Vietnam Gives Brief Show of Openness in Standoff With China

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  1. Srinivas_K

    Srinivas_K Senior Member Senior Member

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    Vietnam Gives Brief Show of Openness in Standoff With China


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    The reporters’ trip with the Vietnamese Coast Guard started with a meal, and the meal started with toasts.

    Lt. Col. Tran Quang Tuan, the deputy chief of the Vietnamese Coast Guard for the central northern part of the country, toasted each group of reporters by nationality — United States, Britain, France, Japan and Vietnam — with a glass of iced beer. It was shortly after 10 a.m., and the visiting journalists wondered with a little concern whether Colonel Tuan would also be captaining our ship. (He wouldn’t.)

    From early May to mid-July, Vietnam faced off against its larger, stronger neighbor, China, over the placement of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both countries in the South China Sea.

    Like China, Vietnam can be extremely secretive about the functions of its government, its military and its coast guard. But with little leverage against the Chinese, Vietnam tried to plead its case to the outside world. In a rare display of openness for the authoritarian state, it invited groups of foreign reporters to embed with its coast guard vessels.
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    In mid-July, Gilles Sabrie, who is a photographer, and I joined the fourth such trip, along with eight other journalists representing foreign news outlets including the BBC, Reuters and The Guardian.

    Eight hours after the iced-beer banquet, our group, joined by 30 representatives from Vietnamese news outlets, set sail from the port of Da Nang on a blue-hulled, 300-foot Vietnamese Coast Guard patrol boat, the CSB 8003. An officer threw fake money into the water for good luck, and the ship’s horn blasted three times as the vessel set sail. Its guns wrapped under tarpaulins, the ship was bristling instead with snapping photographers’ cameras as it left the dock. The ship was so jammed with journalists that some coast guard personnel slept in the halls.

    For the foreign reporters, the trip was scheduled to take about five days. The Vietnamese reporters, who dispersed onto other ships over the next day, were prepared for a longer haul. Pham Cao Cuong, a journalist with the state-owned Tuoi Tre newspaper, said he planned to spend as long as a month at sea. Two days in, after the Vietnamese Coast Guard confirmed that the Chinese oil rig had moved out of disputed waters, the trip was cut short and we returned to Da Nang.
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    China said the rig had completed its task of searching for oil and gas deposits south of the Paracel Islands, which the Chinese call the Xisha Islands and the Vietnamese the Hoang Sa Archipelago. Analysts continue to debate why China moved the rig a month ahead of its previously announced departure time, and about what effect outside pressure and the arrival of seasonal storms had on the decision. But the episode made clear that China had the will and ability to put a rig in disputed waters and protect it from interference. And that it was likely to do so again.

    The trip to the rig made clear the vastness of the 1,400,000-square-mile sea. From Da Nang, it took at least 10 hours to reach the cobalt blue waters south of the Paracels. The rings of Chinese protective ships meant that Vietnamese vessels could approach no closer than eight to 10 miles from the rig.

    On our voyage out, the first Chinese vessels, a small fishing fleet, were spotted about 45 miles west of the rig. An hour later, the first Chinese Coast Guard vessel appeared.

    About 20 miles from the rig, two vessels the Vietnamese Coast Guard said were Chinese Navy missile corvettes, one with the hull number 751, came into view to the north. Vietnam says there were about four to six Chinese military vessels among the more than 100 Chinese ships patrolling around the rig, along with Chinese Coast Guard and fishing boats.

    Some briefly pursued the Vietnamese ship, then pulled off. Vietnamese sailors say the pursuits become more heated the closer one gets to the rig. On our trip, CSB-8003 could only get about 13 miles from the rig before a ship from the China Maritime Safety Administration blocked its path and forced a retreat.
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    Late that evening, the reporters on board CSB-8003 heard the first rumors that China had begun to move its rig. It wasn’t until the following afternoon that a Vietnamese Coast Guard officer confirmed that the rig had been towed out of waters claimed by the Vietnamese. At that point, our colleagues in Beijing and elsewhere had already begun reporting on the announcement from the China National Petroleum Corporation that the rig was being relocated. The journalists on the ship were physically closest to the rig, yet distant from any timely information about it.

    That wasn’t the only sign that the Vietnamese Coast Guard was still wary of the foreign reporters it had invited aboard.

    When Gilles and I discovered that our satellite terminal wasn’t working, we asked coast guard personnel whether they could send some text and photos to our editors. That meant, however, that the officers on the ship could see our work before transmission.

    On the third day, as we began our return to Da Nang, a minder from the Da Nang Department of Foreign Affairs told us there was a problem with a photo. The image showed a coast guard crew member scanning the sea through binoculars. But he was wearing sandals, which aren’t regulation footwear.

    We argued that the objection was silly. The sandals were barely visible at the base of the photo.
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    The coast guard at first wouldn’t relent, and offered to present a crew member in regulation footwear. Gilles refused, saying he wouldn’t photograph a staged scene. If they wouldn’t send the original photo, then we would send no photo with the dispatch, he said. Eventually the coast guard relented and agreed to send the image.

    Upon arrival in Da Nang, we learned that the photo and the story had only been sent shortly before we reached land. The debate over the photo, then, was pointless. Had we waited a short while longer, we could have sent it ourselves.
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