In March 2018, PertroVietnam, which is Vietnam's state petroleum company, withdrew from a drilling project scheduled somewhere in the South China Sea. This decision was not made freely by the Vietnamese government. For several months, China has been orchestrating a plan aimed at coercing the government of Vietnam. It is a conspiracy meant to deprive Vietnam of its right to exploit resources in the region freely as stipulated by international law. This is the latest episode of the Spratly Islands dispute pitting the two nations. The longstanding China-Vietnam conflict over disputed islands in South China Sea has escalated in recent years as a resurgent China increased its naval presence and insisted on its maritime claims.
The Spratly Islands dispute is all about sovereignty and territory over sea areas, in particular the Spratly and Paracel islands chain that is claimed in part or in whole by several nations. Although the islands are largely uninhabited, it is believed that they may contain some natural resources. Not much exploration has been conducted in the area, and estimates are largely based on the surrounding areas' mineral wealth. In addition, the sea is a fishing ground that offers a source of livelihood for people across the region, as well as being a major shipping route.
China claims to own the biggest portion of the territory. This part is delineated by the 'nine-dash line' that stretches hundreds of miles east and south from Hainan- China's most southerly province. According to the Chinese government, its right to the territory dates back centuries ago when the two island chains were perceived as crucial parts of the ancient Chinese empire. China published a map in 1947 detailing its claims and which shows the chains being located right in its territory. However, critics point out that China is yet to verify its claims in a satisfactory manner. The nine-dash line that is only seen on Chinese maps encompasses almost the entire South China Sea, and does not include any coordinates. Also, China has not specified whether it claims just the land territory or the territorial waters as well.
Vietnam vehemently disputes the historical account presented by China, stating that the latter had never claimed ownership of the islands prior to the 1940s. Vietnam claims it has actively presided over both Spratlys and the Paracel island chains since the seventeenth century, and possesses documents to back it up. This perhaps explains why the most serious incidents of the conflict have pitted the two nations. In 1974, South Vietnamese and Chinese forces clashed over the Paracel islands. China sank a Vietnamese ship and killed about seventy soldiers and sailors, in the process seizing the islands from Vietnam.
In 1988, the two nations clashed again at Johnson Reef located in the Splatly's islands. The Chinese navy sunk two Vietnamese ships, resulting in the deaths of 64 sailors. In the battle's aftermath, China seized and secured its first ever six holdings in the island chain. These fortifications remain a crucial part of the Chinese navy, with one located at Fiery Cross reef containing an early warning radar. If some unconfirmed claims are to be believed, the Chinese navy disrupted a couple of Vietnamese exploration mission in late 2012. The incident triggered extensive anti-China protests in Vietnam. In May 2014, China set up an offshore oil drilling rig near the Paracel Islands. This triggered multiple collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels. The Chinese government maintains de facto control of the island chain and uses it to dignify the current territorial location of the rig.
There is a simmering resentment is Southeast Asia as whole stemming from perceived Chinese imperialism. Governments of nations in the region are taking largely unmatched and seemingly confrontational positions against China. Vietnam's problem with China is fueled by a notion that Chinese interests are overwhelming the Vietnamese economy, a casing point being the withdrawal of the drilling project by the PertroVietnam. In fact, some of the notable well-orchestrated protests have something to do with expansion of Chinese bauxite mines in the country.
Both parties have tried to come up with a resolution to the dispute but have not achieved any success so far. China is usually in favor of bilateral negotiations with other nations. However, many of China's neighbors argue that its geographical size and military strength presents it with an unfair advantage. They also recommend that China should negotiate with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), but the Chinese government is opposed to this. On its part, ASEAN is divided on how to go about the dispute. In the past, Vietnam usually looked for subtle ways to handle local resentment and Chinese pressure. However, there are signs that it will come up with a different approach. For instance, it is boosting its submarine fleet to minimize the threat posed by the China PLA Navy. It has enlisted help from Russia and India in doing so.
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