are also the ones calling for political, religious and social freedoms at home.
Police initially allowed about 200 protesters to march from Hanoi’s iconic Opera House through the streets, but after 30 minutes ordered them to disperse. When some continued, they pushed about 20 of them into a large bus which then drove quickly from the scene. It was unclear where they were taken, but in the past people detained at anti-China protests have been briefly held and released.
As foreign tourists and Sunday morning strollers looked on, protesters shouted ‘‘Down with China’’ and carried banners bearing the slogan ‘‘China’s military expansion threatens world peace and security.’’
Using loudspeakers, authorities urged them to disperse and tried to reassure them.
‘‘The Communist Party and government are resolutely determined to defend our country’s sovereignty and territory through peaceful means based on international law,’’ it said. ‘‘Your gathering causes disorder and affects the party’s and government’s foreign policy.’’
A smaller protest also took place in Ho Chi Minh city, according to blogger and activist Huynh Ngoc Chenh.
He said he was ordered to leave by police, but about 100 people gathered for 10 minutes before being dispersed.
‘‘I’m frustrated,’’ he said by telephone. ‘‘There’s nothing to ban, the government should allow people to express their patriotism peacefully.’’
Vietnam and China have long sparred over who owns the South China Sea, a dispute that the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also parties to. Over the last two years, America’s diplomatic tilt to Southeast Asia and energy-hungry China’s growing assertiveness has focused international attention on the issue.
Vietnam last week alleged that Chinese shipping vessels sabotaged one of its seismic survey vessels in the South China Sea. This week the government warned Beijing not to do that again and presented a list of its violations in the disputed sea. China recently issued new passports containing a map showing the sea as belonging to it, causing anger in Hanoi and other regional states.
In the summer of 2011, there were two months of weekly protests in Hanoi, an unprecedented show of popular anger in the country. Earlier this year, there were also some demonstrations. Police dispersed them, gradually using more force as it become clear they were becoming a source of domestic opposition to the party.
Vietnam ship’s cable severed due to Chinese boats
The seismic survey cable of Vietnam’s Binh Minh 02 was severed last Friday off the country’s Con Co Island because of two Chinese fishing boats. This is the second time that the ship has faced the same incident, the Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam) reported.
As shown on the website of PetroVietnam (PVN), at 4:05 am of November 30, 2012, when Binh Minh 02, a State-owned ship that was conducting a seismic survey in the sedimentary basin outside the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin, it encountered a large number of Chinese fishing boats operating there.
When Vietnam’s concerned agencies sent warning signals to Chinese boats, requesting them to leave the area of working of Binh Minh 02, two out of these Chinese boats numbered 16025 and 16028 sailed past the back of the Vietnamese ship. The movement of the two boats caused the cable of Binh Minh 02 to be cut off.
At that time, Binh Minh 02 was located at 17.26 degrees North latitude and 108.02 degrees West longitude, about 43 nautical miles southeast of Vietnam’s Con Co Island and 20 miles west of the median line between Vietnam and China.
Binh Minh 02 has carried out 2D seismic surveys in sedimentary basins on the Vietnamese continental shelf since May 2012, said Pham Viet Dung, deputy head of the Search and Exploration Division of PVN, said.
Dung also said a large number of Chinese fishing boats have recently entered Vietnam’s sea areas illegally to fish from Con Co Island area to south of Tri Ton Island. The number of those boats could amount to more than 100 per day. Vietnam’s law-enforcing boats have required Chinese fishing boats to leave Vietnam’s sea territory but many of them deliberately violated Vietnam’s sea areas.
Immediately after the Binh Minh 02 had its cable cut last Friday, PVN has urged its affiliated units and Binh Minh 02 to rapidly repair the damaged cable so that the ship could resume normal operation soon.
At 2 pm December 1, 2012, the repair was completed and Binh Minh 02 began to work normally again, PVN said.
The same incident occurred last year when three Chinese surveillance ships cut exploration cables of the Binh Minh 02 ship when it was operating on the continental shelf of Vietnam on May 26, 2011.
Three days later, on May 29, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a press conference over the incident and the then spokesperson of the ministry, Nguyen Phuong Nga, said, “Vietnam demands Chinese side to immediately stop all actions violating Vietnam’s sovereignty and jurisdiction and compensate for losses”.
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Rare protests in Vietnam against China over sea disputes
HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam held rare but brief protests against China in its two major cities on Sunday after Beijing demanded that Hanoi stop unilateral oil exploration in disputed waters and not harass Chinese fishing boats.
China’s demands on Thursday raised tensions in a protracted maritime territorial dispute between the two neighbours.
About 30 people gathered opposite Hanoi’s opera house, raising banners and shouting in protest against China before marching towards the Chinese embassy as part of a planned demonstration that was announced on several blogs.
Police moved in quickly, pushing the protesters onto a bus and taking them away. It was not immediately clear what happened to the Hanoi protesters after that, although protesters in similar cases are often taken for questioning and then released.
In downtown Ho Chi Minh City, another small protest was also quelled quickly when security officials seized banners held by protesters and disbanded the crowd, a witness said.
The authorities had tolerated a series of protests over China’s territorial claims from June to August last year and in July this year.
China is in increasingly angry disputes with neighbours, including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over claims to parts of the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.
China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes, and also has a separate dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.
On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Vietnam had expelled Chinese fishing vessels from waters near China’s southern Hainan province.
That description was in contrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese ship had a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishing ships.