Why Vietnam intrudes the South China Sea at this juncture?

By Cheng Hanping Source:Global Times Published: 2020/4/11 20:43:40

Xisha Islands in the South China Sea Photo: VCG

A Vietnamese fishing boat off China's Xisha Islands struck at the bow of a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel earlier this month. But Vietnam lodged an official protest against China and shifted the blame on the Chinese vessel in an attempt to seek compensation.

The US State Department on Monday issued a statement on the incident, publicly siding with Vietnam and incriminating China. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread worldwide, the US has once again paired with Vietnam for ulterior motives. Their cooperation, especially with Vietnam's actions in stoking anti-Chinese sentiment, has reflected the de facto theme of their collusion.

When China was in arduous battle against COVID-19, Vietnam was one of the first countries to issue a blockade against China and suspended inbound and outbound air travel, and evacuated Vietnamese nationals from China, actions that were consistent with the US moves. 

By doing so, Vietnam seemed to have carried out some epidemic prevention measures, but upon closer review, it aimed to trap China in an embarrassing situation.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Vietnam took effective action to prevent the virus from spreading domestically and was praised by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

However, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Vietnam have risen exponentially since early March. The country has reported 257 confirmed cases as of press time, with tens of thousands of people being monitored. Many are worried that Vietnam could experience an outbreak by mid-April. 

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the contradiction between work resumption and epidemic prevention efforts has become sharper with considerable economic downward pressure.

Up to 300 businesses in Vietnam have reportedly suspended operations while others have downsized due to the outbreak. Over 40,000 employees in the education and training sectors are facing unemployment.

In this context, the Vietnamese foreign ministry lodged a protest against China seeking compensation after the Vietnamese fishing vessel had violated China's waters and damaged a CCG vessel. 

It is indisputable that the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea belong to China. But Vietnam tried to fish in foreign waters and later misled the public with false claims and counter-charges against China.

Considering the tactics displayed by the Vietnamese government at the onset of the pandemic, it would be reasonable to think that Hanoi intended to shift the spotlight from the recent domestic pressure and its ineptitude in handling the pandemic to the tension within Vietnam-China relations.

On October 23, 2017, the European Commission issued a "yellow card" to Vietnam, warning Hanoi it could ban its seafood exports entirely unless Hanoi did more to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. 

In addition to fishing illegally in China's waters and exclusive economic zones, Vietnamese fishermen have illegally entered waters off Indonesia's Natuna Islands, almost triggering armed conflict with Indonesian maritime authorities. Similar incidents have also been reported in the Philippines, Malaysia, and elsewhere.

The Vietnamese government mentioned nothing about the eight fishermen who were rescued without any injuries by the Chinese vessel they hit, which is neither an objective nor a conducive approach to conflict resolution. Clearly, Vietnam didn't intend to make an effort to quickly settle the incident. Yet it is not difficult to distinguish who is lying. Besides, China has enough video evidence of what really happened during that collision to prove its innocence.

The statement from the US State Department said that China should "remain focused on supporting international efforts" to combat COVID-19, claiming that China should also "stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea." By associating Vietnam's IUU fishing incident with pandemic prevention efforts, the US once again attempted to politicize an external affair with its long arm to stigmatize China.

The prompt support from the US will encourage the Vietnamese government and the Vietnamese fishermen to engage in IUU fishing, which will probably more audaciously infringe China's interests and rights in waters surrounding the Xisha Islands. This is likely to escalate tension between China and Vietnam. But the US has taken the incident as another opportunity to find fault with China. Anyway, both the US and Vietnam are fanning the flame to achieve their political goals. 

The author is senior research fellow and professor at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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