Vietnam puts Paracel row on summit agenda

Feb 16, 2009
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Vietnam puts Paracel row on summit agenda

Nguyen Thi Buoi is an unhappy woman these days.

Her husband, Tieu Viet La, and her two sons are among the 12 fishermen from Binh Son district in Quang Ngai province arrested on 22 March by a Chinese fishing patrol for "infringing Chinese waters".

Mr La and the others say they were caught as they were sheltering from a looming monsoon near Woody Island, the largest in the Paracel archipelago, occupied by China in 1974 but also claimed by Vietnam.

Since his arrest, his family have received only one phone call from him, urging them to pay a "fine" of 180m dong ($ 9,500:£6,000) demanded by his captors.

"We don't have any money," Mrs Buoi says, tears running down her face. "So far, I have only managed to secure 40m dong."

In recent months the plight of the Quang Ngai fishermen has received huge coverage in Vietnam's state-run media.

The normally obedient press have not shied away from describing in great detail how Vietnamese fishermen have been arrested, fined and sometimes mistreated by Chinese border guards.

Nationalist sentiment

Government statistics say that in three first months of 2010 alone, 30 Vietnamese boats with more than 200 fishermen were captured in disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Hundreds more Vietnamese fishermen remain in captivity, not only by China but also by Malaysian and Indonesian crews.

Yet the focus stays on China, reflecting not only Vietnam's awareness of China's assertiveness in a sea area claimed by five countries but also growing nationalist sentiment among the Vietnamese population.

Internet forums in Vietnamese are inundated with calls to "stand up for our sovereignty" and to "face the threats from across the northern borders".

While the Vietnamese government maintains that it is committed to developing the traditional friendship and "strategic partnership" with China, Hanoi can no longer turn a blind eye to either the simmering anti-China mood or the need to protect its interests in the resource-rich South China Sea.

The meeting of leaders of South East Asian nations (Asean) in Hanoi offers a good opportunity to deal with both issues.

Vietnam has not concealed its intention to internationalise the South China Sea disputes in the face of China's increasing activities in the region.

The best Vietnam can hope for is to get Asean consensus on how to deal with an increasingly assertive China
Carlyle Thayer

Beijing imposes an annual unilateral fishing ban in the sea and has been despatching vessels to patrol disputed areas.

As host of the Asean summit, Vietnam is pushing hard to put the territorial disputes on the agenda to achieve a multilateral approach to the situation.

Hanoi is aware that this is a once-in-a-decade chance to promote matters of its own interests, before the chairmanship is transferred to Brunei in 2011.

A spokesman for the host country, Tran Ngoc An, went even further by saying that the summit this time would aim for a clear cut, more legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, to be signed with China in the future.

'Moderate assertiveness'

Observers, however, express doubt that such paper can be finalised soon.

"The best Vietnam can hope for is to get Asean consensus on how to deal with an increasingly assertive China with the aim of constraining China from taking unilateral actions," says Professor Carlyle Thayer, a veteran Vietnam watcher from the Australian Defence Force Academy.

"It is to moderate Chinese assertiveness, and to engage China in joint development of the South China Sea's resources."

But Ian Storey, editor of the Contemporary Southeast Asia journal in Singapore, still thinks it is a "step forward that Vietnam has put the South China Sea on the Asean summit agenda".

"The problem is that Asean has found it very difficult to achieve consensus on the South China Sea since its expansion in the mid-1990s," he says.

Consensus or not, by promoting the South China Sea issue at a large-scale regional event the Vietnamese government hopes to quash domestic accusations that it has been weak in dealings with China.

With only 10 months until the next Communist Party Congress, when the country's new leadership will be decided, party leaders know only too well that they cannot afford to ignore the internal spreading nationalist flames

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